James Ellroy sounds exactly like how you’d imagine him to sound. The noted author is candid as he answers questions in a gruff, almost gravelly voice, sounding almost like an informer or tough guy from one of his famous noir crime novels.
He asks to be called “Dog” – a reference to his popular title, “The Demon Dog of American Fiction”. An intimidating nickname, but Ellroy is mostly friendly on the phone – except when one question ventures dangerously close to spoiler territory.
“Now brother, you be careful,” he admonishes. “You don’t want to be revealing that.” (Yes, he addresses me as “brother” throughout the entertaining conversation.)
It’s nothing to be surprised about. After all, Ellroy, author of works such as The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988) and LA Con-fidential (1990) is known for his curt storytelling.
His prose is mostly short staccato sentences, each following another with the rhythm of a shotgun. It is almost poetic that he speaks like that as well.
When he was writing LA Confidential, Ellroy’s editor asked him to remove 100 pages. The author, instead, removed every unnecessary word from every sentence, resulting in a unique, “melodic-in-its-bluntness” style of prose.
It’s a style used to great effect in his latest novel, This Storm. His first novel in five years, the massive, 500-plus page novel is a pulse- pounding thriller that combines dozens of characters and subplots into a thick web of intrigue and corruption.
“This book, This Storm, is a culmination of my themes, my ideas, and my passion and fixation with Los Angeles. This is the ultimate.
“So I want people worldwide to go buy it in great quantities,” Ellroy quips over the phone from Britain where he is currently promoting the book and taking part in literary festivals.
Ellroy, 71, is considered one of the world’s most prominent crime writers. Crime, apparently, has been a part of his life for a long time: When he was 10, his mother, a nurse, was raped and murdered. This was a formative incident in Ellroy’s youth, leading him to write crime novels, something he touches on in his 1996 memoir, My Dark Places.
A problem kid, Ellroy – he was Lee Earle Ellroy then – joined and then left the US Army, and spent some time in jail for crimes such as burglary. His addiction to alcohol and drugs in the 1970s is well known, as is his decision to clean up.
He was working as a golf caddy in 1981 when – aged 33 – he published his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, a detective story drawing on his experiences on the golf course.
This was followed by the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy, a series revolving around Hopkins, a brilliant but troubled Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detective in the 1980s. Ellroy would continue writing many books after that, but what propelled him to fame was the LA Quartet comprising The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz (1991).
LA Confidential, in particular caught a lot of mainstream attention when it became a highly successful 1997 film directed and produced by Curtis Hanson. Ellroy liked the money he was given for the movie but not the movie itself, apparently: “It is about as deep as a tortilla,” he says in a recent interview with The Guardian.
(In 2018, a pilot for a TV show based on the novel was commissioned by CBS. When asked if we would see it any time soon, the author is dismissive. “No, you’re not going to be seeing it on the air. It was not good,” Ellroy says simply.)
His latest novel, This Storm, is set in Los Angeles, of course, but it’s an LA in the grip of World War II. It’s a sequel to Perfidia (2014), which takes place in 1941 and focuses on the story of several characters, many of whom work in the LAPD. These include Hideo Ashida, a young Japanese chemist in the forensics department; Kay Lake, an adventurous socialite with a mysterious past; and Dudley Smith, a no-nonsense Irish cop.
The characters have to deal with a variety of issues, including the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the murder of a Japanese family in their home.
This Storm picks up where Perfidia left off – it continues the story of the previous characters, introduces some new players, and fleshes out some characters we’ve seen before. The narrative continues with the stories of Elmer Jackson, a corrupt vice cop, and Joan Conville, a determined scientist out to avenge her wronged father.
And they all have to deal with various problems: A body is unearthed in a rainstorm in Griffith Park and two racist cops are discovered murdered in a drug den. Then there’s a matter of a old gold robbery on a train, the culprits of which may have connections to one of the characters.
“It’s unhinged. My characters see the war as an opportunity. They are eroticised. They want to fall in love. And if they can’t, their fall back position is rampant promiscuity.
“These are things I identify with – I understand this, I understand appetite.
“They want to make money. They want to serve their country. They’re driven by ideology. They’re volatile, fearful, they’re angry, obsessed. These to me are the elements of characterisation, and they are the human elements of my fiction.”
Much of the story also takes place against the backdrop of Japanese internment of WWII, when Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in camps between 1942 and 1945.
“I’ve always known about that (incident), because I grew up in LA. I knew some Japanese kids in the neighbourhood.
“The internment happened before they were born, but their parents were interred. And I got the idea for Hideo Ashida very early on, and he would be my way into this,” Ellroy says.
“It was a very grave injustice. We’ll never know how entirely innocent people were rounded up and put in camps. We’ll never know how many of them were entirely innocent, but I suspect a big majority of them were.”
If that all sounds like a lot, well … it is.
Ellroy deftly combines fact and fiction in his novel, with many historical characters (even movie personality Orson Welles!) playing important roles in his book. Younger versions of many of his characters from previous books make appearances – look out for people from LA Confidential, White Jazz, The Big Nowhere and more.
Was combining all his characters the plan from the beginning, or something he developed as he went along?
“I had no idea that I was going to be reusing characters from my earlier stories. I had to go through those earlier series of books, make sure I had the correct physical descriptions, dates of births, names of various police agencies,” Ellroy says.
It all sounds like this is Ellroy’s version of Avengers: Endgame, except that This Storm isn’t an ending. No, it’s only the second book in what he calls his “second LA Quartet”, which will connect with his first LA Quartet.
Ellroy is famously known for writing longhand on legal pads instead of using a computer, after preparing meticulous outlines for his stories. This Storm’s outline was 465 pages – almost as long as the book itself! Because of this, however, Ellroy knows everything that happens in the book before writing a single sentence.
With such detailed outlines and long books, how does Ellroy know what to keep in his drafts and what to cut out?
“Instinct. That’s how I do it. I’ve been doing this for a great many years.
“Now here’s the deal. I start with the history. I start with certain incidents within the history, established incidents that to me have great dramatic import.
“The characters come to me. The criminal plot within the overall plot comes to me. And I start putting notes together. Historical accuracy means very little to me,” he shares.
Despite not having many women in his life (he married and divorced two women and is back in a relationship with the first one), of all his many characters, it is the women that resonate with him the most.
“Joan Conville and Kay Lake – because they’re women,” he says with a laugh, refusing to elaborate.
Asked about the upcoming volumes of his second Quartet, Ellroy says the next two books will be a lot more freestanding than the others.
“Perfidia and This Storm really comprise one narrative, the narrative of Japanese internment and the fifth column.
“The next book begins in August 1942, the following summer, and then the final book takes us through to August 1945, VJ Day,” he says, referring to Victory over Japan Day, the end of WWII.
Does he have titles for them yet?
“Yeah, I do. I could reveal them to you. But I’m not (going to)!” Ellroy laughs.
“I’m keeping my cards close to me now. I’m writing them as fast as I can. And if I wasn’t in England promoting this book, I’d be writing them now as we speak!”
And that’s our cue to conclude the phone call.
Say what you want about the Demon Dog, but it definitely can’t be denied that his words, whether in print or over the phone, definitely have bite!