James Ellroy: ‘I live in Los Angeles in 1942’

In This Storm the writer returns to the times, places and themes closest to his heart

I haven’t met James Ellroy since 2014. He looks about the same: tall, rangy, quick-moving and in good shape even if the polo shirt is hanging a little looser five years on. He’s here to promote This Storm, the second novel of his second LA Quartet. There’s a big handshake. He has a reputation for being intimidating, but what intimidates about Ellroy when you get down to it is not the on-stage persona but the acuity of the mind, the ability to range over historical and psychic landscapes, the synapses firing, the connections being made. You need to keep up. He’s concerned with “the secret human infrastructure of very large events”. You need to be awake.

Ellroy’s the self-styled Demon Dog, the Perfidious One. One-time golf caddy turned big-noise crime writer. The first LA Quartet was publishing dynamite. The film version of LA Confidential starred Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey (“well, we all know how that turned out”). He hates the adaptation, scorns the actors, apart from Danny de Vito as Hollywood sleaze-peddler Sid Hudgens, but he pocketed the dough, kept writing, refining his trademark quick-fire telegrammatic style, hotwiring the reader into the demon spaces of his own mind.

The title of the book is a suborned quote from WH Auden. I try to draw him out on the writing, the literary sensibility, the way the writing careens through low-life shakedown, high-end graft, the characters “libidinised to a very large scale”, yet still retains a lyric undertow. It’s the undertow that I’m looking for. You can’t write as well as Ellroy does without it. But he doesn’t go for those questions. He’s here to talk about This Storm, and he does.

There were a lot of parties going on, and there is really a party atmosphere in this book. Everybody wants sex. Everybody wants booze. They want to dance, they want to howl because they're scared

The book is set in Los Angeles. It’s 1942, the aftermath of Pearl Harbour and the city is lost and radiant. The Japanese could do to LA what they did to Hawaii. Japanese residents are being rounded up and interned. Social restraints loosened by imminent apocalypse. “The party scenes in these two books are there because I read through the papers for the month of December ’41. I just had to. Beyond the research I usually pay for. There’s a great deal of coverage of local nightspots... I mean people were scared, I mean the Japs could bomb... there were a lot of parties going on and there is really a party atmosphere in this book. Everybody wants sex. Everybody wants booze. They want to dance, they want to howl because they’re scared.”

The plot involves Nazi gold, slave labour, Japanese submarines, the Griffith Park fire. It feels like mid-20th century American baroque, cartoonish, overblown. But underneath there’s a hard-bitten narrative, steeltrap in its rhythms and outcomes.

Halfway through the interview, Ellroy leans across, tells me how the public interview we’re doing later that evening is going to go. “You introduce me to the audience, I’ll come out, read Fr Coughlin’s radio sermon, hit ’em in the nuts.” Fr Charles Coughlin is a race-baiter, Jew hater, and his inflammatory radio sermons transmitted from Tijuana kick off the book. It’s a good way into the political ferment of the city in early 1942, the sin-driven burlesque of Falangists, Sinarquistas, Socialists, Redshirt goon squads, American ultras on the rampage.

He is more sold on this era than any other. He has no interest, he says, in politics. He doesn’t own a television or a mobile phone. “I live in Los Angeles in 1942.”

The monstrous Irish cop Dudley Smith who dominates the first quartet is building his vile edifice of corruption and death. Dudley was, by Ellroy’s telling, “plugging Black and Tans in Grafton Street” during the War of Independence. Now he’s after Nazi gold. He’s running prostitutes and slave labour. He takes a shine to the Nazi aesthetic. It was common enough. “There were black Nazis and white Nazis. There was the Negro Nazi League.”

Dudley’s in the foreground but there’s a backdrop of characters we’ve come across before. This second LA quartet predates the first, so we’re meeting younger versions of those people. There’s William Parker, Buzz Meeks, Sergeant Dick Carlile. And then there’s Kay Lake, the young socialite whose diary anchors the second quartet. The other women come and go but “Kay owns me”, Ellroy says.

New characters are worked into the narrative. Joan Conville, an Ellroy female, both knowing and hapless. She’s an army officer, a forensic scientist, and her tanked-up head-on with a carload of Mexican hoodlums sets the narrative ablaze. Like much in Ellroy, something simultaneously slapstick and ghastly running through the incident.

“Joan Conville? Six-foot redhead based on my mother, why mince words?”

Ellroy's mother was found murdered in a parked car in a lovers' lane when he was 10. He had wished her dead. And then when she died he believed that his wish had come true and he carried the guilt of that for a long time

Ellroy’s mother, Jean Hilliker. The story has been told before. Hilliker was found murdered in a parked car in a lovers’ lane when Ellroy was 10. Three months before her death she sat him down, and asked him whether he wanted to live with his father or with her. When he said he wanted to go with his father, she hit him. She was half-juiced, he says, and after she hit him for a second time he wished her dead. And then when she died he believed that his wish had come true and he carried the guilt of that for a long time.

