Lee Earle “James” Ellroy (born Los Angeles, CA, USA, March 4, 1948) is an American crime fiction writer and essayist. Ellroy has become known for a telegramatic prose style in his most recent work, wherein he frequently omits connecting words and uses only short, staccato sentences, and in particular for the novels The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), White Jazz (1992), American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and Blood’s a Rover (2009).
Ellroy is a self-described hermit who possesses very few technological amenities, including television, and claims never to read contemporary books by other authors, aside from Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field (a nonfiction account of the notorious kidnapping of two plainclothes LAPD officers by a pair of criminals during an evening traffic stop and the subsequent murder of one of the officers), for fear that they might influence his own. However, this does not mean that Ellroy does not read at all, as he claims in My Dark Places to have read at least two books a week growing up, eventually shoplifting more to satisfy his love of reading. He then goes on to say that he read works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler accompanied by abuse of alcohol and Benzedrex inhalers.
Hallmarks of Ellroy’s work include dense plotting and a relentlessly pessimistic – albeit moral – worldview. He writes longhand on legal pads rather than on a computer and prepares elaborate outlines for his books, most of which are several hundred pages long. Dialog and narration in Ellroy novels often consists of a “heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular” with a particular use of period-appropriate slang. He often employs stripped-down staccato sentence structures, a style that reaches its apex in The Cold Six Thousand and which Ellroy describes as a “direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.” This signature style is not the result of a conscious experimentation but of chance and came about when he was asked by his editor to shorten his novel White Jazz from 900 pages to 350. Rather than removing any subplots, Ellroy achieved this by eliminating verbs, creating a unique style of prose. While each sentence on its own is simple, the cumulative effect is a dense, baroque style.
Structurally, several of Ellroy’s books, such as The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, and The Cold Six Thousand, have three disparate points of view through different characters, with chapters alternating between them. Starting with The Black Dahlia, Ellroy’s novels have mostly been historical dramas about the relationship between corruption and law enforcement. A predominant theme of Ellroy’s work is the myth of “closure,” which he considers utter nonsense.
While his early novels earned him a cult following, Ellroy earned much greater success and critical acclaim with the L.A. Quartet – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. The four novels represent Ellroy’s change of style from the tradition of classic modernist noir fiction of his earlier novels to so-called postmodern historiographic metafiction. The Black Dahlia, for example, fused the unsolved and much-speculated-about real-life murder of Elizabeth Short (who was found mutilated in a Los Angeles park in January 1947 and was given the moniker “The Black Dahlia” posthumously by newspapers in the habit of nicknaming crimes they found particularly colorful) with a fictional story of two police officers investigating the crime.
Several of Ellroy’s works have been adapted to film, including Blood on the Moon (adapted as Cop), L.A. Confidential, Brown’s Requiem, Killer on the Road/Silent Terror (adapted as Stay Clean), and The Black Dahlia.
Major Awards and Honors
Edgar (Allan Poe) Awards
(Mystery Writers of America)
- 2015: Grand Master
– Shared with Lois Duncan.
(German Crime Fiction Prize)
- 1989: First Place – “The Black Dahlia”
- 1990: Second Place – “The Big Nowhere” and “Silent Terror”
- 1992: First Place – “L.A. Confidential”
- 1997: Second Place – “American Tabloid”
- 1998: Third Place – “My Dark Places”
Maltese Falcon Society (Japan)
- 1997: Falcon Award – “White Jazz”
Novels and Novellas
- The Black Dahlia (1987)
- The Big Nowhere (1988)
- L.A. Confidential (1990)
- White Jazz (1992)
Second L.A. Quartet
- Perfida (2014)
- This Storm (2019)
Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy
- LA Noir (1998):
- Blood on the Moon (1984)
- Because the Night (1984)
- Suicide Hill (1986)
Underworld USA Trilogy
- Omnibus edition (2019)
- American Tabloid (1995)
- The Cold Six Thousand (2001)
- Blood’s a Rover (2009)
- Brown’s Requiem (1981)
- Clandestine (1982)
- Killer on the Road (1986)
A/K/A: Silent Terror
- Widespread Panic (2021)
- Fallen Angels:
Six Noir Tales Told for Television (1993)
– Includes one Ellroy short story.
- Hollywood Nocturnes (1994)
(AKA Dick Contino’s Blues and Other Stories)
- Crime Wave (1999)
- The Best American Mystery Stories 2002
– Guest editor.
- Destination: Morgue! – L.A. Tales (2004)
- The Best American Crime Writing 2005 (2005)
– Guest editor.
- The Best American Noir of the Century (2010)
– Guest editor.
- Shakedown (2012)
– Stand-alone short story.
Memoirs and Nonfiction
- My Dark Places (1996)
- Crime Wave (1999)
- Scene of the Crime: Photographs from the LAPD Archive (2004)
– Introduction; with Tim Wride and William J. Bratton.
- The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women (2010)
- LAPD ’53 (2015)
A Selection of Quotes
“Fear and I played peek-a-boo – it always seemed to grab my balls and twist just when it felt like something inside me could banish all the bullshit forever.”
Find more quotes by James Ellroy on Goodreads.
- James Ellroy’s official website
- James Ellroy’s interview with the Paris Review (The Art of Fiction, No. 201)
- James Ellroy at Britannica.com
- James Ellroy at The Guardian
- Reviews and blog posts related to James Ellroy on this blog, Lioness at Large