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A Hard-Boiled LA Egghead

James Ellroy
Gritty Gritty Bang Bang: Tortured crime novelist James Ellroy reads from his latest book, as well as his bestselling 'L.A. Confidential,' at the Capitola Book Cafe on Wednesday, Oct. 1.

Photo by Marion Ettlinger



Detective novelist James Ellroy explores the seamier side of old-time Tinseltown

By Kelly Luker

JAMES ELLROY barked, "Speak!" when he answered the phone to a call I placed years ago for an interview. That was clue No. 1 that the line between the noir novelist and the hard-boiled detectives he writes about grows ever thinner. It also temporarily misled me from another truth that eventually revealed itself--Ellroy's a pretty nice guy.

Granted, the author behind the mystery novel L.A. Confidential, now a critically acclaimed movie, is a different breed of pooch than you or me. Any doubts about that are quickly dispelled by thumbing through Ellroy's latest book, an autobiography aptly titled My Dark Places. The book not only chronicles Ellroy's journey from tortured kid psyche to his present grasp on reality--such as it is--but his search for his mother's killer.

While the rest of us spent our youth fantasizing about stealing kisses or finding Mr. (or Ms.) Right, Ellroy was obsessing on mutilation, torture and unspeakable acts of mayhem. Thank God he picked up a pen instead of an ice pick and eventually wrote The Black Dahlia, a semi-fictional thriller based on an infamous murder case in postwar L.A.

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The movie L.A. Confidential taps into a rich vein of Hollywood decadence. Also, get down and dirty with director Curtis Hanson and novelist James Ellroy, the men responsible for the vintage L.A. flick.

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Although Ellroy had published about a half-dozen mysteries before this, Black Dahlia would become his breakthrough work, showcasing the author's dense and complex plotting, staccato sentence structure and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of L.A.'s '50s underbelly--and of the facts surrounding the Black Dahlia case.

No wonder. James was 10 years old when his mother was found strangled and dumped behind some bushes in El Monte, a low-rent suburb outside of Los Angeles. His mother's murder hardly compared with that of Elizabeth Short--nicknamed the Black Dahlia by a breathless press--who was found hacked into pieces, the apparent victim of an extended torture session before she finally died. But, as Ellroy writes, "Betty Short became my obsession ... my symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy."

Although he spent the next couple of decades loaded to the gills on about every mind-altering substance that wasn't nailed down, Ellroy never lost his blood lust for that dark corner where organized crime, beautiful women and bad cops intersect. The Black Dahlia became the first of a trilogy that would also include The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential.

The author digs deep to exhume Tinseltown's roach-infested past. Between the pages of Ellroy's novels, there are no good guys--the cops cadge more games up their sleeves than Parker Bros., and the bad guys--well, Ellroy finally found a suitable resting place for all those bloody fantasies.

Although Ellroy has claimed a cult following for years--as well as a skill at producing work that transcends the mystery genre to the nosebleed levels of serious literary acclaim--it looks like he will finally get his just due with the release of the movie version of L.A. Confidential. Starring Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito, the film is already drawing favorable comparisons to Chinatown.

Those attending Ellroy's bookreading this week at Capitola Book Cafe will probably get a taste of the Dog's many sides--brilliant, talented and just a little twisted.


James Ellroy reads from L.A. Confidential and My Dark Places on Wednesday (Oct. 1) at 7:30pm in the Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more about this free reading, call 462-4415.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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