"I have been inside that house, illegally, on numerous occasions," Ellroy says proudly, pointing to a handsome Spanish Colonial near the intersection of 2nd Street and Plymouth Boulevard.
Ellroy has covered this ground before. In 1996, he published "My Dark Places," a memoir that even those skeptical of his overheated crime novels consider a literary accomplishment. With that book, he revisited his mother's unsolved murder in El Monte -- in 1958, when he was 10 -- as well as his lost years as a peeper, binge drinker and neo-Nazi in Los Angeles.
Much of the book concerned his search, with a Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide detective, for his mother's killer.
"That was a great book," Ellroy declares unapologetically, "but it's largely a crime book. This is a love story."
Of course, not quite a conventional love story.
"I'm always," he says, head hanging like an abashed 12-year-old's, "looking for love."
"The Hilliker Curse" -- Hilliker was his mother's maiden name -- appears as Playboy is, like most print publications, going through strange times.
Declining circulation (about half its 1970s peak) is a worry, but not as much as the sense that, like founder Hugh Hefner -- who recently starting charging for parties at the Playboy mansion -- the magazine no longer reflects its time.
"Hefner's aura of Gatsby-esque sophistication is ever more at odds with his advancing years, and a changing world," London's the Independent judged in October. Plummeting stock prices, the recent resignation of his daughter, Chief Executive Christie Hefner, and a rumor, since denied by Playboy, that the company might be for sale, haven't helped.
It's also a period of transition for Ellroy. His celebrated "L.A. Quartet" of novels -- "The Black Dahlia," "The Big Nowhere," "L.A. Confidential" and "White Jazz" -- published in six years. But it's been eight years since his last novel, "The Cold Six Thousand."
Such a drought will end this fall with the publication of "Blood's a Rover," which completes the "American Underworld Trilogy" begun with "The Cold Six Thousand" and "American Tabloid." It also marks what the author calls his farewell to "the autobiographical elements," although it's not clear where he'll go next.
"This is the end of Act 2 of my career," he says of the trilogy and his Playboy project.
Besides the enormous success of Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential," films of Ellroy's books have not worked out. Still, he remains a powerful writer, especially for fans of a style that mixes the minimalism native to the hard-boiled tradition with his own maximalist overkill.
"The Hilliker Curse" has the mix of hyped-up prose and rapid storytelling that readers expect from Ellroy's novels, blended with a reflective quality he's rarely shown in the past.
Whereas the first installment revisits his childhood, the unsolved murder and his teenage peeping, ensuing chapters look at how his mother's death drove him to search for the perfect woman, to seek out both prostitutes and (fruitlessly) women of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to pass notes with his phone number in coffee shops, to send literally thousands of dollars in flowers.
Now 61, he is, he says, in "an erotic frenzy." ("James Ellroy: Why I Chase Women," Playboy's April cover boasts.)
Amy Grace Loyd -- the literary editor who scored a coup by bringing National Book Award-winning novelist Denis Johnson to Playboy last year with a serial novel -- calls Ellroy "a good fit" for the magazine.