James Ellroy is an American Crime Fiction writer best known for his L.A. Quartet novels – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz – and his “telegraphic” writing style, which omits words that others writers may consider necessary, usually resulting in sentence fragments. Ellroy’s works are also known for their depictions of American authoritarianism, dark humor, dense plotlines, and pessimistic worldviews. Many of his works, namely The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, have been made into feature films due to their rich plotlines and characters, expanding Ellroy’s already-major cultural influence.

Brief Biography of James Ellroy

Lee Earle “James” Ellroy was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1948. After Ellroy’s parents divorced when he was only six years old, he moved with his mother to El Monte, California – a place he described as a “white-trash heaven.” However, in 1958, police discovered his mother’s body strangled by the side of the road, and despite their best efforts, they never figured out who murdered Ellroy’s mother. This event sparked the ten-year-old Ellroy’s interest in unsolved cases and crime fiction, eventually leading him to become the renowned author he is today.

Throughout his teens and twenties, Ellroy suffered from neglect, mental health issues, and addiction. His deteriorating home life led him to act out in high school, espousing neo-Nazism in his primarily Jewish high school. In 1963, his father suffered a stroke, leaving Ellroy to be his primary caregiver. Eventually, Ellroy’s outbursts worsened to the point where his high school expelled him, and he joined the US Army. However, just three months into his training, he faked a stutter so the Army psychiatrist would discharge him. Ellroy’s dad died shortly after he was discharged.

After the death of his father, Ellroy began to seriously abuse alcohol and Benzedrex inhalers, and he engaged in a number of minor crimes such as shoplifting and burglary to support his addictions. His addictions rendered him homeless on many occasions and pushed him to the brink of schizophrenia, and after landing in jail for eight months and battling a severe case of pneumonia, Ellroy decided to clean up his act. In 1977, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he has remained clean and sober ever since.

After sobering up, Ellroy became a caddy at a golf club to support his pursuit of writing. This caddying experience inspired his first published work, Brown’s Requiem (1981). This novel launched Ellroy’s writing career, and he went on to publish his most famous works, including The Black Dahlia (1987) and My Dark Places (1996).

Ellroy married his first wife, Mary Doherty, in 1988. However, they divorced soon after, and Ellroy married Helen Knode in 1991. In 1995, Ellroy moved to Kansas City with Knode, but after their divorce, he moved back to California. Ellroy continues to publish writing and considers himself largely reclusive, insulating himself from most of the outside world to focus on his craft.

Notable Works

Though Ellroy’s first works, including Brown’s Requiem (1981) and Clandestine (1982), earned him name recognition among fans of crime fiction, his L.A. Quartet made him a major American literary figure. The first installment, The Black Dahlia (1987), caught national attention for its fixation on the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947. This infamous murder, which became known as the Black Dahlia case, initially captured America’s attention due to its grisly nature and exposure of police corruption in Los Angeles. Ellroy’s fictionalized account thus recaptured America’s attention, and literary critics consider this book to be the turning point in Ellroy’s career.

After The Black Dahlia’s positive public reception, Ellroy continued to publish the remaining novels in the L.A. Quartet. The Underworld USA Trilogy, which focused on federal officers embroiled in major scandals of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, followed the L.A. Quartet. The first installment, titled American Tabloid, won TIME Magazine’s fiction book of the year award for 1995.

In addition to the Underworld USA Trilogy, Ellroy also began to publish collections of crime reports, short stories, essays, memoirs, and other works. Many of these books contain content he had written for the magazine GQ. His most notable collection is My Dark Places (1996), which is a collection of memoirs and investigations surrounding his mother’s murder. When the LAPD failed to find his mother’s killer, Ellroy became perennially fascinated with the case, and in the 1990s, he hired a private investigator to help him solve it. My Dark Places chronicles this investigation and also includes essays where Ellroy reflects on how his mother’s murder influenced his life and career.

Currently, Ellroy is composing a Second L.A. Quartet, which is set during World War Two. He published the first installment, Perfidia, in 2014, and the second installment, titled This Storm, is set for publication in 2018. According to Ellroy, the Second L.A. Quartet will focus on WWII with particular emphasis on the injustice of the internment of the Japanese. He also recently released LAPD ’53 in 2015, which contains his writings about law enforcement and crime during that era in addition to photographs from the archives of the Los Angeles Police Museum.

Film Adaptations of Ellroy’s Writing

Due to their rich characters and multi-layered plotlines, James Ellroy’s novels have inspired many directors and screenwriters to adapt his work to film. However, in the majority of cases, writers fail to successfully bring Ellroy’s deep plots and characters to life on the silver screen. In 1988, for example, Ellroy’s Blood on the Moon (1984) became a made-for-TV movie called Cop (1988); however, critics did not receive the movie well, and Ellroy personally expressed his disappointment on many occasions.

The most well-known film adaptations of Ellroy’s writing come from his L.A. Quartet, L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Black Dahlia (2006). Unlike other film adaptations, L.A. Confidential opened to rave reviews and even received praise from Ellroy himself, whom described the film as a wonderful fluke. The film, which featured well-known actors such as Danny DeVito and Russell Crowe, deviated substantially from the book in order to condense the novel’s intense plotline into an audience-friendly script. L.A. Confidential was even nominated for numerous Academy Awards, winning Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) as well as Best Supporting Actress.

Unlike L.A. Confidential, Brian De Palma and Josh Friedman’s The Black Dahlia (2006) did not receive much positive feedback and failed to win Ellroy’s approval. Although the film featured Hollywood superstars like Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, the film received only mediocre reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, for example, gives the film a mere thirty-two percent rating, stating: “though this ambitious noir crime-drama captures the atmosphere of its era, it suffers from subpar performances, a convoluted story, and the inevitable comparisons to other, more successful films of its genre.” Unfortunately, The Black Dahlia movie failed to capture the depth and complexity of Ellroy’s original novel.

Ellroy’s writings have also acted as the basis for films such as Dark Blue (2002) and Rampart (2011), but none of these other films have attained the critical and box office success of L.A. Confidential. Interestingly, despite the apparent popularity of his novels and stories among producers and screenwriters, Ellroy has not become heavily involved in the production of any films based off of his work. He does, however, happily offer his criticism of the films’ ability to bring his work to life on the silver screen. He has openly praised L.A. Confidential and even lists it among his favorite crime movies. On the other hand, he predicted The Black Dahlia to be an “intriguing flop.”

A Note About this Website

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