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'James Ellroy's L.A.: City of Demons' takes light look at grim L.A. crime

The Investigation Discovery show looks at historical murders as well as more contemporary ones.

January 18, 2011|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Clad in a blue plaid suit and bow tie, his bald pate nearly scraping the ceiling, whippet-thin crime novelist James Ellroy is launching into a kind of white-man's rap. "Good evening, peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants," he begins, not pausing for breath. "I'm James Ellroy the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right."

He goes on a jag about his hometown, "my smog-bound fatherland…. the film noir epicenter," ranting about his literary and sexual prowess and Los Angeles' tradition of violent crime. Ellroy's combination of profanity and alliteration is, by this point, well known to Angelenos: Since returning to town in 2006, he's held countless readings and public interviews, written a series for Playboy about his infatuation with women — which later became the novel "The Hilliker Curse" — and published the novel "Blood's a Rover." For anyone who follows this kind of thing, he's hard to escape.

As Ellroy rants and raves at the head of a chartered bus roaring across Hollywood Boulevard ("Look at these freaks! … Serial killer … Nympho! … Dope fiend!"), he's got a collection of television journalists from around the nation captivated by his patter. "I don't live in L.A.," he exclaims. "I come back to L.A. at odd intervals as women divorce me." Ba-da-bing.

It's not easy to keep your adrenaline level up for three straight hours, but the 62-year-old almost pulls it off. The effectiveness of his hyperactive spiel for a largely out-of-town crowd is good news for the novelist: Ellroy has found a new audience, a microcosm of the viewership he's hoping for with the television series "James Ellroy's L.A.: City of Demons." (The show is on Investigation Discovery at 10 p.m. Wednesday.)

And in case you've forgotten that show's title, he repeats it, its broadcast time and its network countless times as the bus rolls from Pasadena to crime scenes in Hollywood and Beverly Hills and back. Mostly to hearty laughter.

Like his junket by chartered bus, "James Ellroy's LA" is a grab bag of old Ellroy obsessions with new material. The first episode, "Dead Women Own Me," looks at his mother's 1958 murder (she was found strangled near an El Monte high school when the author was 10), the Black Dahlia, and the stabbing of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner's daughter. (That episode ends with the 2009 murder of Lily Burke, the 17-year-old daughter of two of Ellroy's friends.

The writer is clearly moved by Burke's death. "The dead claim the living and tell us how to live," he intones somberly at the end of the first episode. But Ellroy's flippant, retro-hipster tone — "Murder," he says earlier in the program, "is on our malevolent menu tonight!" — makes it hard to know how to take it all.

The second episode, "Scandal Rags," looks at magazines like Confidential and Whisper that punctured the myth of purity built around Hollywood stars. Readers of Ellroy's fiction and anyone who's seen "L.A. Confidential" knows what a large role these publications played in the writer's worldview as well as his trademark patter. He calls Confidential and the Lutheran Church the institutions that have shaped him the most.

Ellroy doesn't see a conflict between the lighthearted tone and the grimness of murder. "It's the truth," he says later of the program's material, "it serves the victim, and it imparts an overall wisdom. You do it with all the panache you have available. And I have a very good dog to help me."

Ellroy's sidekick in "City of Demons" is animated, literally: The Los Angeles Police Department canine, Barko, the writer says, "has drained my bank account, hit on my girlfriend and already gotten his salary boosted above mine."

Both episodes also feature reenactments, old newspaper clippings and plenty of shots of Ellroy standing in plaid suits in bucolic surroundings — he's often in front of the Hollywood sign. At times he's an awkward if compelling screen presence, shouting assertively and making inconsistent eye contact.

Back on the bus, Ellroy is quoting one of his forebears. "Ross Macdonald said, 'Fiction is permeated by geography and sharpened by autobiography, even when it's trying not to be.' My parents hatched me in a cool locale.... I live, breathe, ooze and sweat crime."

By the end of the three-hour tour, Ellroy — like his audience — starts to fade a bit. "I'm still here," he asserts as the flow of questions slows. "Is it warm in here, or is it just me?"

Will "City of Demons" run into a similar exhaustion after the buzz of Ellroy's charm wears off?

Henry Schleiff, president and general manager of Investigation Discovery — who greenlighted the show after being approached by Ellroy — hopes not, and he's not worried that Ellroy's well-told tales are overexposed. "People may be familiar with his books, but very few have seen him in action. And man, he's an over-the-top personality. "

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