James Ellroy doesn’t do technology, so the crime fiction writer and self-described “demon dog of American literature” is on the phone—a landline—from his apartment in downtown Denver. “I’ve never used a computer for anything,” he says. “I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t know how to text message. I write my books by hand, and I write historical novels, and it all works.”
It’s worked for 40 years. In June, Knopf will release Widespread Panic, the latest in the 73-year-old author’s more-than-20-book oeuvre. That includes the L.A. Quartet, which spans 1946 to 1958 in Los Angeles and incorporates two of Ellroy’s most famous novels, The Black Dahlia—his breakout book in 1987—and L.A. Confidential; the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which starts with American Tabloid and covers the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.; and the Second L.A. Quartet, set during World War II, beginning with 2014’s Perfidia. According to Knopf, his books have sold a combined 2.5 million copies.
Ellroy has also written the 1997 memoir My Dark Places, reckoning with the still-unsolved murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, which took place when he was 10 years old, and the 2010 memoir The Hilliker Curse, about his childhood and his complex relationship with women. (On a related note, he got back together with his second ex-wife, author Helen Knode, in 2015, which is how the L.A.-born and -raised Ellroy ended up in Denver. “We figured out the smart thing to do was have two pads on the same floor,” he says. “She’s in 200, I’m in 208.”)
Ellroy came up with the idea for his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, in which an ex-LAPD cop turned private detective is hired by a caddy to keep tabs on his sister, in 1979 while working as a caddy at Bel Air Country Club. “My great love was crime fiction,” he says. “I was 30, not quite 31. I could tell you the date: It was Jan. 29, 1979. I said, ‘Hey God, please let me start this book tonight,’ and I did. I had a cheap hotel, the Westwood Hotel on Westwood Boulevard, and I had no desk, and I had pen and paper, and there you go. I never stopped. What surprised me at the get-go was that I had the sure feel for the craft that I had. I knew that I would succeed. I swear this is not a revised memory of any kind.”
Ellroy recalls that he used a Writers Market reference guide to find an agent, went with “the guy who sounded the most aggressive,” and sold the book to Avon for $3,500 minus commissions. “I paid back-rent, bought a cashmere sweater, bought a cheap car. I had a girlfriend, and we drove to Santa Barbara for the weekend. Then I was broke.”
Times may be different—at the very least, the advances have gone up—but in many ways, Ellroy is not. He gets around using email with the help of an assistant and a fax machine. He remains fascinated by the actor Lois Nettleton, who appeared in episodes of Naked City and The Fugitive that he watched at 13 and was “the pure voice of my adolescent loneliness transposed to an adult female.” (Nettleton appears in Widespread Panic, which is dedicated to her, and Ellroy has flowers sent to her grave each year on her birthday.)
Ellroy loves old cars and midcentury modern furniture and “will watch any crummy film noir on TV just to see shots of L.A. as it really looked in 1951—the architecture, the clothes, everything else,” he says. “I live in the past. One can make the point—it’s been made before, I’ve made it myself—that my life is freeze-framed at the time of my mother’s death, which was 1958.”
In Widespread Panic, Ellroy again returns to that time, spinning a fictionalized story about the real-life Fred Otash, a former L.A. police officer who became a private investigator and “the head strong-armed goon for Confidential magazine,” a celebrity scandal rag that he helped fill with gossip. There is a brief glance at 2020, though: Otash, stuck in purgatory for 28 years since his death in 1992, has been offered a way out by telling all. “There’s Heaven for the good folks, Hell for the beastfully baaaaaad,” Otash explains. “There’s Purgatory for guys like me—caustic cads that capitalized on a sicko system and caused catastrophe.... Baby, it’s time to CONFESS.” Whether he succeeds or not ends up less a focus than what landed him in purgatory and the demons he continues to struggle with.
In 2012, the online publisher Byliner released the novella Shakedown, the original version of the first section of what became Widespread Panic. “I realized I could compress, paradoxically expand, enhance, delete the action of Shakedown... and follow it up with two longer novellas—hence, I would have a novel,” Ellroy says. He wrote the remaining two parts, “Perv Dog” and “Gonesville,” last summer, giving Otash and real-life characters such as James Dean, John F. Kennedy, and Rebel Without a Cause director Nick Ray the classic Ellroy treatment—a kind of hyper-stylization combining myth and truth.
It’s a “wiiiiild riiiiide full of laffs,” as Ellroy might write, as well as darkness and despair and sex and murder; it’s a commentary about love, women and men, and the troubled essence of human nature. Otash is “just ripped in half by his desire to do good and his desire to roll around in the dirt of the human condition,” says Ellroy, who describes the novel as “satire, parody, a big riff on this male figure at midcentury. If you look at the rhythm of it, it’s just rollicking. It’s my fondest book: Otash and his ridiculous adventures with these various women, with the imposition of violence in the middle of it. I just laughed my ass off when I wrote it.”
But going back and revising history fulfills a very deep need, Ellroy says, growing more serious. “Memory lives and relives. It incubates. It re-incubates. It mutates. It assumes different forms continually in my mind.”
In the wake of his mother’s death, Ellroy remembers thinking that there was some other world that adults weren’t telling him about. “That this crime, my mother’s death, went unsolved, and in every fictional depiction of the time, movies, television, books, you always get the killer... No, not really.”
Yet in his books, Ellroy gets what he wants. So in Widespread Panic, Otash becomes a great detective: “He knows how to go into a place and roll fingerprints. Give him an evidence kit, he can go and he can run this test and that test.” He even gets a soul.
Whether Otash can be saved remains to be seen—“If worst comes to worst, he’ll just hit you over the head with a phone book”—but Ellroy is already working on another book about him.
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).