Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy by Steven Powell

Some writers expand as they develop; others deepen. James Ellroy—the self-proclaimed “Demon Dog” of American crime fiction, the author of sprawling epics such as L.A. Confidential, The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy, and an accumulating series of half-fantastical exposés of corruption in golden-age Hollywood (The Enchanters, the latest in this series, is due out in September)—is superficially a writer who expands, but fundamentally one who deepens.

When the late Mike Davis, the Marxist urban historian and activist, once chastised Ellroy for producing “his ‘post-Noir’ potboilers in a basement office in Eastchester, New York—3,000 miles from the scene of the crime,” he stated what should have been obvious: the Los Angeles of Ellroy’s novels is a map of his own mind, in which he hunts for the hidden wellsprings.

Today, Ellroy is based in Denver, where he moved in 2015 after re-uniting with his ex-(second) wife, Helen Knode, but his obsessions—bad white men and dead white women—remains the same. Racism, in his novels set in 1940s and 1950s L.A., is both a root cause and an ambience, defining the structure of the city and the texture of its language.

Ellroy has not been averse to exporting elements of that texture into his outrageous public persona, to shocking but also titillating effect. Lanky and bespectacled, with a cop’s mustache and a flair for Hawaiian shirts, he cut a figure on the book-tour-and-TV circuit with profane and vaguely right-wing alliterative monologues—though delivered with an ironical air that led many to feel, as Helen Knode once told him, that his “politics are a complete joke and I don’t take them seriously and nobody should.”

When a writer’s life has been as “mythologized, demythologized, and re-methylogized in the public eye, not least by the author himself,” as Ellroy’s has, it raises an obvious problem for the biographer: how not to get scooped by your source. Steven Powell, the U.K.-based critic and Ellroy scholar who wrote those words, knows that challenge all too well.

A 1947 L.A.P.D. Special Daily Police Bulletin asking for information on the murder of Elizabeth Short, known as “the Black Dahlia,” which inspired Ellroy’s 1987 novel.

Love Me Fierce in Danger, the first full-length biography of James Ellroy, is the product of dogged archival research, broad reading, and extensive interviews with Ellroy’s current and former associates, friends, and lovers. But it has trouble stepping out of its subject’s shadow.

Powell has not been averse to a little mythologizing of his own. Unfortunately, there is no sense in claiming, as he does, that “Ellroy’s life is the great untold story of American literature.” Equally dubious is Powell’s assertion that Ellroy “is not introspective,” a claim that any reader who has made their way through the lacerating self-exposure of My Dark Places (1996) or its lesser sequel, 2010’s The Hilliker Curse, will find preposterous—unless a life so violently turned inside out no longer counts as “internal.”

Love Me Fierce in Danger contains much that is scandalous but little that its subject has not already advertised. His performative high-school Nazism, his first sexual explorations with another boy (ending with a Giovanni’s Room–esque cold shoulder and purgatorial fistfight), his voyeurism and fetishistic burglary, the psycho act that bounced him out of the army before he could be sent to the Vietnam War, his life on the streets, his addictions to alcohol and Benzedrex (and his sobriety—mostly successfully maintained—since joining A.A., in 1977): all of these have been told, and more probingly, by Ellroy himself.

Powell also follows Ellroy’s lead in tracing his life’s arc: how the child of a murdered mother (Jean Hilliker Ellroy, found strangled to death in El Monte, California, on June 22, 1958) developed a fixation on the 1947 torture-murder and post-mortem mutilation of Elizabeth Short, whom he later made the subject of his 1987 masterpiece, The Black Dahlia. Dedicated to his mother, it was the first time Ellroy had “taken public” the lost object of desire he would pursue through ever more wildly romantic books and innumerable human avatars, the women he charmed and loved and then soured on and dumped, or goaded into dumping him.

But Powell’s originality lies less in probing Ellroy’s deep origins than in how he places the author’s feet squarely on the ground, tracking the at times halting progress by which Ellroy, who by his 29th birthday had yet to write a word of his future oeuvre, made his ascent in the literary world.

Esteem preceded fame; wealth followed both. Golf caddying sustained Ellroy not just through his early writing in L.A., but up to and even after 1981’s Brown’s Requiem made him a published author. (Proximity to the local courses was a crucial factor in his selection of Eastchester, New York, as his beachhead for storming the city.)

But if Ellroy might not be fundamentally “a businessman” (as one burned ex-associate claims), Powell shows him to be a canny operator, unafraid, when he knew The Black Dahlia was the big one, to invest his own fee and cajole his publisher into matching it, thereby increasing his publicity budget fivefold and putting himself on the path to literary stardom.

At work in Hollywood, 2014. Ellroy does not own a computer and writes all of his books by hand.

Not that Ellroy’s literary New York was all business. He is a canny operator, yes, but also a courteous interlocutor and (to a select few) a steadfast friend. Vivid portraits of the late Knopf editor Sonny Mehta, the legendary book-cover designer (and fellow comic-book fan) Chip Kidd, and the science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany show the breadth and depth of his connections with other writers—two of whom, Erika Schickel and Helen Knode, he loved.

Indeed, it is Ellroy’s women who stand out in Powell’s book—not his dead, that is, but the large number who are very much alive. About Ellroy’s “voracious appetite for women,” Powell does not mince words, and neither do they. Ex-lovers’ testimony yields its expected share of shocking behavior and petty cruelties, though few of those quoted here speak of Ellroy without also conveying an enduring esteem. One thing is clear: Ellroy has always portrayed himself as attracted to strong women, and nothing here challenges that assertion.

On Ellroy the man, Powell is circumspect, if not immune to his subject’s charisma. (His title, after all—the final line of Ellroy’s 1992 novel, White Jazz—reproduces a lover’s command.) On Ellroy the writer, he is quietly superb, as confident on his symbolism as his plots, whose thickets he cuts through with aplomb.

For all that, you can’t help feeling something superfluous in the enterprise—and not just because its endnotes, drawing heavily on Ellroy’s own memoirs, read like an explosion of “ibids.” A writer’s life, even one as full of incident as Ellroy’s, is inherently un-novelistic. Picturesque scenes—like the not-quite-youthful Ellroy scribbling his first novel standing up at a dresser in his rooming house, or else propped on a park bench or in the caddy’s room at the golf course—do not get at its full truth.

Art as wild and intricate as Ellroy’s is the product of discipline and secrecy, for which the barking public persona can only be a mask. Such art’s secrets lie open to the reader and critic, but are not to be simply lifted off, like a fingerprint, from the surface of the life. At best, Love Me Fierce in Danger might achieve what Ellroy has long complained that film adaptations of his work have not: leading the reader back to his printed words.

Paul Franz is a writer for The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books, among others