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Ellroy in New York

July 10, 2013

I have recently been in Michigan visiting family. On the journey home my wife and I stopped off in New York for a few days. It was my first visit to this amazing city, and the beauty and exuberance of the place just floored me. I had been due to visit New York as part of a high school trip in 2001. Part of our itinerary was a visit to the World Trade Center. 9/11 happened, and the trip was postponed, then cancelled. I never made new arrangements to visit. Finally I have made the journey, and it was worth every minute of the wait. It was moving to visit the 9/11 Memorial built on the site of the twin towers where so many people lost their lives. If you get a chance, I would also recommend the Queen Elizabeth II September 11th Garden at Hanover Square, founded in memory of the British and Commonwealth victims.

Whenever I travel I like to look up some of the tucked away places that either relate to my research or to crime fiction in general. A few years ago, I visited Los Angeles to interview James Ellroy and also visited some of the sites which were connected to key moments in Ellroy’s life. New York played a key role in the life-story of Ellroy. When his first novel Brown’s Requiem was published in 1981, Ellroy at the age of thirty-three moved from LA to Eastchester near New York. As he put it in an interview with Don Swaim, he  ‘wanted to wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep and boogie-woogie down Broadway to the Gershwin beat’. However, the cross-country move coincided with a difficult early stage of his writing career. Ellroy’s manuscript ‘L.A. Death Trip’ was turned down by seventeen publishers. Ellroy had not faced this sort of rejection with his first two novels, and he would take typically dramatic steps to turn his luck around. Renowned crime fiction editor Otto Penzler ran the Mysterious Bookshop at the time. It was, and is, popular with both readers and writers of crime fiction. In an interview with Poets&Writers, agent Nat Sobel describes Ellroy’s first visit to the Mysterious Bookshop, and how he marched into Otto Penzler’s office and announced:

“I am the demon dog of American crime fiction.” Otto said, “I’ve never heard of you.” James said he had this manuscript, which Otto sent to me as the first manuscript of the Mysterious Literary Agency. It was Ellroy’s third novel, which I edited, as did Otto. About that time, Otto got financing to start Mysterious Press. He told me he wanted to buy Ellroy’s novel for his first list. So the Mysterious Literary Agency went out of business.

Penzler may have been startled by the brazen Ellroy, but it would be the beginning of a long and productive partnership between the two men. The story of the meeting differs slightly between the numerous versions I have read over the years, but I find its most striking detail is Ellroy’s use of the Demon Dog name so early in his career. According to its website, the Mysterious Bookshop was originally located in midtown (it doesn’t specify where exactly). Its new address is 58 Warren Street in Tribeca. I found it to be a charming, characterful place with crime books of every conceivable style crammed onto the shelves of its four walls. Here are a few photos we took:

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No visit to a bookshop of this calibre would be complete without buying some reading matter for the journey home. I purchased The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) by Sax Rohmer and Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh.IMG_1154

Another location in New York related to Ellroy’s career is the library where he began his research on the Black Dahlia case which was to lead to one of his most powerful novels. In one of my interviews with Ellroy, published in Conversations with James Ellroy, he describes the methods of research he used which laid the foundation for the novel:

I went out: I got three hundred dollars in quarters, put them in three triple reinforced pillowcases. Went into downtown New York City library, the one at Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, and got on interlibrary loan the L.A. newspapers from that time. Fed quarters to it and made photocopies. Reprinted white on black and extrapolated off the actual facts of the case with fictional characters. That’s how I built that book.

The library on Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue is the impressive Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Although, Ellroy may have been referring to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York public library, which is practically next door and is somewhat nondescript by comparison. I spent a pleasant hour exploring the Schwarzman and admiring its beautiful old world design. It was nice to think of Ellroy researching the Dahlia case here almost thirty years ago and perhaps being inspired by the interior’s wonderfully musty atmosphere.

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Third floor of the Stephen Schwarzman Building; picture shows objects behind an empty Librarian's desk. By Blurpeace, 6 June 2009

Third floor of the Stephen Schwarzman Building; picture shows objects behind an empty Librarian’s desk. By Blurpeace, 6 June 2009

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