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James Ellroy's Cinematic Crime Writing: From 'Stephanie' to My Dark Places

Rodney Taveira

Memories meant names.
— My Dark Places


James Ellroy’s oeuvre extends over fourteen book-length titles, comprising collections of short stories and reportage in Crime Wave, Dick Contino’s Blues and Destination: Morgue! (DM); the completed L.A. Noir and the projected Underworld USA trilogies; his celebrated L.A. Quartet; self-contained novels Brown’s Requiem, Clandestine, Killer on the Road, and a stunning memoir, My Dark Places (MDP). Almost all take as their subject violent sex murders and institutional corruption, following the travails of tortured white men working for the various arms of the American justice system.  The writing spans fiction and non-fiction without a neat formal separation – just as the line between his criminals and law-enforcers is invariably blurred into effective non-existence. 

All of Ellroy’s work is suffused with the central event of his life: the unsolved murder of his mother, Jean Ellroy nee Geneva Hilliker, in June 1958, when Ellroy was a ten-year old boy.  Jean’s last was a Saturday night spent out drinking in the company of “the Swarthy Man,” as he is called in Ellroy’s imaginary.  She was raped then strangled.  Her corpse was dumped on a road beside a high school.  During these fatal hours, Lee Ellroy (“James” is a prénom de plume) was at home with his father Armand, an indifferent parent whose infrequent income derived from parasitical associations – managing Hollywood entertainers, off-the-books accounts work when tax time raised demand.  From this early time, Lee is situated in and by a paraphilic relation to Hollywood and cinema, loosely connected by gossip coming from the tabloids and his father, who claimed to have “poured the pork” to Rita Hayworth, and was prone to recite lists of closet Hollywood homosexuals (DM 30; MDP: 129).

Lee lived with his father on weekends, where he stayed up late reading books, watching TV, and eating junk food (DM: 29; MDP: 105).  This contrary behaviour while away from his mother means Lee is not only physically but performatively distant, not dutifully playing the role of obedient son.After his mother moved to El Monte, “I told her I wanted to live with my father… I made up my mind to fight back… I could scratch her face and ruin her looks so men wouldn’t want to fuck her” (MDP: 111) – flouting filial convention leads to a kind of negative dramaturgy in which Lee both is unable and unwilling to protect his mother.  Her murder remains unsolved.  Ellroy’s art and persona is marked by this defining but ultimately, never defined event; or, to use two typically Ellroyian locutions, the event “circumscribes” or “ramifies,” projecting narrative and affective lines that cannot help but return to their impetus, instantiated and sustained by death.

My Dark Places details Ellroy’s education and eventual graduation into crime.  Beginning with The Hardy Boys, the young Ellroy read mystery and crime books voraciously (MDP: 120).  He grew up in Hollywood: “Kiddie noir was my métier.  I lived in the film noir epicenter during the film noir era.  I developed my own strain of weird shit.  It was pure L.A.  It was bravura L.A. for one reason:  I denied the existence of non-L.A. shit” (DM: 29).  Brian Massumi writes in relation to Peeping Tom (1959), a contemporaneous film about visuality, death, distorted desires, and the hold of parents past, that “structuration requires a relatively closed milieu” (1997: 98).  Similarly, Ellroy only sees LA: “pure,” because it is not tainted by anything from the outside, “bravura,” because it executes itself brilliantly, over and over again, like copies struck from a master film.

Living with his lazy and misogynistic father in a rundown house with little disciplinary restrictions, Ellroy took to stealing books, then stealing voyeuristic visions through the picture windows of nearby, upscale Hancock Park.  “I was still preadolescent.  I was a thief and a voyeur.  I was headed for a hot date with the desecrated woman” (MDP: 124).  As he finished his teenage years this proudly Protestant peeping tom moved into breaking and entering the homes of rich Jewish girls with whom he went to school.  Once inside he sniffed panties, lay on beds, read books, then raided refrigerators, liquor cabinets, and finally bathrooms for proprietary pharmaceuticals.  Ellroy was operating in a creepy world of lustful fantasies that saw him saving virgins from male killers.  “Real girls vied for my heart.  A killer was stalking all the schoolgirls I grooved on….  My rescue fantasies were richly detailed.  My intercessions were swift and brutal.  Sex was my only reward” (MDP: 131).  Ellroy’s breaking and entering, his forcing his way in, while a gesture toward bridging the real and the fantasmatic, makes him aesthetically complicit in the sexualised murders he was hooked on – all, of course, repetitions of his mother’s death.

