James Ellroy is not a nice guy. He underscores this fact in the opening scene of Vikram Jayanti’s Feast of Death: The Dark Places of James Ellroy. Seated comfortably in his Kansas home, he summarizes the phenomenon of LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson’s 1997 adaptation of Ellroy’s novel. It was “a fluke”, he says, “and a wonderful one that is never going to happen again…It’s a wonderful movie and a salutary adaptation of my wonderful novel.”
The film’s success raised his profile to the point where clerks at the local Blockbuster regularly point him out to patrons. Inevitably, as he tells it, elderly fans fawn over him, lauding the movie and asking about Kim Basinger. Ellroy patiently allows them to finish, then asks whether, after seeing such a great movie, they rushed out to buy the book. He shakes his head mock-sheepishly before delivering the coup de grace, “And then I say to Granny: then what the fuck good are you to me?”
In case you were under the illusion that the author of bleak crime novels such as The Black Dahlia and The Cold Six Thousand was in reality a cuddly teddy bear, know this: James Ellroy drops the f-bomb on old people.
To understand how he got this way, the film suggests in dutifully Freudian fashion, you have to go back to his mother. Geneva Hilliker Ellroy was killed in 1958, her strangled, dumped body found by a group of Little Leaguers in El Monte, a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood. After her murder, James moved in with his father. There, under the influence of his father’s pathological hatred, the memory of his mother shriveled to epithets like “drunken whore”.
On his birthday a few months later, he received a copy of Jack Webb’s The Badge, which introduced him to the Black Dahlia. Over a decade earlier, aspiring actress Elizabeth Short had been killed and horrifically mutilated, her body dumped in suburban LA. In what would become one of the city’s most infamous crimes, a gruesome reprise of the Jack the Ripper slayings, young James first encountered the intoxicating aroma of sex and violence that haunts his life and novels. Forty-one years later, he declares, “I remain driven, morally and psychically” by the Black Dahlia.
In Elizabeth Short’s ravaged body James could see his mother, but because the body was a stranger’s, he could bear to look. These two young, attractive women, mother and stranger, comfort and sexuality, twinned and intertwined in Ellroy’s psyche. To deal with their horrible mystery, as he points out, he created hero-detectives, men who speak for snuffed-out innocents and restore moral order to the world.
In his conception, intimacy with the dead promises complete revelation of the departed life; his detectives know their innocents in a way only the dead can be known. But such omniscience belongs to a rare few—Ellroy covets this complete knowledge while knowing it is, for him, impossible. To his mother-stranger he intones, “I failed you as a talisman. So I stand now as your witness. Your death defines my life. I want to find the life we never had and explicate it in your name…I want to burn down the distance between us. I want to give you breath.”
For Ellroy, the writer, explication bestows breath, life. As a Rosetta stone to both his work and his life he offers, “The attraction of unsolved crimes is their exploitation potential. You can take an unsolved crime, you can take a violent moment, and fill in all the blank spaces yourself. And if you’re gifted, if you understand personal psychology, if you have a strong moral viewpoint—you can tell a fuck of a story.” In his work this becomes the explication of the JFK assassination or a tale woven around the Black Dahlia; in his life he’s still searching for the “fuck of a story” he can tell about his mother.
This is the story he cannot write. Within his mother’s shadow he creates a rough assemblage of what-ifs, maybes, and could-have-beens, but its final shape reveals only the same cold conclusion: she is gone, and he will never know. Explanation fails him, its brittle power revealed.
It’s a truth he knows all too well. Murder renders “closure” impossible; no explanations can restore moral order to a world riven by senseless, vulgar death. Ellroy recognizes this impossibility, as well as the necessity of confronting it. “The truth about the Black Dahlia, metaphysically,” he says, “is this: we’ll never know. We were not meant to know. The Black Dahlia will continue to inspire writers who riff on misogynistic violence and writers who take the known facts on the case to conform to their own theses as to how something that terrible could happen.”
Metaphysics, obviously, is beyond the reach of mortals; theses are as close as the living get to touching the truth. At the boundary of his capacity for explication, for the explication the gives life to mere facts, James Ellroy—tough guy, the “Demon Dog of American crime fiction” the man with no use for the non-reading elderly—reaches out to offer what sounds like a prayer. Asked what he hopes God will say to him after death, he answers, “Here you will have all your questions answered.”