One of the quintessential Mad Artists of the 20th century, Lee Earle "James" Ellroy (born March 4, 1948) had a troubled childhood due to his parents' highly dysfunctional relationship that ended in their divorce. The key event in his life happened when he was just ten years old, when his mother was raped and murdered. The crime was never solved and Ellroy went to live with his father, who died seven years later. From there he dropped out of school and became a homeless, drug-addicted thief. After spending some time in jail he began to turn his life around by quitting drugs and getting a job as a caddy. However, his true passion became writing. His mother's murder had left him with a fascination of violent crime, much of it centered around the similar murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, popularly known as the "Black Dahlia" case. One of his novels is a fictionalized account of the case to give Short a bit more closure than she received in real life, one of the biggest cases of Creator Breakdown in a career full of it.
He's also known for public appearances full of Refuge in Audacity, trolling, Brutal Honesty, unreliable exposition and for maintaining a Small Name, Big Ego that makes other narcissists fume with envy.
His books include lots of Black-and-Gray Morality and Deliberate Values Dissonance, as well as Loads and Loads of Characters. Ellroy's novels are, invariably, brutal and violent, suffused with a jaundiced, cynical, world-weary tone. Their protagonists - almost always, though not exclusively, men - are usually desperate scrabblers and Anti Heroes at best. Ellroy's narratives feature intricate, dense plots that require flow charts and extensive notes to keep track of.
His most famous series is the L.A. Quartet, a collection of four hardboiled detective novels set in Los Angeles during the post-war years. These four books — The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz — defined noir in the minds of many modern readers, and became kind of the canonical take on the Golden Age of Hollywood. In them, Ellroy looked to expose the dark underbelly of the glittering LA facade, telling stories of elaborate, often sickening conspiracies that swallowed whole the lives of innocent men and women. The books occupy a shared continuity, with many characters appearing in multiple novels, but they're also standalone stories that don't require knowledge of the previous books to understand.
Ellroy followed the Quartet with the Underworld USA series — American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's a Rover. It was as cynical and conspiratorial as the Quartet, but it played out on a grander geopolitical stage, weaving in high-level American politics and international diplomacy from the years 1960 to 1973.
He's currently at work on the Second LA Quartet, which returns to the classic Los Angeles setting while rewinding the clock to the World War 2 years. The first two books, Perfidia and This Storm, are linked below.
Ellroy is also set to narrate a True Crime podcast, Hollywood Death Trip, where he recounts some of the more famous murder mysteries in Hollywood history.
Stand Alone NovelsEllroy's first novels, written while caddying was still his full-time occupation. Accordingly golfing motifs appear quite frequently.
- Brown's Requiem
- Clandestine: Notable for introducing a lot of elements that would surface later on in the first L.A. Quartet. Also features the first non-canonical appearance of Dudley Smith. Almost reads as something of a prototype for the future first book in the L.A. Quartet The Black Dahlia.
- Killer on the Road
Lloyd Hopkins TrilogyFollows the exploits of a brilliant but unfaithful LAPD Sergeant named Lloyd Hopkins in 1980s Los Angeles.
- Blood on the Moon
- Because the Night
- Suicide Hill
L.A. QuartetPerhaps the most famous collection of books by Ellroy, tied with the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy. Centers on the corruption and criminality of L.A. during it's golden age. Spans from 1947 to 1959.
- The Black Dahlia
- The Big Nowhere
- L.A. Confidential
- White Jazz
Underworld U.S.A TrilogyMore or less follows directly on from the L.A. Quartet, at least chronologically speaking. Has a much grander theatrical scale to it though, dealing with espionage and the dirty dealings of the United States as a whole. Several characters briefly mentioned in the L.A. Quartet also reappear in a much more prominent role. Spans from 1958 to 1972.
- American Tabloid
- The Cold Six Thousand
- Blood's a Rover
Second L.A. QuartetA prequel of sorts to the events of the first L.A. Quartet. The narrative focus shifts back down a gear from the grand stage set by the Underworld U.S.A Trilogy, once again focusing on L.A. However, a distinct difference lies in the fact that the novels all take place in wartime America. Many characters from the first Quartet make appearances as is to be expected. Spans from 1942 to presumably 1945.
- This Storm
Works by Ellroy with their own trope pages:
- The Black Dahlia
- The Big Nowhere
- L.A. Confidential
- White Jazz
- American Tabloid
- The Cold Six Thousand
- Blood's a Rover
- This Storm
- Widespread Panic
Other works by Ellroy contain examples of:
- A Lighter Shade of Black: make no mistake, Ellroy's Mickey Cohen is every inch the brutal gangster, but compared to some other characters (both antagonists and protagonists) he doesn't come off that badly. It helps that he's usually the victim of other villains' schemes in all the books he appears.
