Wednesday, January 05, 2011

James Ellroy Shows Us a Slice of Notorious Los Angeles

"I'm going to tell you motherf**ers how it is," James Ellroy says, shaking our hands as he walks up and down the bus.

Investigation Discovery has invited reporters on a bus tour of a handful of classic L.A. crime scenes. That's cool -- but the real draw is Ellroy, who's on board to narrate the ride in his unique, alliterative style.

While we find our seats and grab box lunches, Ellroy glides to the front of the bus and whips out a rat-a-tat-tat mix of acerbic observations and insight into the seedy underbelly of 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles.

"I've written 18 books, masterpieces all," he quips. (This is apparently one of his standard lines.) "They're books for the whole f**king family -- if the name of your family is Manson."

Ellroy, whose books include the classic L.A. tales "The Black Dahlia" (his take on the Elizabeth Short murder) and "L.A. Confidential" (later turned into the critically acclaimed film), can't resist tossing off lines about crack dens, perverts, trailer trash and hippies. He loves the LAPD -- but the William Parker-era authoritative LAPD.

"I live, breathe, ooze and sweat crime," he tells us. "I have followed the muse of crime for over 50 years." And indeed, Ellroy famously first found himself at the center of that world in 1958, when his mother was sexually assaulted and strangled.

"There was a secret pervert republic in Los Angeles, and I was a collateral victim," says Ellroy, whose mother's killer was never found -- just like Elizabeth Short, "The Black Dahlia." Ellroy's 1987 novel "The Black Dahlia" explored that crime, which Ellroy believes will never be solved.

"There was no LAPD coverup, and the books (purporting to have solved the crime) are bulls#!t," he says. "Elizabeth Short's killer is entirely irrelevant... (what matters is) the nature of misogynistic violence and the question of what moves men to such horrible rage."

The death of Ellroy's mother, Jean Hilliker, and the Black Dahlia case are a large part of episode one of "James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons." The show, which premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. on Investigation Discovery, also recounts Ellroy's 1994 re-investigation of his mother's killer, along with retired detective Bill Stoner (they ultimately came up with no answers). The hour, dubbed "Dead Women Own Me," also touches on the 2009 murder in downtown of 16-year-old Lily Burk. Ellroy is friends with Burk's parents.

Future episodes will touch on the scandal rags of the 1950s and 1960s, and their relationship to the death of Lana Turner's lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, at the hands of Lana's daughter. (That's Ellroy above at the scene of that crime.) Another episode focuses on serial killers like the Hillside Strangler. The recent murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen will also be addressed.

"James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons" comes out of Ellroy's relationship with Investigation Discovery execs -- many of whom, including boss Henry Schleiff, once oversaw Court TV. (Ellroy was a frequent presence on the channel.) Ellroy has been given plenty of creative leeway on the new show -- so much that "City of Demons" even stars a computer animated tough, corrupt crime dog -- "Barko" -- as Ellroy's sidekick.

Back to the bus ride: Ultimately, much of the time is spent driving from Pasadena (where the TV Critics Assn. press tour is being held) to Beverly Hills -- but Ellroy is talking, answering questions and discussing crime the entire time. The group ultimately made stops in Beverly Hills where Stompanato was killed, among other stops.

Ellroy grew up in Los Angeles, which he says offers up "the grooviest motherf**king crime on God's green motherf**king earth."

"There's only one city to build a crime show around. And one host to tell you the story," he added. But as an adult he's spent much time away from the city.

"I come back to L.A. at off intervals, usually when women divorce me," says the twice-divorced Ellroy. He's been back and in a relationship with author Erika Schickel.

But L.A. has changed greatly since his childhood -- and Ellroy said he's ill-equipped to write about the modern city, which is why he focuses on period pieces.

"It's not my L.A. anymore," he says, noting that he doesn't keep up with popular culture, and wouldn't know how to characterize today's multicultural city, or the modern, computerized era of policing. "I'm not interested in the world as it is today. I'm computer illiterate, I don't watch TV, I don't go to movies and I don't have a cell phone. I avoid culture in all forms."

For his next book, Ellroy plans to set a story in Los Angeles during the 1941 month leading up to the Pearl Harbor bombing.

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