The aspect of his schooling in crime that had the most impact (at least in terms of his writing career) was being confronted by the “Black Dahlia” murder case.  The bisected body of Elizabeth Short was found by a schoolgirl and her mother on January 15, 1947 in the Crenshaw area of LA.  Besides being neatly cut in half, her body was heavily mutilated: cigarette burns, head bashed, a section of tattooed thigh found inside her abdomen.  Ellroy’s father gave him a copy of Jack Webb’s The Badge when he was eleven years old, just one year after his mother’s murder.  It described the Black Dahlia case.  The subtitle of the book summarises its remit: “True and Terrifying Crimes Stories That Could Not Be Presented on TV, from the Creator and Star of Dragnet.”  Webb “steeped his 12-page summary in the ethos of the time: femme fatales die hard and are complicitous in attracting death by vivisection” (MDP: 124).  The young Ellroy immediately superimposed this murder on his mother’s, “my symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy”: “Betty was running and hiding.  My mother ran to El Monte and forged a secret weekend life there.  Betty and my mother were body-dump victims.  Jack Webb said Betty was a loose girl.  My father said my mother was a drunk and a whore” (MDP: 125). 

The femme fatale imputations rang true with the image of Jean that Ellroy had had planted by his father.  Though Jean “brought [Ellroy] into hiding as [her] good-luck charm” (MDP: 2), the “forging” of a different, non-mother life undoes the magic of son as talisman.  His mother’s sexual availability and hard drinking repulsed only in hindsight; more vital was the attraction that mobilised sex and death: the promiscuous Jean died hard because of her promiscuity, but the unresolved sexual attraction of the boy to his mother would stay with Ellroy, who, to this day, wears his Oedipus complex on his sleeve.  One among many examples: Ellroy recounts as “precious” the times he masturbated to his fantasy image of Jean (MDP: 229).  Complicity again beckons, as the sexual accessibility that led, in one version, to Jean’s murder, draws the son in but denies him, not only because it is socially forbidden by taboo, but, most forcibly, is prohibited by (her) death.  There is no breaking and entering by which Ellroy can gain access, except in fantasy, memory and art.


“Stephanie” was originally published in GQ magazine in January 2003, prior to Destination: Morgue!. It provides a good entry point as it compresses Ellroy’s standard subjects and methods into thirty stand-alone pages, metonymically rerunning how he pursues his mother.  It is a personal account of reinvestigating the sex murder of a teenage girl that occurred thirty-five years earlier (DM: 45-74).  A detective friend, Rick Jackson, informs Ellroy of the reactivated homicide case of Stephanie Gorman, a pretty, studious, “good-girl” high-school student murdered, and sexually assaulted in 1965.  A chance encounter between Stephanie’s sister and a police officer at a party in 2000 had led to the request for a status report.  Developments in forensic technology have made viable a “cold case” squad in the LAPD that uses, for example, a FBI fingerprint database to reinvestigate unsolved murders.  Submitting the prints on file comes up with a new, unique single match belonging to “Mr. X.”  After chasing up a warrant, detectives question the man.  Mr. X is clean: he was visiting a friend who lived across the road from the Gorman household and went over to help before the police arrived.  Short story cut shorter.

What makes this piece arresting and affecting is the route of implication Ellroy traces.  Ostensibly, the story is not newsworthy.  Nothing happens other than a waste of time and resources.  “Stephanie” must be made to mean something more.  For Ellroy, the critical reader of murder files, this means making Stephanie a figure in the performance, and her murder a discourse, of the universal links between sex, death and desire.  And this means you.