- Archnemesis Dad: Wayne Tedrow, Sr.
- Ate His Gun: Upshaw nearly goes out this way before realising that due to his homosexuality the imagery behind it would be used to mock him.
- Also Ward Littell at the end of The Cold Six Thousand
- The Atoner: Wayne Tedrow Jr and Dwight Holly, after his nervous breakdown.
- Author Appeal:
- Incest and serial killers. For a given value of appeal/horrified fascination.
- Golf. Clandestine features pages and pages of it, and it turns up in several other novels. Ellroy used to be a caddy, and caddied up until the sale of his fifth book. Caddies feature prominently in Brown's Requiem, his first book.
- Homosexual rape is an almost disturbingly recurring motif.
- Love Triangles involving two cops and a hooker.
- Ax-Crazy: Most of the characters to some extent, but Jean-Philippe and his Cuban mercs stand out.
- Been There, Shaped History: The protagonists of the Underworld USA trilogy, who are somehow involved in every major American political event from the 1960 Kennedy campaign to Watergate.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Don Crutchfield and Karen Sifakis.
- In The Big Nowhere Meeks, Smith and other ostensibly far more badass characters give Mal Considine a wider berth than his otherwise unassuming demeanor would seem to require because, during his stint as an Army officer in Europan theater of World War II, when he witnessed the inside of a concentration camp first-hand, he walked into a room where the camp's commander was held and unloaded his sidearm into the latter's face.
- Broad Strokes: while Underworld U.S.A. COULD conceivably act as a follow-up to L.A. Quartet, the settings differ a good deal.
- Crapsack World: Notable as his books, from The Black Dahlia on, are intended to tell the secret history of 20th century America
- Creator Breakdown: As noted above Ellroy's mother was murdered when he was young. As well as providing impetus and material for The Black Dahlia Ellroy wrote an autobiographical account of the effect it had on him in My Dark Places. He actually tried to investigate the case himself in the mid-'90s, before realizing that there was little point to it as most of the people involved were dead.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance:
- LA Quartet, set from 1947 to 1959, features even its more likable characters occasionally indulging in racial epithets, as well as similar attitudes to Jewish people. Ellroy deliberately points out how deeply ingrained into society those feelings were, that even nice people could get caught up in them.
- In The Big Nowhere Upshaw is hounded into killing himself with the threat of revealing his homosexuality.
- Ellroy describes the themes of the Underworld USA trilogy thus:The essential contention of the Underworld USA trilogy ... is that America was never innocent. Here's the lineage: America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy... and nations are never innocent. Let alone nations as powerful as our beloved fatherland. What you have in The Cold Six Thousand — which covers the years '63 to '68 — is that last gasp of pre-public-accountability America where the anti-communist mandate justified virtually any action. And it wasn't Kennedy's death that engendered mass skepticism. It was the protracted horror of the Vietnamese war.
- Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Kemper Boyd in American Tabloid, who simultaneously works for the Kennedy brothers, J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, and The Mafia. If he had somehow worked out a way to get on the Hughes Tool Company payroll, he'd have been working both for and against every single faction in the novel simultaneously.
- This eventually results in his conflicting loyalties eventually managing to piss off every single one of his employers, leading to Kemper getting killed at the end of the book.
- Driven to Suicide: Upshaw after his homosexuality is threatened to be leaked.
- Even Evil Has Standards: The Villain Protagonists and Anti Heroes who populate Ellroy's novels tend to have lines they insist they won't cross - Dudley Smith insists that his facist allies not kill any Americans or conduct any sabotage on American soil in This Storm, for example, while Pete Bondurant won't allow his business associates to sell dope to the Marines serving in Vietnam (he also won't hurt women). Usually they end up crossing these lines by the end of their novels.
- FaceHeel Turn: Ward Littell in American Tabloid, Wayne Tedrow, Jr. in The Cold Six Thousand, Hideo Ashida in Perfidia.
- Fate Worse than Death: The methods by which many of the characters are killed (although they do end up dead... eventually).
- Fire-Forged Friends: Mal Considine and Buzz Meeks in The Big Nowhere, Exley and Bud White in L. A. Confidential, Pete Bondurant and Ward Littel in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand... Ellroy's pretty fond of that one. And for all that No Honor Among Thieves is heavily at play in his works, those friendships tend to be pretty solid.
- Genre Shift: Blood's a Rover ends up in some very strange places for a book that starts out as a hard boiled detective novel.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: Almost all of his novels end with one of the protagonists reaching out for redemption and being killed off before he can achieve it.
- Though Dwight Holly probably gets it the worst of them all.
