We Talked to the Godfather of Crime Fiction, James Ellroy, About the Bygone Days of the LAPD
The noir author chatted with us about "the perv zone of greater LA" and why he wishes it could be 1953 again.
James Ellroy has a habit of introducing himself as "the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick"—which must be time-consuming at parties.
The 67-year-old is the author of more than a dozen novels—including LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia—which put him in serious contention to be considered the greatest living crime writer of our time. He's also a scholar—and a fierce defender—of the LAPD.
His latest work, LAPD '53, is a nonfiction collaboration with Glynn Martin of the Los Angeles Police Museum. The pair had planned a photographic history of the force but, having combed the archives, they realized that 1953 alone provided enough disquieting crime scene photography and lurid stories to fill their book. As he tells the story of each of the featured crimes, Ellroy's prose is wildly entertaining and frequently hilarious, full of wisecracks and hepcat affectations.
However, the book is also shot through with what he calls his "reactionary nostalgia": his unshakeable belief that America's current ills could be solved by returning to the social conservatism of the 1950s.
We called up Ellroy at the Los Angeles Police Museum where the author, who speaks with the same shit-talking, machine-gun wit as his characters, was in pugnacious form. We asked him whether poring over 60-year-old photos of mutilated corpses got his creative juices flowing, whether LA is still a "perv zone," and if he really thinks that the American police can go on without reform after the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others.
VICE: LAPD '53 is full of tales of violence, debauchery, and death. What was it about Los Angeles in 1953 that meant it birthed so many of these stories?
James Ellroy: LA is a city that has attracted émigrés from all corners of America and around the world. It's a repository for—well, someone once called it the land of fruits and nuts. It's a crazy place. LA is slightly tipped off the axis of planet Earth because there are so damn many people here who want to be somebody else.
There's a storied LA lunacy. It's also a very big, very good-looking place. In 1953 you had the movie biz, so you had studios with police forces, and studio abortionists, and studio-sanctioned dope dealers, a lot of hophead jazz musicians. You had the scandal rags like Confidential, Hush-Hush, and Whisper. You had Dragnet, which was the propaganda arm of LAPD. Jack Webb [who played Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet] was a good friend of LAPD chief William H. Parker. It was all shaking here in LA. Really, I got lucky that my parents hatched me here.
One of the most striking early images in the book is of a man who's hanged himself using a system of pulleys, weights, and chains while wearing a woman's swimsuit, bathing cap, and white boots. It seems like a quintessentially LA mode of suicide.
Yeah, that actually happened in Laurel Canyon, which is the perv zone within the perv zone of Hollywood, within the perv zone of greater LA.
Is LA still a perv zone?
Yeah, it's still a perv zone, but it's not a perv zone I recognize anymore or find any way to engage in. I was five years old in 1953, so I wasn't seeing much of anything, but I live in my imagination as far as LA and the Los Angeles Police Department goes. I don't dig the LA that I see anymore.
Why not? Do you want to see society become more authoritarian, or less?
Oh, I always want more authority, brother. Let's take care of that one right now. LA today is too explicit. There are too many people. There are too many cars. There are too many people walking down the street checking their text messages or their emails. There's a giant safe-sex billboard a couple of blocks from where I live with a picture of a condom with the words "Why worry?" emblazoned on it. That's too explicit for me.
Did you have a personal favorite of the stories in LAPD '53?
The Mabel Monohan case [the murder of a 64-year-old widow who was thought to be sitting on a fortune in cash]. I went into that in great detail. LAPD assisted on that case, but it was actually a crime from Burbank, an LA suburb which has its own police department. It was made into a ridiculous anti-capital-punishment weeper called I Want To Live! with Susan Hayward, directed by Robert Wise, in 1958. It's got a great jazz soundtrack by Gerry Mulligan, the king of the baritone sax. It's a real hophead soundtrack. It made me want to shoot up.
What was it about that case that made it stand out?
The viciousness of it. They beat an old woman to death for a stash of $100,000 that never really existed. It was also the fact that the two killers, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins, had killed six people up in Sacramento County, including an entire family: a grocer, his wife, and two of his children. Barbara Graham, Jack Santo, and Emmett Perkins were all sent to the gas chamber in '55.
In the past couple of years we've seen incident after incident where the actions of American police officers have served to increase social tension and unrest. Does the American police need to be reformed?
I don't think the police need to be reformed.
No, I don't believe the police need to be reformed right now.
OK, but let me ask you this: In the book you write: "If crime rates are higher in Negro and Mexican enclaves, those indigenous populations will sustain the highest level of interdiction. Said interdiction will provide for a greater degree of safety for the law-abiding majorities of those enclaves. If this creates a sense of persecution, too bad. Crime is a continuing circumstance. Crime is individual moral forfeit on an epidemic scale. The root causes do not apply. Your right to hit your neighbor ends where his nose begins. Your shitty childhood and the established facts of historical racism do not mean shit." Isn't that exactly the attitude that's causing rioting across America?
Let's hold on here. I'm not going to comment about anything pertaining to America or police work in America right now. As far as I'm concerned, it's 1953 exclusively. When I drive around and look out the window I see 2015 LA—and I don't like it. I wasn't cognizant of anything very much outside of my crib in 1953, but if I could hop in a time machine back to '53 and live then, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
One of the stories you tell in the book is about a man named Edward Gonzalez, who was shot and killed while running from police after being caught in possession of heroin. You write: "It was an in and out, clean caper. It's 1953. That was Then. The world was cleaner than it is Now. A minor dope bust, a single shot fired." Do you seriously think that's a good way to police society?
Well, he ran, and they nailed his ass. Brother, if you live freaky, you die freaky.
You write that part of the appeal of looking at these photos is that it "allows us to time travel. We're back in a less circumspect time, constrained by rigid laws that we believe in but violate with a wink. Booze and tobacco are not yet demonized." Don't you think it's good if individuals in 1953 were trusted to live their own lives?
There is that, but I would caution everyone not to drink alcohol or to smoke cigarettes or to use drugs. We were heavily sanctioned, at that time, not to do it. I think it would be a good thing to reassert those messages.
You mentioned LAPD chief William H. Parker earlier, and he's a key figure in the book. Why was he so important?
I love William H. Parker. He was the hero of my most recent novel, Perfidia, but I also wanted to write an ode to him in essay form and talk about his town way back when. And I did. He was a man of titanic paradox, but he was a great reformer. He put LAPD under strict civil service guidelines. He stamped out monetary corruption. He made the LAPD a very, very exclusive club of extremely well-qualified young men.
Have you used crime scenes photos before to help you research books like The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, or LA Confidential?
No, this had nothing to do with my fiction. I either hire researchers to compile fact sheets and chronology, or I make it up flat-out. This was entirely different. This was extensive photo research to get the best photos and the facts surrounding them.
You've developed a unique narrative voice over the years, one that now seems as much a part of 50s LA as bebop music or film noir. In LAPD '53 it seems even more pronounced than usual.
This book is an extremely shortened, tightened, and inflammatory version of my style. In my last few novels I've relaxed the grip on that considerably. I don't like bebop, but it's a cohort of film noir and thus of the photographs we have in this book. I don't listen to music while I write, but I love the American idiom. I love the English language. I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love Yiddish. I love black hepcat hipster jazz patois. I love all that shit.
Were there any stories you came across while researching this book that you could see making their way into a future novel?
No. I wrote LAPD '53 because in the process of putting together these photographs from 1953 it elicited the opportunity to praise William H. Parker, and to honor him, three years into his illustrious stewardship of the LAPD. Also, the photographs themselves are just so damn beautiful.
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