How thieving and murder led to a fortune writing crime


BIOGRAPHY 

LOVE ME FIERCE IN DANGER: THE LIFE OF JAMES ELLROY 

by Steven Powell (Bloomsbury Academic £14.99, 288pp) 

‘I am obsessed with violence,’ James Ellroy once said in a TV interview. ‘I am obsessed with twisted sexuality. I am obsessed with jealousy, greed, overweening ambition.’ 

These are excellent qualifications for a crime writer, and Ellroy has often been called America’s finest. 

Steven Powell’s brilliant, unflinching biography reveals how the novelist’s obsessions have their roots in the extraordinary experiences of his childhood and early years. 

Even before his first novel was published, James Ellroy (pictured) was telling friends that he would be the greatest crime writer ever

Even before his first novel was published, James Ellroy (pictured) was telling friends that he would be the greatest crime writer ever

Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His father, Armand, was business manager to Rita Hayworth. He later claimed to his son that he had slept with the famously glamorous film star. 

Ellroy’s mother, more than 15 years younger than her husband, was a nurse. Both parents had complicated love lives behind and ahead of them. 

They divorced in 1954 and their young son was shuttled back and forth between two homes. The defining event in Ellroy’s early life took place when he was only ten years old. His mother was murdered. The crime remains unsolved. 

The assumption is that the killer was the so-called ‘Swarthy Man’, who was seen drinking and dancing with her on the night she died, but he’s never been identified. 

Ellroy’s initial reaction to the news as a child was ambivalent. At the time he despised his mother and idolised his father. His first thought, he later admitted, was that he was glad his mother was dead. He was free to live all the time with his father.

Living with Armand proved less than ideal. By the time he was in his teens, Ellroy was his father’s carer. 

Armand suffered a series of strokes and died in 1965. His deathbed advice to his son, Ellroy later reported, was: ‘Try to pick up every waitress who serves you.’ 

Orphaned at 17, Ellroy was free to go off the rails in spectacular fashion. He had already been expelled from school, taken up shoplifting and embarked on a career as a peeping Tom and maker of obscene phone calls. 

Now his life went rapidly downhill. He began to break into houses, mainly to steal women’s underwear. He was homeless at times, sleeping in local parks. He was often arrested, spending periods in jail. Drink and drugs brought on blackouts. 

Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His father, Armand, was business manager to Rita Hayworth

Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His father, Armand, was business manager to Rita Hayworth

After one binge, he woke up in San Francisco, 380 miles from his home, naked in bed with a 300 lb woman and no idea how he got there. He had hallucinations in which monsters emerged from his toilet and ‘spiders crawled up my legs’. 

What rescued him from self-destruction was his commitment to becoming a writer. He sobered up and put pen to paper. (Literally — he has never used a typewriter.) 

Even before his first novel was published, he was telling friends that he would be the greatest crime writer ever. 

His early books made little money. His first success came with The Black Dahlia, a story based on an infamous Los Angeles murder, which bore resemblances to his mother’s killing. 

The film version of LA Confidential, released in 1997, gave him a new level of fame. He called it ‘the greatest thing that happened to me which I had nothing to do with’. 

Powell scrupulously chronicles Ellroy’s hectic career: his compulsive womanising; lapses in sobriety; near nervous breakdowns; and attentiongrabbing performances as the selfstyled ‘Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction’. 

According to his ex-wife, Helen Knode: ‘James lives life like he was shot out of a cannon.’ 

This gripping, illuminating biography not only throws light on just what she meant by that. It also reveals why he does so.



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