James Ellroy, 74, is a detective novelist known for his gritty noir novels and true crime essays. Celebrated for his “LA quartet” of novels, which includes The black dahlia and LA Confidential, and his “Underworld USA” series examining American political corruption, many of Ellroy’s obsessions (murder, crime, politics, masculinity) were influenced by the unsolved 1958 murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker. Recently, he released two books of his “Second LA Quartet” – Perfidy (2014) and Storm (2019) – which begin with Pearl Harbor and take place during World War II. Ellroy has a new podcast, James Ellroy’s Deadly Journey to Hollywoodwhich features him reading several of his true-crime essays.
Let’s start with the podcast. You choose five stories including Stephanie of Destination: Mortuary!and night clash of your Hollywood journalist room on the murder of Sal Mineo. Why those?
These are crimes, and they all take place in Hollywood. Some things. I have a low baritone voice, I have a punchy voice, I can read dramatically. I have a rat-a-tat journalistic style. And it can be argued that my mother’s unsolved murder in 1958, when I was 10, is what got me addicted to crime… The podcast was a joy, but as much as I love this series, this is nothing but a stalking horse for the full, unredacted version of my 1995 novel American tabloid on the reign of John Kennedy. And it will be 12 hours with me narrating and rated actors reading the dialogue.
So this series is a taste of that?
Yes, a taste. The act of opening. I like to say the movies and TV shows are out and the podcasts are here. Podcasts are the perfect transposition of the novel to another form. Time is not a factor. There is no censorship. It’s writing, 100% transposed. It’s a kick for me.
What was your idea of podcasts before you started on this one? Do you have any favourites?
No, I don’t listen to anything. I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a cell phone. I wrote all my books by hand.
Can we talk about Stephaniewhat features of the podcast?
This is my favorite of all my detective plays. I went to high school at a few high schools northeast of Stephanie Gorman. I was born in ’48, and she was born in ’49. And, if you can use that term to describe a murder case, hers is the best case I’ve ever read.
In your account of the still unsolved murder of Stephanie, you write: “the act creates the mess”, and “the killer is crucial and irrelevant”.
If you were to take the man who killed Stephanie Gorman in the summer of 1965, if you were to put him in the spotlight, you would find he was nothing but a human blob of illusion. He wouldn’t know why he did it. I doubt it was well planned. He could have seen her come in and out of this house, in this very bourgeois neighborhood, and develop a yen for her. And then, one day, he knocked, she opened the door, and he reacted.
One of the things that can be difficult with true crime is that it is often women who are killed, and yet they are lost in the crime narrative. What is your position on this?
I’m very interested in the character of the victim. For me, the question is always: “Who was she?” »… It was in 2001 when I wrote Stéphanie’s play for QG, and there had been a reopening of the case, and the detective, Tim Marcia and I, we visited his old high school. Stephanie was a unique and adorable girl. She exuded character. Tim and I were just in love with her. And we saw old school albums with Stephanie’s picture in them. I had already seen the photos of the death and some family photos. But I had never seen live photos of Stephanie on the tennis team, or Stephanie in her history class before. We saw those pictures, and Tim and I just lost it, crying like animals. I said to Tim, “I love him.” He said, “Yes, I can get it.”
In the past you have spoken about Bill Clinton and his moral degeneracy in the way he treated Monica Lewinsky. What impact have the last two American presidents had on you?
I have been out of the world for a very long time. I haven’t followed the Trump presidency, I haven’t followed the Biden presidency, I don’t watch TV other than boxing. The world that I portray in my books – of powerful men – there are unhappy young women who want to be part of the scene. Men will lie and do almost anything to impress women. It is the nature of the beast.
And also, perhaps, to impress other powerful men.
Yes. Which is some twisted shit.
Why don’t you engage anymore?
My books are extremely complex and require a solid year of planning before I write the first word of the text. And if I only read the era I’m writing about, I have everything I need at home. I do a lot of sports, I have an elliptical trainer in my office. After this interview, I’m going to jump on it. I have a boom box and I play classical music CDs, so I’m going to listen to a piece of music and exercise. Blow my endorphins in the sky? Yes.
The first time I interviewed you you were living in Kansas, the second time you were in LA. Now you are in Denver. I understand that you got back together with your ex-wife, Helen Knode?
Yes, yes, back with Helen, and very happy for six years. Monogamy has never been our problem. It was always cohabitation. The cohabitation is horrible. So now I live in apartment 208 and Helen lives in apartment 200.
Do you still have dogs? You had a bull terrier called Barko
Barko the bull terrier, Margaret the bull terrier, Dudley the bull terrier. Very British dogs. But no, no dogs now. Because I’m older. I’m just completely broken by how dogs die before you.
Do you still have a lot of weapons?
When I had the house in Kansas City, I had a lot of guns. And I had a library and everything. But here, I think I only have two left. They stay in the apartment. What is my position on gun control? I do not think about it. The thing is, with psychopaths, if they want to get their hands on a gun, they’re going to get it by hook or by crook.
I was thinking more of the crazy young people who think, “I hate everyone.” If it wasn’t so easy for them to get guns, they might just hate everyone and not hurt them.
This is a very good point. With me, however, call me superficial, but I don’t think much about these issues.
You joined AA in the 1970s, so early the cocaine wasn’t even around.
Yes, it was so long ago that I had never used cocaine. Cocaine became a big problem in Los Angeles in the 1980s. When I joined AA, it was good for hot tub parties. There was a place called Hot Tub Fever where people used to go. Make an appointment with Hot Tub Fever and have your own room with a hot tub. I think it no longer exists.
How do you feel about getting old?
I try to have a strong third act. I am in competition with the late Philip Roth. What looks like a good lifespan would be 88, or 89, or even 90, which gives me plenty of time to finish this novel I’m writing right now, and the last two books of the “Second LA Quartet” , and maybe another book. And make podcasts. There’s no way to rationalize 74 as being middle-aged. This wild ride is not eternal. But I’m not particularly afraid.
Hollywood Death Trip by James Ellroy, produced by Audio Up, is available exclusively on Amazon Audible