Like many of his works – White Jazz, American Tabloid, My Dark Places – “Stephanie” begins with an italicised prologue laying out the terms, materials and motivation of the writing to follow.  A poetic précis, the reader is told that the piece will deal with the unsolved murder of a girl.  “Murder files hook you fast and drag you in slow” (2003: 45) – disarmingly direct, “you” are the subject whose lack of resistance to the event of murder is reflected in the rapidity of its grip and your dallying in its scene of violence. At first, “you” are hooked by murder files.  Death in general initially, but “her scent or your wish fulfilment of it many years later” (2003: 45), death sexualised, thus now directed to, then in, the realm of desire – “you” are searching for something of your self in the history of this murdered girl. 

You are doubly drawn in: first, by being told that you are, then by intimacy of the direct voice.  This has the same effect of implication as the initial instance of voice-over in film noir, delivered by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1994), “where” according to Ellroy, “a man meets a woman and flushes his life down the toilet” (MDP: 192).  Being personally addressed by a voice outside the frame that seems to have insight and command over inner, hidden workings, yet is nonetheless inextricably linked to the diegesis, creates, by a kind of free indirect discourse, a milieu whose structuration is closed only by “you” taking a place within it.  Though the prologue is in a direct voice, it is only after this address of proposition to the reader that Ellroy takes the first person: “Women only.  They make me read and look.  Old paper as perfume.  Longing as perceptive tool” (DM: 45).  Ellroy appears to be a minor player in this procession of pronouns.  However, he’s that bit character that becomes everyman.  His “longing” and your “wish fulfilment” not only cohere in their denotations of desire, but jointly develop in that powerful index of human individuality – scent.  But even as you and Ellroy align, the weight of involvement still leans towards you, for while Ellroy gets an archaeological whiff of archival perfume, you catch her scent, something essential that signifies close proximity to the victim in a relationship of pursuit.

“Unsolved files only.  Apply your mind male and rude.  Reset fractures.  Reroute narrative.  Make data blips cohere” (DM: 45).  After these reading instructions, Ellroy states he has read a dozen murder files, beginning with his mother’s, from which he has “moved on.”  However, as “Stephanie” will demonstrate, this moving on does not mean leaving behind and letting go, but bringing everything that emerged previously – forbidden desire, self-implication and obsession – to the present case.  It is precisely this moving-in through a moving-with that gives “Stephanie” the material and methodology to mean more than just Stephanie Gorman’s cold case remaining dormant.

Ellroy follows the reading instructions and begins his story where he says he begins his reading:  “I study the death pictures…Take me back and show me the horror.  Make me feel your loss fresh and new” (DM: 46).  After this, you are left to your own devices until the conclusion of the story.  But Stephanie, Ellroy and the reader now share a space of horror and death.  Your loss is that of Stephanie’s life, which is also (obviously) hers.  Ellroy wants to move in on this loss.  Proximity is key.  To achieve this, Ellroy goes straight to the death pictures.  These provide material for the beginning of “Stephanie” proper, where her loss comes to be felt by the reader as it is mediated through Ellroy.  What follows is an ekphrastic exergue, a small space for Ellroy to inscribe the enormity of Stephanie’s murder within a much larger libidinal economy of sex, violence and death, to circumscribe a microeconomy and milieu in which he and you trade desire using the currency of girl/sex/murder.

The first half of “Stephanie” is the recreation of the events just before the murder, possible murder scenarios, and the investigation up to the point thirty-five years later when Rick Jackson tells Ellroy that the case has been reactivated.  Like Ellroy’s reading of the file, it begins with death pictures.  These lay out the house and Stephanie’s body.  “Pop the doors and LOOK” (DM: 46): in the mode of the voyeur who breaks and enters that he knows so well (as do you who know his work), Ellroy shows us a stuffed toy, a portrait of Stephanie’s sister smiling, “a lidless jar of cold cream,” panties and denim shorts (DM: 47).  “Gauge in”: we move to Stephanie’s corpse, which Ellroy describes in persistent detail, cataloguing her wounds, attire, and posture – She’s in begging pose” (DM: 48).  Proximity is produced through an unflinching and mobile camera eye that actively shoots death, the sequence’s edit points determined by movements of scale that accumulate object-images without creating a comprehensible, overall meaning.  For the moment, the paratactic epistemological weight of part-for-whole details serves to bear witness, and bear upon, the fatal ontological violation whose significance, beyond a homicide statistic, is, as yet, unclear.

