Love him or loathe him, it is impossible to ignore James Ellroy’s impact on crime fiction. Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy, by Steven Powell, makes a good case for the historical significance of his influence, not just on the crime genre but literature more generally. The first biography of one of America’s most controversial contemporary crime writers, researched and written with his full cooperation, Love Me Fierce in Danger also contributes a wealth of material and insight into Ellroy’s private life and personal struggles. I am tempted to say that it includes far more detail than I wanted to know. But that that would be a complete lie. I wanted to know it all, as I am damn sure many of you do, too.
Love Me Fierce In Danger is a substantial work of literary scholarship. Powell, who has written two previous critical works on Ellroy, interrogates in detail what has effectively been the three writing careers of Ellroy: his published fiction and non-fiction books, his script writing work for Hollywood – which is far more substantial than I had realised – and his work as a columnist for GQ magazine in the 1990s, which in itself was quite significant.
The exploration of Ellroy’s career is supplemented by detail and insight into Ellroy the person, based on conversations with the man himself, and friends and colleagues. And because Ellroy is a bullshit artist par excellence, and it has been hard in the past to take anything he says at face value, it is great to have the detail of his life so rigorously backgrounded and fact checked.
It is all here: the lives of his parents, including the Hollywood activities of Ellroy’s bottom feeding father, Armand, who if he did not sleep Rita Hayworth, as he was want to claim, certainly had a professional engagement of sorts with her; the full extent of Ellroy’s criminal life in 1960s Los Angeles, when he was mostly homeless and had a major problem with drugs and alcohol; and his personal and sex life, including his pursuit and treatment of women which, by his own admission, sometimes borders on harassment (even if many of the women concerned still remember him fondly).
You should read the book and form your own opinion. For me, the picture of Ellroy that emerges from the pages of Love Me Fierce in Danger is of an enormously talented and driven writer, with a massive capacity for work, which at one point resulted in a nervous breakdown. In no way to take away from this, Ellroy also received far more chances to make it than many early career writers have had in the current publishing environment. A particular constellation of factors in publishing and movie making in the 1980s and 1990s, favoured Ellroy and he took full advantage of them. Ellroy has many positive personal characteristics. He can also be cruel, rude, petty, egotistical, and mercenary. His politics veer right. His racial politics are pretty suss and reading between the lines it seems fairly likely that Ellroy voted for Trump in 2016 (although later disavowed him).
Unfairly perhaps, for me the only insight lacking from Love Me Fierce in Danger is why Ellroy chose to go full steam ahead with the public disclosure on his life now. Did he just feel the time was right or is there another agenda at play? Because, as the book makes clear, Ellroy hardly ever does something without a long term strategy. I would also have liked to see Powell devote more space in the book to what I think is one of the most important debates arising out of Ellroy’s work, the question of verisimilitude in historical crime fiction.
Powell neither condemns nor justifies Ellroy’s faults, but rightly sees his job as being to provide as full a purview of Ellroy the writer and person as possible. As Joe Friday said in Dragnet, “Just the facts ma’am”. It doesn’t really matter because, even if it was Powell’s intention to be critical, Ellroy is simply too big and too influential to cancel. The reality is that The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential and American Tabloid blew a giant hole in the middle of what we all thought crime fiction could be, a hole through which many writers are still scrambling today. Love Me Fierce in Danger is a must read for fans and scholars of contemporary American crime fiction. If you need any further convincing, I did a lengthy interview with Powell for the US site CrimeReads, which you can read in full here.