Shooting at shadows

Almost four decades after his mother was murdered, American crime writer JAMES ELLROY is trying to find her killer. He tells Kathleen Morgan why this homicide is the stuff of television. Photograph by Chris Blott.

he self-elected demon dog of American crime fiction is standing in the grand setting of Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel. For someone about to have a gun pointed at his temple. he is remarkably calm.

It is a stunt one which tickles Ellroy’s dry sense of humour and his nose for publicity. The lumbering, 46-year-old writer is used to playing media games and if a photographer wants to shoot him at close range with a toy gun to his head. he’ll oblige. Ellroy is in Britain to promote his novel American Tabloid. a fast fusion of fantasy and reality tackling political corruption in the Kennedy era. But he is already talking about his next book. one which will probe depths far murkier for Ellroy than any of his novels. My Dark Places will chronicle the events leading to his mother’s murder and his own attempts to find the killer.

Ellroy’s preoccupation with sex and murder has been his trademark since he began writing crime fiction. From The Black Dahlia to The Big Nowhere. he has sold novels on the back of his personal history of petty crime and drug addiction and more recently, the murder of his mother, Geneva Ellroy. Today he is a reformed character. living with his second wife in an affluent suburb ofConnecticut. but he knows his past makes great copy.

‘I always try to emphasise I was never dangerous. I used to break into houses and sniff women’s underwear.

I look back on it and it’s funny.’

This time he says his motives go deeper than the desire to sell books. After 36 years. he wants to confront his mother’s memory and those events which led to her being strangled and dumped in bushes in a Los Angeles suburb. The investigation is no private matter. It began with a startling article by Ellroy in GQ magazine. published in Britain this month. in which he describes opening his mother’s homicide file and looking for the first time at pictures of the body.

In true Ellroy fashion. he invited television cameras to witness him viewing the file. which had collected dust with other unsolved cases in the LA county sheriff’s department. The end result is White Jazz. a documentary narrated by Ellroy. focusing on one of his darkest. most personal moments and of course. his new novel. Ellroy’s gravelly musings on sex. murder and his mother’s demise will launch Channel 4’s late night series The Red Light Zone on ll March.

Sinking into a sofa before contemplating a plateful of biscuits. Ellroy explains why he decided to confront the one murder case which none of his steely-jawed. low-life cop characters could solve. ‘When I saw the file I realised it wasn’t over.‘ he says. ‘I realised I wanted to know the woman. Seeing photos of her dead that‘s what did it. I regarded it as necessary.’ Barely hesitating. he adds: ‘I also saw it as an opportunity to write a great book.’

Ellroy was ten when he discovered his mother was dead. Caught between his divorced parents, he had just returned home after spending the weekend with his father. Almost immediately. he was surrounded by police and press. One bizarre newspaper photograph. taken minutes after he was told the news, shows Ellroy standing at a workbench. gazing stony-faced at the camera. He was beginning to discover his mother’s death could g‘t him attention even publicity.

Between promoting American Tabloid and White Jazz. the writer is devoting himself to pursuing his mother’s killer. He and retired LA policeman Bill Stoner are interviewing surviving witnesses and police and scrutinising official records. ‘trying to piece together what happened to my mother on the last day of her life’. Then he will write My Dark Places. which he describes as ‘my autobiography. my mother’s biography and Bill Stoner‘s biography’.

‘This is a book I was destined to write.’ he says between mouthfuls of biscuit. oblivious to the

celestial strummings of a harpist in the corner of

the Balmoral tearoom. ‘I don’t really expect any exorcisms unless I find the guy that killed my mother. It’s unlikely. Chances are the killer might be dead. I’m prepared to find him; I’m prepared not to find him.’

Ellroy has said that Geneva Ellroy would have appreciated him making money out of her murder. He admits she is still selling books for him. but insists it is his right to talk about her death. ‘l’m still doing that and I’ve been taken to task for it. but she’s my mother.’ he says adamantly. his impressive moustache bristling. ‘lt was the key eVent in my life in many ways. but it wasjust an event I exploited to sell books. Then I realised I was running away from it and decided to run towards the event.’

Ellroy is candid about the rocky relationship be had with his mother and admits he felt a mixture of relief and shock when she died. ‘I had an ambiguous relationship with her in her last days. I seized on her death as an opportunity I got to live with my father. who I always loved more.’

He had been preoccupied with his mother’s sexuality. even before the night she left an LA bar with a strange man. climbed into his car and went to her death. ‘I was sexually obsessed with her.’ he states unflinchingly. ‘I would follow her around and try to catch her naked. She had hit me once in the time preceding her death. I remember telling myself: “You’re not going to do that again.”’

‘I don’t have a family. I have a woman. That’s all I wanted - that and my ex-wife’s dog.’

In his adolescence. Ellroy flirted with crime and turned to drink and drugs, but he is reluctant to make the obvious connection between his mother’s murder and twelve rough years. ‘I can’t say I became an alcoholic and drug addict because my mother was murdered,’ he says. ‘I was no paragon of mental health before she was killed.’ He has never shied away from selling his past. but gets tired when it is exaggerated by the media. ‘I always try to emphasise l was never dangerous. I used to break into houses and sniff women’s underwear. 1 look back on it and it’s funny.’

After a string of crime novels spawned from the streets of LA. Ellroy had finally escaped from the city of his childhood with American Tabloid. The graphic down town sex-murder cases of his previous books are replaced by killings and tortures linked to espionage and political dirty dealings. The book is populated by heavyweights like John F. Kennedy. Jimmy Hoffa. Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover all are brought swiftly to their knees by Ellroy’s pen.

‘I haven’t lived in LA for thirteen years.’ he says. ‘I wanted to quit writing strict police books. I wanted to write books that were less psycho-sexually driven. I wanted to write an epic novel of America, 1958—63.’ ~

The investigation into Geneva Ellroy’s murder is taking him right back to the LA streets he had so wanted to leave behind. but he believes it is necessary. ‘I had been trying to explicate her death for a long time. I think I’m getting there.’ Outwith his very public crusade, he says he has everything he wants. apart from a mansion house in Kansas. ‘I don’t have a family. I have a woman. That’s all I wanted that and my ex- wife’s dog.’ 0

White Jazz kicks of Channel 4 's Red Light Zone series on Saturday I I Match. American Tabloid is published by Century at £l5. 99.

The List 2-1 Feb-I) Mar NOS 9