There is one more player who needs to enter the scene: the killer.  The loss of Stephanie is more keenly felt if there a referable subject on whose agency the loss becomes a violent act of “taking away.”  But he is unknown.  He remains at large to this day.  Ellroy begins evoking his presence, indeed his omnipresence, indirectly.  Possible suspects run a gamut of threatening maleness: “A man,” “a Negro church-solicitation crew,” “two local rape-os,” parolees (DM: 57), “The Remorseful Rapist” (DM: 54) and, for Ellroy, the irresistibly nicknamed, “Shoe-Tree Rapist” (DM: 53).

However, the list of possible perpetrators is limply affective.  What should be threatening about it – its ugly ubiquity – also imparts a nebulousness whose ill-definition distances and diminishes.  Irony makes the remorse of one rapist (he apologises after he rapes the victim, showing her the weapon of coercion is a toy gun – see, it’s just pretend) and the choice of pedicular implements of another pathetic and amusing.  What is more powerful, what means more, is sharing the singular vision of the killer.  So far, you have been aligned with Stephanie, Ellroy, and (a version of) your self; what remains is the “screening from the perpetrator’s viewpoint,” to use part of the description of the “Man Camera” in Ellroy’s 1988 novel, The Big Nowhere.  The Man Camera is an investigatory technique where the detective’s eyes become lenses that use cinematic practices – zoom, freeze, scale – to recreate the crime scene. 

Women as one-way mirrors.  Women as Etch-a-Sketch boards.  The killer snags one real image and starts to revise.  His revisions tap signals.  It’s sex semaphore.  Details get distorted and magnified.  It’s a funhouse mirror now.  It’s all in his head.  The woman loses proportion.  She gains bizarre shapes.  She gets dehumanized. (DM: 68)

How is this different to the work (of) “Stephanie”?  Just Ellroy’s reading instructions? (“Apply your mind male and rude.  Reset fractures.  Reroute narrative.  Make data blips cohere.”)  This is ultimately a matter of entertainment.  Ellroy snags on Stephanie’s death pictures.  He revises the case as the murder file has it, recreating Stephanie and her death so that it means moreYou are implicated through proximal visualisations, pronominal positioning and the sharing of an applied mind male and rude.  “It’s all in his head.”  Now it’s all in your head.  Ellroy even posits the possible “sex semaphore” that sparked the act of murder: 

The nexus, the alchemy – something made him kill her.  I said her beauty and softness.  Bam – his switch drops.  He sees outtakes from his shitty life.  His stress context implodes.  A happy kid dies. (DM: 68)

“The crime-scene report wires shock,” said Ellroy in the prologue.  Bam – Ellroy innervates this circuitry with the beauty of the innocent girl he has made us see.  Is it only the outtakes from his shitty life that constitutes the difference between a killer who kills and a killer whose switch is not dropped?


In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward.  Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged.  The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium.  But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. (Barthes 1982: 96)

This description of photographic “flat death” is nestled in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, a book whose recognition of the melancholia of the photograph coincides, like “Stephanie,” with mourning for a dead mother.  Barthes devotes a section of Camera Lucida to a photograph of his recently deceased mother that, unique among all the others he has viewed, captures something essential of her.  He does not reproduce this photograph in the book.  The qualitative movement from the studium to the punctum, from that which is intellectually but transitively interesting in the photograph to an incidental yet (once recognised) indispensable detail, is also the project of making “Stephanie” mean more.  From the prologue we know Stephanie is dead.  The rest of the work, by virtue of its simply being a structured narrative, in its positing of motivation, scenario, and retelling of Stephanie’s life, enacts the continuous present that she is going to die. The Scheherezadean telling of the tale must eventually end; this is a basic narrative presupposition.  So the future tense of “this will be” and the present perfect of “this has been” loom in the scene of writing, occido in lingua

