By the Book: James Ellroy

The Los Angeles crime novelist, whose new book is “This Storm,” is no fan of Cormac McCarthy’s work: “McCarthy fails to employ quotation marks. Neither did William Faulkner, another cat I don’t dig.”

What books are on your nightstand?

The Bible, “Prayer,” by Pastor Timothy Keller, and — of late — one of the groovy Israeli hit man novels by Daniel Silva. Silva’s a gas. He’s Robert Ludlum for the new millennium.

What’s the last great novel you read?

“Compulsion,” the 1956 novel by Meyer Levin. I’ve read it six or seven times, over the years. It’s the story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and their vile and idiotic “thrill killing” of Bobby Franks. Man, what a great period novel! Man, what a great depiction of 1924 Chicago! Man, what a great portrayal of two world-class psychopaths!

What books would you recommend to someone who wants to know more about Los Angeles?

Why mince words? My own novels, chiefly “The Black Dahlia,” “Perfidia” and my new book, “This Storm.” “Buy or die” — that’s my directive, issued to readers worldwide. Beyond yours truly, I would point readers to John Gregory Dunne’s 1977 classic, “True Confessions.” It’s the first novelized treatment of the hellish 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. “The Black Dahlia.” The language is explosive. It’s a pulsating potpourri of racial invective, flamboyant street talk, cop rebop, and the wiiiiiiild American idiom at its most profane. “True Confessions” greatly influenced my current series of wartime Los Angeles books.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

As novelists, Don DeLillo and Thomas Mallon. “Libra,” DeLillo’s book on the J.F.K.-hit conspiracy, knocked me on my ass. Mallon’s nonfiction book “Mrs. Paine’s Garage” converted me to the lone gunman view of history. I live in the past. DeLillo and Mallon have served to make it a most felicitous place to abide.

When do you read?

At night. When the world quiets down. When the hell hounds of my imagination stir in my bed beside me and grant me a few hours of repose.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Highly charged historical circumstances. High moral stakes. Passionate men and women in love.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I’m a crime dog. I read crime novels and true-crime books, almost exclusively. I don’t dig comedy, sci-fi, current-event exposés or tales of domestic woe.

What makes for a good crime novel?

Explosive language. A hard-charging, straight-ahead style. Vivid social critique. Baffling crimes that hurtle superbly etched characters toward damnation and salvation. Bad men in love with strong women.

How do you organize your books?

My pad is built around my books. I’ve got floor-to-ceiling, midcentury-modern style shelves in my front hallway and living room. Dramatic lighting and framed dust jackets from my own books enhance the stark effect. I separate the books into fiction and nonfiction, and keep them rigorously alphabetized. Spines out, always. Dust jackets encased in plastic sheaths.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

The novel “Watergate,” by Thomas Mallon. The themes are the price of official misconduct and the consequences of sin. The overarching message is REPENT!!!

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Do writers of music count here? I’d invite Beethoven, Wagner, and Liszt. An interpreter would be present. They’d tell me what it’s like on the other side. Beethoven would play the adagio sostenuto from the “Hammerklavier Sonata” on a borrowed piano. I’d brag about my books and feel overmatched.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Some years ago, I came across a boxed manuscript in a colleague’s office. I had no idea who wrote it. It was hokum about a boy, his dad, and the end of the world. The hyperbleak prose felt parodistic; I felt like I was reading a Mad magazine spoof of end-of-the-world books. The manuscript was “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy fails to employ quotation marks. Neither did William Faulkner, another cat I don’t dig.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

Either the estimable Tom Nolan, biographer of Ross Macdonald, or Adam Sisman, biographer of John le Carré. These guys know their subjects and their craft.

What do you plan to read next?

The new Israeli hit man novel, by Daniel Silva. In the last book, the hit man neutralized the Moscow-spawned daughter of trippy traitor Kim Philby. The new novel has gotta be gooooooooooooooooood.

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