- Hero Killer: Dudley Smith hounds Upshaw into committing suicide and personally guns down Buzz Meeks.
- Hollywood Voodoo: In Blood's a Rover, though to be fair the focus is mostly on herblore and drugs, rather than zombies and magic. Plus it's an Ellroy book, so everything is shown as being bizarre and outlandish.
- Info Dump: Pretty much a must-have Ellroy trope - starting with The Black Dahlia, just about every book ends with a very long explanation, usually from a villain or a villain-adjacent character, clearing up all the mysteries raised during the book's story. Many of the books include entire chapters that are more or less just long monologues serving as Info Dumps.
- Kill 'Em All: There's pretty much no one left standing by the end of Blood's a Rover.
- Leave Behind a Pistol: At the end of Suicide Hill, Lloyd gives a loaded revolver to the villain, and leaves the room. Bang! "And then there was a second shot, and another and still another." Lloyd runs back to the room, and embraces the man in an act of forgiveness.
- Mr. Alt Disney: Raymond Dieterling, founder of Dream-a-Dream Land in the L.A. Quartet.
- Nice Guy: Mal Considine in The Big Nowhere has his hang-ups and peculiarities but on the whole is probobably the most fundamentally decent of Ellroy's protagonists. Not that it saves him from a bullet to the face but that's James Ellroy for you.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: This happens a lot. For example, in The Cold Six Thousand Wayne Tedrow Jr is trying to get away from the shadow of his father - a racist who has made a fortune publishing hate literature. He is dispatched to kill an unarmed black man, who has offended the wrong people in Vegas, for the titular amount of money. He cannot bring himself to do it. The man he was sent to kill ends up raping and murdering Wayne's wife. A similar thing happens in Bloods a Rover where Wayne goes to warn a black man that he is to be framed for a murder Wayne committed and he ends up having to kill him and an innocent bystander after the guy attacks him. He goes on to steal from the Mob and uses the proceeds to fund leftist causes in the Dominican Republic after seeing how minorities are treated there. He is randomly murdered while walking among the people he is trying to help. Dwight Holly is murdered by Scotty Bennett when he tries to prevent Bennett from killing Crutch.
- Though Wayne's death looks more like being Driven to Suicide and Dwight's does end up keeping Crutch alive by proxy.
- Sawed-Off Shotgun: A very common weapon in his books.
- Semper Fi: quite a few of Ellroy's protagonists are USMC veterans, with Pete Bondurant being probably the most notable.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Pete Bondurant's service in WWII clearly took its toll on him. By the end of The Cold Six Thousand the life he's led until that point also catches up with him. Hard.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Blood's a Rover comes very close to this. As one of the (very few) surviving characters notes towards the end of the book, having gone through hell and finally uncovered the conspiracy: "He had [the] story now. Facts clicked into place, redundant. Who gives a shit?"
- Slashed Throat: How Upshaw kills himself. Ear to ear in one cut.Buzz Meeks, while reading the case file: Danny Upshaw wanted out, and fast.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Pete Bondurant for Buzz Meeks: a disgraced ex-Dirty Cop turned Hollywood fixer who works as an enforcer for Howard Hughes.
- Took a Level in Badass: Don Crutchfield overcomes voodoo drug induced paralysis through sheer force of will, bites the head off a live rat just to prove he can and kills the two guys who did this to him and were about to murder him. He later kills Jean-Philippe and the mercs with a flamethrower and is responsible for the death of J. Edgar Hoover and the destruction of his blackmail files. He is the only main character to survive the book and at the end it is revealed that, following the events of the novel, he became a Hollywood power broker. This character is the Chew Toy for much of the story and his mob nickname is Dipshit.
- Villain Protagonist: The protagonists of the Underworld USA trilogy are a motley collection of extortionists, dope peddlers, mercenaries, con men, and assassins.
- Ditto for L.A. Quartet really, but there at least every book featured a stone-cold psycho killer and Dudley Smith so the "heroes" looked halfway-decent by comparison.
- Perfidia and This Storm feature Dudley Smith as a point of view protagonist, and certainly one who qualifies as a villain protagonist.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Notably Dudley Smith, although most of Ellroy's cop protagonists are this to some extent.
- Who Shot JFK?: Also Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. In American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Michael Martin Plunkett. Former Child Prodigy and a Serial Killer.
- Plot Hole: Perfidia reveals that Dudley Smith is Elizabeth Short's real father. Given his complete absence in The Black Dahlia there's going to have to be some explaining as to whether he could have prevented, solved or instigated her murder. A man of his stature could not have just not known about one of the most infamous real-life killings in history.
- Given his story arc so far chances are he was high as a kite during the whole timeframe of the investigation.