Ellroy discovered in the course of reading her murder file that Stephanie had a role as an extra in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and Pollyanna (1960).  He couldn’t spot her in Bye Bye Birdie, but:

I rented Pollyanna.  I saw Stephanie.
            She was ten or eleven.  She stood on a bandstand stage right.  Hayley Mills sang “America the Beautiful.”  A line of girls flanked her.  They all wore the Stars and Stripes.
            There’s Stephanie – alive and in color.  She’s a child on the safe side of sex.  Her eyes dart.  The moment flusters her.  Her hair was lighter then.  She’s got hazel-brown eyes like me.
            I hit Rewind and Fast Forward.  I did it x-dozen times.  I watched her.  I caught every breath.  I filled some blank spaces up. (DM: 74)

As in the photograph of Lewis Payne, this scene means Stephanie is dead and she is going to die.  This meaning is created by a noncinematic, or perhaps better, supercinematic movement:  Rewinding and Fast-Forwarding, Ellroy manipulates the temporality of this already complex signifier of imbricated chronologies – the moves between tenses describe (in a sense approaching the geometric) the intrusion of Ellroy’s temporal manipulations from the outside.  The “anterior future” of Stephanie’s death is put off as the present is prolonged, fighting against the deathward tendency of linearity and plot.  Moving back and forth, toward and away from a death that has both happened and not yet happened, the scene stops being cinematic and approaches the photographic.  But it cannot be photographic, for this will herald the death that Ellroy is specifically trying to avoid, yet is only delaying.  It is something like the “sequence-image” as discussed by Victor Burgin, an image that refuses both the stasis attributed to the photograph and the movement ascribed to film in the conventional theory of each art.  Instead, it is a field of associations on the planes of both form and content, deriving from the interpenetration of media, memory and mental work in our “cinematic heterotopia” (Burgin 2004: 10).  “By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist),” writes Barthes, “the photograph tells me death in the future” (1982: 96).  Ellroy does not say: “I hit Pause.”  This would freeze the movement and thus existence of a continuing narrative.  Stephanie’s eyes would not be able to dart, she would not be flustered by the moment; she would not exist in a present tense that resists the simple past occurrence of the aorist: “She dies” containing “She died.”

But this is not an altruistic act of resuscitation, a bystander performing CPR on a perfect stranger.  A predatory optic operates.  Ellroy repeatedly takes the first person, and this repetition is compounded by the “x-dozen times” he, one is tempted to say, pornographically performs the movement toward photography, toward death. This serial viewing cannot help but be expressed through an erotic rhetoric of murder.  Jim Mancall analyses the effect of pornography as it turns up in the content of Ellroy’s novels, and its formal relation to detective fiction.  Both genres, he says, keep the reader in a state of arousal, where “the play of delay and release, delay and release… provides the pleasure” (2006: 11).  Further (referring to Ellroy’s 1991 novel), “White Jazz imagines a series of readers, each compulsively drawn to the illicit, each trying to imagine what cannot be made visible” (2006: 8).  Ellroy’s compulsive actions are analogous to the consumer of pornography cueing up his favourite scenes, stripping away the plot to get to “the good stuff.” “I watched her.  I caught every breath.”  Ellroy captures her every breath, he comes to possess her life.  As he must to write her life, her death.

The persistence of this killer vision subsists “Stephanie.”  In 1965 the police investigated the Standard Club, where the Gormans “partied.”  “Maybe some freak saw Stephanie there… Maybe Stephanie flipped his freak switch” (DM: 59).  But there are no maybes for Ellroy: “Women only.  They make me read and look” (DM: 45).  The agency is put on the victim – she flipped his switch, they make me read and look.  It is frighteningly automatic: one who has working eyes cannot help but see, just as the literate cannot help but read, turning what, for the uninitiated, are arbitrary scrawls into markers of meaning.

