Writer James Ellroy has one ambition: to be the world's best crime novelist


September 25, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- "Talent, even of a very high order, cannot sustain an achievement," Graham Greene once observed. "Whereas a ruling passion gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system."

James Ellroy knows this and believes this. He lives an obsession every day -- to be the best crime novelist of the 20th century.

Not that his accomplishments have been meager. Mr. Ellroy has 10 crime novels behind him -- ones, some people say, that have virtually re-invented the genre of the noir mystery. He has a great critical reputation and a three-book contract with Alfred A. Knopf, the best publishing house in America. But that is not enough.

"I want to be the Beethoven of the crime novel," Mr. Ellroy said in a recent interview on a promotional tour for "White Jazz," his latest book. "If I had a hero, it wouldn't be a writer but Beethoven, who was the greatest musician of all time."

With "White Jazz," Mr. Ellroy completed what he calls his "L.A. Quartet" -- four books set after World War II that chronicle the underside of Los Angeles, a place where the egregiously corrupt police force is as murderous and treacherous as the criminals it is supposed to contain. Dave Klein, the violent and tormented police lieutenant who is the chief character in "White Jazz," is a slumlord and has killed under orders from the Mob.

Says Mr. Ellroy: "He's grasping for decency and self-sacrifice just so he won't choke on the blood and pus of his own life."

The Quartet was boldly conceived, a testament to Mr. Ellroy's ambition and drive. It worked, too: Of the first book in the series, "The Black Dahlia," Andrew Vachss, a top crime novelist himself, wrote, "James Ellroy surges to the forefront of contemporary American crime fiction -- Krafft-Ebing in one hand, a chainsaw in the other."

Other leading crime writers, such as Elmore Leonard and Jonathan Kellerman, have been as generous in their praise. Mr. Ellroy's editor at Knopf, Sonny Mehta, says his books "represents the best of crime writing in that they stand above the plot and address the issues of justice and motivation, and history."

But that still is not enough.

"He's absolutely driven -- he's maniacal," says Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, who helped publish several of Mr. Ellroy's earlier novels through the Mysterious Press and remains a friend. "He's the most focused human being I've ever known. He can exclude everything else in the world when he's working -- food, sex, you name it -- to get the book written the way he wants."

That's why, money and critical success aside, there's no question about James Ellroy's remaining lean and hungry. He's still snapping at the scraps that may fall off the dinner table.

It's understandable. Mr. Ellroy's hardscrabble origins have taken legendary proportions among crime-novel aficionados.

When he was 10, his mother was murdered by a stranger she met at a Los Angeles bar -- an event, he said, "that first sparked my interest in crime. Crime has always been the focus of my darkest curiosities, and a source of endless fascination."

His father "was 60 and already infirm. I grew up right on the edge. I grew up strange. I grew up on the edge of Hancock Park, which was this wealthy, WASP-y enclave. Yeah, I was a WASP, but so what? We had no money, we had no car."

His father died when he was 17, and then James Ellroy hit the streets, becoming "a pathetic, drug-addicted, sex-crazed chump." He was arrested numerous times on various misdemeanor charges ("I used to go to jail in my 20s, and I picked up a lot of stuff for my books that way," he says slyly). But he always read a great deal, even through the worst of it all. He stopped drinking in 1977 and two years later began his first crime novel, "Brown's Requiem."

His days of drifting were over: James Ellroy had found his calling. "I had been an obsessive personality in waiting for an earth-shaking obsession for a long time, and when it happened, that was it," he said.

Mr. Ellroy says he's tired of the glamorization of his background, but acknowledges it has provided fertile material. "After my father died and I was running wild, I would break into houses," he says. "It was a big thrill. So I when I began writing, I became obsessed with this whole notion of policeman as voyeur, the notion of a public servant with a gun, and the sanction to investigate crime, who is afire with dark curiosities, with sexual curiosities, curiosities as to the way people live.

"My wife, you know, contends that I am Gatsby -- that I grew up immensely hungry, and now I have got mine to a degree," he says. "Well, these notions remain very, very powerful, and the only way I can touch them is write about them."

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