Jean Hilliker leads on to Elizabeth Short, found murdered and mutilated in Leimert Park, Los Angeles in 1947, subject of Ellroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia. “My American editor asked me not to put her in, but I did.” The psychic correspondences between Beth Short and his mother still playing out in a minor key. The Black Dahlia is a distant, ghostly figure in This Storm. Is she still in the frame for the rest of the quartet?

“No,” he says, looking past me. “Gone. Gone. Gone.” And you wonder what spirit baggage she has taken with her.

Real and invented characters are stitched through the text. Count Basie sings for the cops’ new year’s party. Alliterative offence is given – Lotte Lenya is a “loin lapping lesbo”. Orson Welles is kicked in the crotch. Ellroy doesn’t like Welles or Citizen Kane. “I put the hurt on him...what is this f***ing shit about a child’s sledge?” We get Barbara “Butch” Stanwyck. The aviator and eugenicist Charles Lindbergh fares better. “He just wanted to make better people.” Real-life cop Elmer Jackson and his girlfriend Brenda Allen get credit for inventing the concept of the call girl. “You pick up the phone and you call.”

We get talking about method, the effect of Kay Lake’s diary running through the first two books of the quartet. With The Cold Six Thousand in 2010 he’d run up against the stylistic buffers, the telegrammatic sentences pushed to the brink of comprehension, the reader left out in the cold.

“After The Cold Six Thousand I realised I took that abbreviated style as far as it could. I realised I had to expand. With Blood’s A Rover, the next novel, I started mixing it because you had a lot of characters, you know, and the characters were very concerned with attributing meaning and you needed greater access to their thoughts and their emotional lives so I expanded the text more. With the next book, Perfidia, there are three viewpoints, alleviated and differentiated by Kay Lake’s diary which is completely different and fully fleshed out and written by a young woman.”

She is the most vivid of Ellroy’s women, cosmopolitan and thoughtful, in his eyes the most desirous. But the Kay diary entries are technically useful as well. The action is observed and reprised for the reader. Connections are strengthened. The eye gets a rest. “Yes,” Ellroy says, “but you have to layer it in, succinctly, artfully.”

There’s a relentlessness to the man and to the work. You can’t help liking it. When you’re out there on a limb in an Ellroy sentence, half-choked in blood and menace and sexual excess, you know that Ellroy is out there with you, sharing the risk, pushing the prose as far as it can go, pushing the reader and if it’s a kind of depraved urging you know that you’re there on Ellroy’s terms and it is, in some reprobate way, heartfelt.

Later that evening I'm still picking round the edges, trying to get beyond the shtick. We're sitting in a basement room waiting to go on stage. Earlier on he's been talking about how he lays out the books. There's a treatment 350-400 page long. The plot, the structure, everything documented, detailed. Then he starts to write, starts to "live improvisationally within the original scene". It is an elegant, worked sentence and I start to realise why it is hard to get behind the persona – it's because the whole thing is crafted, from the plotted outline to the upcoming performance of Fr Coughlan's depraved sermon, to the considered aesthetic of that sentence, Ellroy all the way through, everything done well, nothing left to chance. He isn't hiding behind the performance. He is the performance. He demands that the whole thing work, from the first complex charting of his story to the length of the signing queue.

He's up on stage. Vintage Ellroy. The stance is crotch out, torso tilted back. He's sermonising Fr Coughlan, chanting the rogue priest's vile radio sermon

In the end I get something of what I’m looking for unexpectedly. We’re still waiting behind the scenes and American poet Anne Sexton’s name comes up. I’m trying to remember a line from one of her poems, get as far as a word or two and he cuts in. “The poem’s called With Mercy for the Greedy.” The stage manager calls me on stage. I get up to go. Behind me Ellroy completes the quotation: “...what poems are, with mercy for the greedy, they are the tongue’s wrangle, the world’s pottage, the rat’s star”.

What I was waiting for. The man who takes titles from Housman and Auden. Who works Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi into tales of dead-eyed cops and human trafficking, of lustful men and corrupt women.

Five minutes later he’s up on stage. Vintage Ellroy. The stance is crotch out, torso tilted back. He’s sermonising Fr Coughlan, chanting the rogue priest’s vile radio sermon: ...the rape-happy Russian Reds against the more sincerely simpático Nazis... He’s wolf-howling into the microphone. We had been talking age earlier. “Try fucking 71, Eoin,” he says. Kay Lake comes to mind. This Storm is prefaced with her words as she looks back from old age.

“Reminscenza. Improvisation spawns recollection. Words and music sustain me and forge my repudiation of death. I will not die as long as I live this story.”

You start to wonder who is talking.

He has said of This Storm that “I am enhancing the style of the book to fit a more wholesome view of humanity”. You’re in the wrong place if you’re looking for wholesome, truth be told. Everyone in Ellroy feels weighed in Dudley Smith’s calculating gaze and found wanting. You have to look to the increments for salvation. When a key character dies, Kay Lake regrets not their death, but the fact that they have been deprived of the possibility of atonement. It’s mercy for the greedy, no way back and about as much redemption as you’re entitled to.

Eoin McNamee’s latest novel is The Vogue; This Storm is published by Heinemann