However, this automaticity is not solely triggered by virtue of a girl, or women, being and being objects of vision.  When Rick Jackson first tells him about the case, Ellroy recounts:

Details nudged me: A pinprick memory blipped.
            It’s summer ’65.  I’m 17.  There’s a Hollywood newsstand.  There’s a girl’s picture.  It straddles a newspaper fold.
            Blip—no more, no less. (DM: 64)

Despite the gap of thirty-five years and a decade of alcohol and drug abuse, Stephanie is lodged in his memory (I have personally confirmed this detail with Ellroy).  The punctum of photographs of the about-to-die (Barthes refers to the punctum as something that “pricks” him) reveals a movement of desire within and about the subject, which is here a “pinprick” evoked by a feminine visual that “straddles” a medium that, like “Stephanie” and female victims of murder, registers and consists of the automaticity of looking and reading – the newspaper.  The frequently speculative and pictorial mode of reportage is also the medium of “Stephanie,” an attempt to “make data blips cohere,” to make them “more” or “less” according to how and for whom they are made to mean.

Reruns: Toward a Cinematic Literature

“Show me the file.  I need to see.”  Ellroy is habitually piqued by the phenomenon of sex murders against women.  Here, he is pricked by a historical photograph that is, that becomes, a local manifestation of desire in a visual economy he and we come to share through “Stephanie.”  Ellroy begins, he is set in motion, with the death pictures which he describes to begin “Stephanie”; only later, defying strict chronology, does he come to recount the actual act of this viewing.  As he approaches the photographs of her corpse, “I clenched up.  I knew she’d be next.  I wanted to see it.  I trusted my motive.  I know my eyes would violate” (DM, 66).  The temporal difference in tenses between knew and know reveals the persistence of the killer vision that Ellroy uses to, knows would, keep Stephanie alive in the movement toward the photographic.  Modus operandi: he brings to life by taking it.  “Yeah, I would have stalked her.  No, I’d never harm a hair on her head” (DM: 67).  The killer’s vision can be used to bring back the dead without hurting them because they have already been killed.  This resuscitative repetition, performed “x­-dozen times,” is the recurrence of the detail in Ellroy’s act of writing.

The detail has a recursive function, with death providing a terminus, for the viewer, to the embedded and ultimately personal gestures toward meaning.  “I told Tim that I loved her to death.  He said he did, too” (DM: 72).  The “beauty” and “softness” that Ellroy posits as possibly flipping the killer’s switch, that is, making him murder her, are exactly the details Ellroy saw when he viewed her death pictures: “I couldn’t peel her beauty back from the horror…. Her softness merged with the blood” (DM: 66).  So the same details can be reasons to murder as well as a means to bring back to life.

“I filled some blank spaces up,” writes Ellroy after describing the Pollyanna scene. Ellroy must organise destructive desire, visually aestheticising it, hitting Rewind and Fast Forward, but never Pausing the moment that photography captures in les petites morts.  Ellroy repeats the voyeuristic and murderous act whose very repetition prolongs the moment indefinitely, approaching but avoiding the “real” act of violence. In the epilogue of The Black Dahlia (re-released to coincide with the 2006 film adaptation) Ellroy states “Josh Friedman knows that obsession in a self-referential madness commonly known as love” (396).  This is how he can remember a photograph of Stephanie from 1965.  Desire fills the gap by creating an image.  “Stephanie,” in all she has come to mean, is a screen that creates and fills in this gap for you.

“She’s dancing out of a shroud.  I don’t know her. I can feel her.  She’s twirling.  She’s showing off her prom gown.  I can smell her corsage” (DM: 73).  I earlier said proximity is key.  It is now held.  Using the method and mind of a killer, Ellroy stands close enough to Stephanie to smell her corsage, realigning him and you through that shared experience of scent introduced at the beginning of the piece.  However, like the infamous quantum paradox, proximity, but not protensity.  If he can touch, he cannot know; if he knows, he cannot touch.  This sensorial compartmentalisation, denoting a fragmentary, never-complete knowing, also concludes Ellroy’s investigation of his mother’s murder in My Dark Places:“I can’t hear your voice.  I can smell you and taste your breath.  I can feel you.  You’re brushing against me.  You’re gone and I want more of you” (429).

