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On the Trail of James Ellroy

November 23, 2015

I have written a piece for Martin Edwards blog about my new book on James Ellroy. Here’s a sample:

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction began life as my thesis at the University of Liverpool. After I graduated, Palgrave Macmillan accepted my proposal for a new monograph on Ellroy, and I began to adapt my years of research on Ellroy into book form. There were two elements of James Ellroy’s career that I found particularly fascinating. One is referenced in the title of my study: his self-styled ‘Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction’ persona. I was determined to find out the full extent that Ellroy’s literary persona had played in shaping his works. Was it a major factor in his writing or did Ellroy simply call himself the Demon Dog to give a name to his often unhinged performances at book readings and during interviews?

You can read the entire piece here. Many thanks to Martin for giving me the chance to talk about the book.

Ellroy Powell

Spectre: Sceptic or Believer?

November 8, 2015
Spectre has been out a few weeks, and I have heard more conflicting views about it than perhaps any other movie in recent times, certainly any other Bond movie. Judging by the reaction this side of the pond, it’s something of a critics’ movie, with a bevy of five star reviews from reviewers such as Robbie Collin and Peter Bradshaw. Some of the fans I’ve spoken to have been less kind, and there have been a few critics who have dissented. In The Spectator, the wonderfully acerbic Deborah Ross dismissed Spectre as just another mindless action movie. However, in the US, the critics have had a stark marmite reaction. Check out the HMSS Weblog for a look at just how divided the reviews have been.
You may recall that I greatly admired Spectre, and, after watching it again (sad, I know, but I really enjoyed it), I still largely hold that view. There were some details I spotted that enhanced my enjoyment of the film, and other things that rather irked me this time around. I’d thought I’d share them with you here in what is, I hope, a spoiler- free form. