In one of the opening scenes of the 2001 BBC documentary Feast of Death, James Ellroy tells a story about his encounter with an elderly fan in a Kansas video store. She’s effusive about how much she enjoyed the movie L.A. Confidential, which was based on Ellroy’s bestselling novel of the same name — part of his now-iconic L.A. Quartet series.
“Kim Basinger was so beautiful,” she tells him. “What a wonderful, wonderful movie. I saw it four times.”
“Listen, Granny,” he interrupts her. “You loved the movie; did you go out and buy the book?” She admits that she hasn’t, and Ellroy snaps, “Then what the fuck good are you to me?”
It’s a quintessential Ellroy moment. “The modern master of hard-boiled fiction,” as he has been called, has a profane, confrontational demeanor that wouldn’t seem out of place in his own fiction. Ellroy came by his world-weariness honestly: When he was just 10 years old, an unknown assailant strangled his mother. The mystery continues to haunt him. (He has tried in vain to find the murderer.) Since then, Ellroy has been a petty thief and a drug addict, a restless wanderer without a home, and a guy with a head full of demons that would’ve made Sam Spade crack.
At the same time, unlike Hunter S. Thompson — who made himself the main character of his own literary works — Ellroy doesn’t usually write about himself directly, other than the occasional memoir. He writes crime thrillers about damaged cops and dangerous women, in a hyperkinetic prose that caused fellow crime author Elmore Leonard to remark “reading it aloud could shatter your wine glasses” — books like The Black Dahlia, White Jazz, American Tabloid, and his latest, This Storm, part of a new L.A. Quartet that takes place during World War II.
I recently called the author, who is 71, and expected to get an earful from the self-proclaimed “white knight of the far right” about the state of American politics. He wasn’t interested; he declined to even utter Trump’s name unless I turned off “that…