James Ellroy – What’s in a Name?
The information released so far about James Ellroy’s forthcoming novel reveals that it is provisionally titled Perfidia and is the first book of a new LA Quartet, which precedes the original Quartet chronologically and will show Quartet characters at earlier points in their lives. Perfidia is the title of an Alberto Dominguez song, much covered since, which Ellroy fans may recognise as the song Lee Blanchard and Kay Lake dance to on New Year’s Eve, 1946, in The Black Dahlia (1987).
Titles are an important detail for an author to get right. A good title can make the difference between someone buying your book or not. Several of Ellroy’s novels have gone through title changes as part of the creative process. Although we should remember that Ellroy went through a significant name change himself, the alcoholic and drug addict Lee Earle Ellroy was very different from the bestselling author James Ellroy. Here are a few examples of title changes in Ellroy’s work which are fairly commonly known (I’ve put rejected titles in quotation marks and the published titles in italics):
Ellroy’s writing career had started promisingly, but it stalled with his third manuscript, which told the story of a violent, chaotic battle of wills between Detective Lloyd Hopkins and serial killer Theodore Verplanck. Ellroy titled it ‘LA Death Trip’, and it was turned down by a total of eighteen publishers. It was only after Ellroy’s fateful meeting with legendary crime fiction editor Otto Penzler in the Mysterious Bookshop, New York, that Ellroy’s luck changed and the novel was published by Penzler’s Mysterious Press, extensively rewritten and re-titled Blood on the Moon (1984). It was the first of three novels featuring Lloyd Hopkins.
In 1986, Avon published one of Ellroy’s most bizarre novels, written as a memoir of a serial killer. Ellroy’s preferred title was ‘Killer on the Road’, but Avon insisted on the title Silent Terror. In 1990, the novel was republished in the US as Killer on the Road, although it is still in print and being sold as Silent Terror in the UK.
Expectations were high for the second volume of Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, especially as the first volume American Tabloid (1995) had been Ellroy’s most extraordinarily complex and rewarding novel to date. Somehow word got out that the follow up novel was to be titled ‘Police Gazette’. It seems Ellroy did consider the title for a while, but it was quickly dropped, and any interviewer who mentioned it to the author, including yours truly, received an irritable response. The novel was eventually released as The Cold Six Thousand (2001).
There are a couple of other examples of title changes in Ellroy’s career that are less well known. I discovered them while I was doing research at the James Ellroy archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina and included the information in my book Conversations with James Ellroy.
Ellroy wanted to title his first novel ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, but it was at Avon’s insistence that it was published as Brown’s Requiem (1981). ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ barely sounds like a crime novel at all, but it reflects the lead character’s love of classical music, specifically the work of Beethoven and Anton Bruckner. The romantic interest is also a musician. In the denouement, the villain reveals he also admires the work of Bruckner, and the music generally reflects the themes and emotions of the story. ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ was used as the title of the fifth and final section of the novel instead.
Before The Black Dahlia elevated him to literary prominence, Ellroy was planning a fourth Lloyd Hopkins novel. The plot is revealed in an eighty-four page outline, which is available at his archive. Hopkins is investigating a series of murders of high-class hookers. Lynn Dietrich is a hooker working for New Age Enterprises, the legitimate front for a prostitution ring. Her dream in life is to save six thousand dollars and then emigrate to the town of Xuatapul, Mexico, as in Xuatapul, a person can buy a year of luxury living for the sum of six thousand dollars. Whenever she is close to reaching the required amount, she wastes too much of her savings, thus she is periodically sabotaging her own ambitions.
Oh, and the title of the fourth Hopkins novel? Ellroy planned on calling it ‘The Cold Six Thousand’. It was probably no loss to Ellroy that he never wrote the novel. He was destined for greater things. It is remarkable to think that he filed this title for about fifteen years and returned to it in his Underworld USA novel The Cold Six Thousand. The Underworld novels are nothing like the Hopkins novels. Ellroy’s style had now achieved dazzling levels of complexity and scope, but in The Cold Six Thousand the title refers to a sum of money the character Wayne Tedrow Junior is paid for a contract killing. He fails to carry out the killing at first, with disastrous results, and he spends much of the novel with his $6,000 obligation unfulfilled, which is very similar in theme to Lynn Dietrich’s ambitions in the unwritten Hopkins novel.
So, titles are important, and with his forthcoming novel Ellroy has picked a fairly interesting one in Perfidia — if he sticks to it.