“Stephanie” is not about capturing Stephanie, but recapturing her over and over again, sometimes knowing, sometimes touching, “alive and in color,” performing the creative and destructive potentiality of desire: “We want to know you.  It’s a pursuit…. We’re spinning our wheels.  It doesn’t matter.  You’re twirling in your prom gown.  Color us devoted.  Color you gone” (DM: 75).  Ellroy’s writing becomes the animation of photography.  This has the almost incidental effect of bringing Stephanie to life, where “Stephanie” allows Ellroy to “make me feel your loss fresh and new,” which now also means to “make you feel our loss fresh and new.” 

If “Stephanie” is, as I claimed earlier, an ‘ekphrastic exergue’, a small space circumscribed on the face of a coin that seeks to stand in for Stephanie Gorman (and) her murder, then the killer is on the other side, inaccessible, as if the coin has been glued to a footpath.  But there are two sides to this prank of a single-sided (and thus, ostensibly useless), coin: firstly, the in-the-moment laughter at people denied access to what they desire; and then, secondly, the growing apprehension of the person who keeps trying to pick up the coin, who then moves on to others, and others.

When nothing eventuates from the Mr. X lead, “Dave called and told me.  He ‘described the worst day of my life.’  I reran Pollyanna.  I cued Stephanie up” (DM: 75).  Ellroy reruns Stephanie; she comes to run for him, repeatedly, which also means, because of the logic of the killer vision, she runs from him and remains alive.  But to where does she run?

Ellroy tells us that, “She stood on a bandstand stage right,” an extra in a musical scene, an easily glossed-over detail among other details, filling up a fictional, visual space.  Is this why she is also, “a child on the safe side of sex”?  Exactly what and where is this side?  Is the camera a barrier of non-consciousness, a sterile medium of recording, numbly, dumbly absorbing light?  Is it Pollyanna’s diegesis, a space and temporality that has the status of the photograph of the about-to-die – this will be and this has been?  Stephanie is safe so long as she does not fall prey to sex.  But as Ellroy views this safety he simultaneously violates it, for he looks with the knowledge of the aorist, that simple phrase in the exergue, which, numismatically, also is the exergue.  The writing and the space are one and the same – she died.

But this also demonstrates an inherent excess to this scene of writing.  Just as the quantum particle cannot be wholly described, it is more than itself; it is what it is and where it is.  This not-just-semiotic bleeding flows into the area of which the exergue is supposed to be a discrete part: “A small space usually on the reverse of a coin or medal, below the principal device, for any minor inscription, the date, engraver's initials, etc. Also, the inscription there inserted” (OED).  A time, an author, a place, a plateau, perhaps: this “minor inscription” is, also, an inscription of minoration.  Understood in the sense discussed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, the interformal modality and sociohistorical milieux of Ellroy’s writing, not only in “Stephanie” but across his oeuvre, is emblematic of the political and aesthetic status of cinematic literature as a minor art in relation to the sensorial hegemony of the visual and filmic.

Deleuze and Guattari caution us that a “minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (1986: 16).  This would seem an insurmountable barrier for claiming a minor status for Ellroy’s work, let alone as a form of cinematic literature, which is minor in relation to literature and visual culture writ large.  He writes with words, not light.  But these words not only refer to, but refer by a particular way of seeing, a style.  In fact, we have already seen concrete examples of this method in “Stephanie”: the movements between tenses when Ellroy first spots Stephanie in Pollyanna; the use of declarative sentences simply stating the way things are/were; the movement of repetition as Ellroy “cued Stephanie up” at the end of the story.  Deleuze and Guattari on Franz Kafka “deliberating killing all metaphor”:

