Dark obsessions of the Demon Dog

Love Me Fierce in Danger reads as a book for fans, inured to the World of Ellroy


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy, Steven Powell (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

One Sunday morning in the summer of 1958, Lee Earle Ellroy pulled up in a taxi outside his mother’s house in El Monte, California. He was surprised to see the place surrounded by police cars. As he stepped out of the cab, instinct told him what had happened. A policeman’s hand on his shoulder confirmed it. “Son, your mother’s been killed.”

A photographer was on the scene and hustled Ellroy to a nearby toolshed, where, after a little prompting, he started mugging for the camera. Shortly afterwards, Ellroy’s father arrived and took him by bus to his own apartment in Los Angeles. Many years later, Ellroy would recall in his memoir, My Dark Places, what he felt on that bus ride: relief. He wanted to live in LA with his father, not El Monte with his mother. Now he was free to do so. “Some unknown killer just brought me a brand-new, beautiful life.” He was 10 years old.

That was 65 years ago. Today, Ellroy (pseudonymously “James”, never Lee) is one of the most distinguished writers of American crime and historical fiction. Love Me Fierce in Danger, a new biography by the British writer Steven Powell, explores the extraordinary extent to which Ellroy’s life and work have been framed by those events in 1958: his mother Jean’s brutal, unsolved strangling, and his own subsequent exposure to the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, via Armand, his philandering, unreliable father.

Drawing on many hours of interviews and Ellroy’s own extensive autobiographical writing, Powell shows how the self-styled Demon Dog of American crime fiction has nursed lifelong obsessions with death, violence, misogyny, police work, celebrity, voyeurism, grift, trauma and failed relationships. His fixations have made him rich and famous. At times they have destroyed his sanity.

Big, bad and backstoried, Ellroy is an obvious candidate for a biography: so obvious that he has already written two himself. My Dark Places charted his search for his mother’s killer; The Hilliker Curse explored his ruinous relationships with women. Powell quotes heavily from both, supplementing them with his own research and providing new tidbits, such as the identity of Ellroy’s mother’s first husband. By and large, though, his job is to repeat and refine wild tales Ellroy has already commodified.

Ellroy’s fictional characters thrash around in the pigsty of history

There are plenty of them. As a child, Ellroy was exposed to his mother’s boozy promiscuity and his father’s slovenliness and womanising. Armand Ellroy was Rita Hayworth’s manager and, so he claimed, her lover. His dying words to Ellroy were: “Try to pick up every waitress who serves you.”

As a teenager Ellroy postured as a neo-Nazi and was kicked out of school. He burgled his female classmates’ homes to steal their panties. He became a booze and drug fiend. Later he faked insanity to escape the army, after which he was often homeless or in jail for petty crimes. He worked in a porn store. He lost his virginity to a communist whilst high on cough syrup. When he was aged 27, substance abuse nearly killed him. In between all this he found time to read hundreds of detective novels.

After his brush with death, Ellroy got sober, found work as a golf caddy, and began writing his own crime books. It took him until his forties to find his voice, his confidence and a mainstream publisher (Sonny Mehta at Knopf) prepared to back his grand ambition and tolerate his intense personality. In the late 1980s his career began to blossom. Yet his struggles with grief and addiction, along with an ugly combination of cluelessness, coerciveness and cruelty towards the many women in his life, would remain constants into old age.

Despite, or perhaps because of all this, Ellroy’s books are unique, viciously funny and, at their best, slightly terrifying. His most famous work is LA Confidential, which became a successful movie. His finest works are The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid; the former exploring the torture-murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947, the latter reimagining events leading up to the JFK assassination in 1963.

In both, Ellroy’s fictional characters thrash around in the pigsty of history, rubbing up against grotesque caricatures of real-life police chiefs, politicians and starlets. Particularly memorable creations include LA police chief Bill Parker as a whisky-gargling Bible basher, JFK as a sexually incompetent hophead, and Liberace as the owner of a rapey leopard.

Carrying all this along is Ellroy’s distinctive, experimental prose style, which has varied over the years, but is generally terse, slangy, staccato, rhyming, alliterative and gleefully packed with racial epithets and slurs. His preferred voice is that of the mid-century scandal-rag hack, who drags his readers into a celebrity sewer, revealing, as Ellroy likes to put it: “who’s a nympho, who’s a homo, who’s a dipso, who fucks black people”.

This sort of talk has become harder to defend in recent years. When self-reflective, Ellroy describes himself as a “Tory mystic”. In attention-seeking mode he claims to be “the foul owl with the death growl, the slick trick with the donkey dick, the white knight of the far right”, etc, etc. His justification for carrying on as he does, implicitly accepted by Powell, is that he is speaking the authentic language of the time and place he mentally inhabits: 1950s LA.

In other words, Powell is a fan, rather than a true critic

To what extent is this just schtick? Needless to say, Ellroy has never pandered to any bien-pensant notions of political correctness. At his best, he is an uncompromising, bullshit-calling, bullet-headed doyen of the intelligent American right. He is a moralistic Lutheran, a champion of police departments, a devotee of classical music and high literature, and a scourge of the prissy, morally bankrupt hypocrisy of the liberal left. At his most boorish, however, his “Dog” persona, accessorised with loud Hawaiian shirts, owlish spectacles and a nailbrush moustache, is an exercise in fascism as performance art. Powell hints that in private Ellroy is a calmer, kinder, more sensitive soul. We will have to take his word for it.

Painstakingly researched and occasionally revelatory, Love Me Fierce in Danger takes its title from a line in Ellroy’s White Jazz, though it is also the name of a short, typically obsessive love poem he wrote to Helen Knode, his second ex-wife and current partner. The book is billed by its publisher as “the first critical biography” of Ellroy. “Scholarly” might have been a better choice of adjective.

True, the book contains several passages of literary analysis. Yet if there is critique, there is little censure. Powell seldom offers more than mild reproof to Ellroy, no matter how badly his subject behaves. This is unsurprising. Powell has spent his career writing about Ellroy and plainly enjoys his access to the author. Like many people who have grown close to Ellroy over the years, Powell seems dazzled by “Dog’s” outsize personality, prodigious work ethic and monstrous talent.

In other words, he is a fan, rather than a true critic. Accordingly, Love Me Fierce in Danger reads as a book for other fans, initiated and inured to the World of Ellroy. There is room yet for a truly critical biography of the Demon Dog — but it won’t be this much fun.

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