What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy

Field-Tested by Ron Hogan

in Newport, Rhode Island

I discovered James Ellroy the summer after my junior year of college, when I was working for my uncle in Rhode Island, the way I’d done every summer since graduating high school. I lived in the basement of my grandparents’ home, had virtually no contact with people my own age for months at a stretch, and spent most of my free time either watching movies or reading. I found a copy of The Black Dahlia in a Waldenbooks and bought it because I had heard about the unsolved 1947 murder on which it was based (I was already an eager student of both the glittering and seamy sides of golden age Hollywood history). Remember, this was just a few months after Rodney King had been pulled over and beaten senseless by LAPD officers, and here I was reading a novel written at least five years earlier, an unflinching portrait of a world of obsession and perversion that revealed the decades of brutal institutionalized racism behind the beating.

I immediately grabbed The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential, which were even better. The things Ellroy was doing with language were simply astounding. He was developing a fevered shorthand that often abandoned nouns and verbs, feverish entries in a homicide investigation notebook jumbled together with newspaper clippings, and internal LAPD memos. Soon after I moved to Los Angeles for film school in 1992, Ellroy published the final book in his "L.A. Quartet," White Jazz, and I convinced my friends that we had to go see him read at a mystery bookstore on the Venice boardwalk (he was being followed around by a German camera crew working on a documentary called James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction; if you know where to look during that scene, you can just make out the back of my head). I hadn’t planned on buying a book — hardcovers were usually way beyond what my budget would allow — but I couldn’t wait a year to read this.

Three years later, I was done with film school, working at a bookstore in Brentwood (less than a mile from the condo where Nicole Simpson was murdered, which I walked past on the way to work and coming home), and counting down the days until American Tabloid arrived. I was just starting out as a freelance writer, so when an editor at a magazine in San Francisco asked me if there was anybody I wanted to interview, I immediately pitched Ellroy. I got everything set up, and then, a few hours before we were supposed to meet, the editor called me to let me know that his publisher had just called the staff together and pulled the plug on the magazine.

And that’s when I decided to turn Beatrice.com into a website for author interviews, which set me on the path to Amazon, and eventually to blogging, and then to my own book about Hollywood. So I guess you could say that I owe whatever reputation I enjoy in the literary world to The Black Dahlia. I wish I had a great story to tell you about arriving in Los Angeles and visiting the site where her body was discovered — but the fact of the matter is that I never felt that I had any right to intrude there. Well, honestly, I was afraid. As I would eventually find out, walking down Bundy at night was creepy enough. It’s not that I believe in ghosts, but sometimes things have a way of taking hold in your thought processes. As it is, I hadn’t thought about The Black Dahlia for years before trying to come up with something to write for this essay. And I’m okay with that.

Ron Hogan created Beatrice in 1995, making it one of the oldest continuously running literary websites on the Internet. He also writes about the business side of publishing at GalleyCat. He is the author of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, a visual tribute to ’70s Hollywood, and contributed to the New York Times bestseller, Not Quite What I Was Planning. He has published an e-book of his "translation" of the Tao Te Ching that is downloaded by more than 25,000 readers a year in various formats.

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