Metamorphosis is the contrary of metaphor.  There is no longer any proper sense or figurative sense, but only a distribution of states that is part of the range of the word….  Instead, it is now a question of becoming that includes the maximum of difference as a difference of intensity, the crossing of a barrier, a rising or a falling, a bending or an erecting, an accent on the word. (1986: 22)

This metamorphic logic is precisely that prick of the photograph of the about-to-die, the painful recognition of the visualised intensity of the maximum “maximum difference,” – that is, the difference between life and death.  The seeing which revives through killing involves, at the linguistic level, the use of intensives or tensors.  The latter is taken from Lyotard, “who uses it to indicate the connection of intensity and libido” (1986: 22) Deleuze and Guattari cite Vidal Sephiha’s use of the term intensive for “any linguistic tool that allows a move toward the limit of a notion or a surpassing of it,” to which they add, “marking a movement of language towards its extremes, toward a reversible beyond or before” (1986: 22, my emphasis).  This is Ellroy hitting Rewind and Fast Forward, a small space in “Stephanie” which surpasses itself to become the project of “Stephanie,” a limit-work that seeks to reanimate the living, but can only do so by repeatedly moving back and forth towards the moment of death captured by the photograph.  Cinematic literature practises its minor art through a writing of movement and time, whose metamorphic logic, instead of instituting a zero-sum language game, acts on the difference of cinema and literature to create a unique space that, by virtue of its interrelation with both forms, is “a reversible beyond or before” (1986: 22) that is, that becomes, more than itself.  Conventional metaphor is not available here because the ground on which a figure stands is constantly moving, continuously becoming, a tectonic rift that creates through involutory processes of destruction. 

Some of the tools that Klaus Wagenbach ascribes to Kafka’s (minor) writing in his application of Prague German are now familiar in Ellroy’s work: “the abuse of the pronominal” (the compounding effects of mixing up “I,” “you,” and “him”); “the employment of malleable verbs,” (for example, Ellroy’s slippery use of “blip”); and, “the use of pain-filled connotations” (any description of Stephanie’s corpse and possible murder scenarios) (1986: 23).  To this I would add the temporal instability of imbricated chronologies created by not only a cross-limit repetition between content and expression, but also the volatile fluidity of tense seen in the difference, for example, between knew and know.  “I knew she’d be next.  I wanted to see it.  I trusted my motive.  I know my eyes would violate” (DM: 66).

The most productive way of looking at Ellroy’s writing is precisely by doing that, looking.  The explicitly cinematic and criminal milieux of much of Ellroy’s settings and subjects – not just Hollywood but stag films, not just crime reconstruction but “Man Cameraing” – crosses into his literary form; rhetoric and repetition operate and affect with visceral visuality – not just diegetic films, cameras and photographs but extradiegetic cinematic technique, not just discrete memory events but durations of affect created by sex and murder.  It is in this intensive mode that Ellroy’s writing – cinematic literature – is realised.


Barthes, R. (1982) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. R. Howard, London: Jonathan Cape.

Burgin, V. (2004) The Remembered Film, London: Reaktion Books.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1986) Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. D. Polan, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ellroy, J. (1988) The Big Nowhere, London: Arrow Books

_____ (1993) “Stephanie”, GQ, January.

_____ (1993) White Jazz, London: Arrow Books

_____ (1995) American Tabloid, London: Arrow Books

_____ (1997) My Dark Places, New York: Vintage Books

_____ (2004) Destination: Morgue!, London: Arrow Books

_____ (2006) The Black Dahlia, London: Arrow Books

Mancall, J. (2006) “‘You’re a Watcher, Lad’: Detective Fiction, Pornography, and Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet” in Clues, vol. 24 no. 4 pp. 3-14.

Massumi, B. (1997) “To Kill Is Not Enough: Gender as Cruelty” in Continuum, vol. 11 no. 2 pp. 95-112

Films Cited

Bye Bye Birdie, George Sidney dir.(1963)

Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder dir. (1944)

Peeping Tom, Michael Powell dir. (1959)

Pollyanna, David Swift dir. (1960)

The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma dir. (2006)