American crime fiction writer and essayist Lee Earle “James” Ellroy was born March 4, 1948 in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Geneva Odelia (née Hilliker), was a nurse, and his father, Armand, was an accountant and a onetime business manager of Rita Hayworth. After his parents’ divorce, Ellroy relocated to El Monte, California, with his mother. When Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was raped and murdered. Ellroy later described his mother as “sharp-tongued and bad-tempered”, unable to keep a steady job, alcoholic and sexually promiscuous. His first reaction upon hearing of her death was relief: he could now live with his father, whom he preferred. The police never found the perpetrator, and the case remains unsolved. The murder, along with reading The Badge by Jack Webb (a book comprising sensational cases from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, a birthday gift from his father), was an important event of Ellroy’s youth
Ellroy’s inability to come to terms with the emotions surrounding his mother’s murder led him to transfer them onto another murder victim, Elizabeth Short. Nicknamed the “Black Dahlia,” Short was a young woman murdered in 1947, her body cut in half and discarded in Los Angeles, in a notorious and unsolved crime. Throughout his youth, Ellroy used Short as a surrogate for his conflicting emotions and desires. His confusion and trauma led to a period of intense clinical depression. Ellroy dropped out of school and joined the US Army for a short while. During his teens and 20s, he drank heavily and abused Benzedrex inhalers. He was engaged in minor crimes (especially shoplifting, house-breaking, and burglary) and was often homeless. After serving some time in jail and suffering from pneumonia, during which he developed an abscess on his lung “the size of a large man’s fist,” Ellroy stopped drinking and began working as a golf caddie while pursuing writing
After a second marriage in the mid-1990s to Helen Knode (author of the 2003 novel The Ticket Out), the couple moved from California to Kansas City in 1995. In 2006, after their divorce, Ellroy returned to Los Angeles He is a self-described recluse 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, out of concern 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.
In 1981, Ellroy published his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, a detective story drawing on his experiences as a caddie. He then published Clandestine and Silent Terror (which was later published under the title Killer on the Road). Ellroy followed these three novels with the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy. The novels are centered on Hopkins, a brilliant but disturbed LAPD robbery-homicide detective, and are set mainly in the 1980s. While his early novels earned him a cult following and notice among crime fiction buffs, 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 what has been classified as postmodern historiographic metafiction. The Black Dahlia, for example, fused the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short with a fictional story of two police officers investigating the crime. In 1995, Ellroy published American Tabloid, the first novel in a series informally dubbed the “Underworld USA Trilogy” that Ellroy describes as a “secret history” of the mid-to-late 20th century. Tabloid was named TIME’s fiction book of the year for 1995. Its follow-up, The Cold Six Thousand, became a bestseller. The final novel, Blood’s a Rover, was released on September 22, 2009.
After publishing American Tabloid, Ellroy began a memoir, My Dark Places, based on his memories of his mother’s murder, the unconventional relationship he had with her, and his investigation of the crime. In the memoir, Ellroy mentions that his mother’s murder received little news coverage because the media were still fixated on the murder of mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was dating actress Lana Turner. Frank C. Girardot, a reporter for The San Gabriel Valley Tribune, accessed files on Geneva Hilliker Ellroy’s murder from detectives with Los Angeles Police Department. Based on the cold case file, Ellroy and investigator Bill Stoner worked the case but gave up after 15 months, believing any suspects to be dead. In 2008, The Library of America selected the essay “My Mother’s Killer” from My Dark Places for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
Ellroy is currently writing a “Second L.A. Quartet” taking place during the Second World War, with some characters from the first L.A. Quartet and the Underworld USA Trilogy returning younger. The first book, Perfidia, was released on September 9, 2014. The second book is titled This Storm which has a release date of September 2018. A Waterstones exclusive limited edition of Perfidia was published two days after its initial release and included an essay by Ellroy titled “Ellroy’s History — Then and Now” Ellroy dedicated Perfidia “To Lisa Stafford.” The epigraph is “Envy thou not the oppressor, And choose none of his ways” from Proverbs 3:31.