James Ellroy has made a career of mining dark places. Most famous for his novels (American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), he’s also written nonfiction, like My Dark Places and the recent The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. Ellroy is an eponymous brand, promising a particular kind of hard-nosed debauchery. His new foray into television, James Ellroy’s LA: City of Demons, delivers more of the same. And his pulp-noir style and fixation on dead women will probably appeal to fans but win no new converts.
In person, Ellroy cuts a unique figure—in crime-fiction circles, his readings have long had a reputation for bombast and growling hyperbole. Head shaved, dressed in a suit and bow tie, he sometimes dons a straw hat, enhancing his image as a sideshow hustler. Ellroy’s voice can sound like a carnival barker’s run through a text-to-speech reader. He has a precise, clipped emphasis, his jaw working as though striving to carve every word in the air. And he has a soft spot for alliteration: he opens the show by saying, “Welcome to my wildly warped world. Murder and malignant mayhem, crime and crazed passion, skanky scandals, and scorching skin. Murder is on our malevolent menu tonight.”
Ellroy clearly loves the sound of his lines (he writes the series), and such patter can soothe the ear as long as one doesn’t listen too closely. In bulk, it develops a lulling rhythm, like waves washing on the beach, but extracting meaning from the wash of sound can prove difficult. Take “malevolent menu,” for example. What is that? A menu with a bad attitude, or maybe one brought forth from the very dankest depths of Hades? Ellroy doesn’t seem to intend such a silly image, but rather a menu detailing dirty deeds, perhaps on order at the Diner of Doom.
Once noticed, however, the imprecision of Ellroy’s language is hard to ignore. As the press release (he wrote it as well) reiterates, he’s the author of “malevolent masterpieces” such as The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential and Blood’s a Rover. He wanted to be a crime novelist since his childhood, he explains. After his mother’s sexual assault and strangulation, he says, “My whole world went blooey in a fast heartbeat… In that moment, I become betrothed to LA crime.” He performs the self for which he is so well known, solitary, traumatized, the self-proclaimed “Diogenes of the Dark.”
The “James Ellroy” creation rarely shares the screen with anyone else, the better to appear an outsized personality. In 1968, Ellroy’s now ex-wife, Helen Knode, arguably inspired his investigation into his mother’s then decade-old murder. But she appears here speaking only to the camera, never interacting with Ellroy: “Just call the divorce lawyer right now,” she remembers thinking soon after his quest began. Frank Girardot, the Los Angeles reporter whose investigation further spurred Ellroy’s own search, as a similarly tangential relation to the author here. Ellroy spends the most screen time with a computer-generated bull terrier named Barko, a corrupt police dog. He and Ellroy appear in a convertible, comparing notes on their respective moral failings. That moment is exactly as odd as it sounds.
The relationship with Barko—and City of Demons as a whole—appear to take place almost entirely inside Ellroy’s head. The effect is that of a James Ellroy reading with AV accompaniment: indeed, he calls his show “shamelessly self-promotional and autobiographical.” Anyone knowing his reputation would expect nothing less, but the centrality of “James Ellroy” makes it hard to invest in the show’s ostensible content.
In the premiere episode, this content is comprised of Ellroy’s childhood, his mother’s murder, and the subsequent mental intertwining of his mother and Betty Short, the infamous Black Dahlia murder victim. As he says, “Dead women own me.” But in this story about Ellroy, there’s no room for the reality of these dead women. They are instead objects of obsession, recreated in Ellroy’s hard-working imagination. He contemplates turning the investigation of his mother’s murder into “a soul-socking magazine feature.” He compulsively researches the Black Dahlia because he believes her manner of death distorted “the metaphysic of her life.” (There’s that imprecise language again.) These women, he says, “have formed a sisterhood within me.”
Such obsession might seem understandable, if not the definition of “healthy” emotional coping. (Ellroy, no surprise, does not believe in psycho-therapeutic notions of “closure.”) The conclusion of City of Demons‘s first episode takes a surprising turn, however. Having spent an hour detailing the murder of his mother, the Black Dahlia, and a teenage girl from his childhood neighborhood, he adds yet another dead woman to the mix. A friend’s 17-year-old daughter was bludgeoned to death in 2009. The killer was caught soon after, but even so, Ellroy declares himself responsible for her memory.
He closes the show with a sentiment oddly reminiscent of The Lovely Bones. That book, which rendered a child’s rape and murder with cotton-candy sentimentality, seems a far cry from Ellroy’s dark places. “The dead claim the living and tell us how to live. It is imperative that we listen and adhere to their sanction,” he intones, suggesting that at least one dead woman has left us a “survivor’s manual written in her own blood.” This may be the closest James Ellroy gets to closure.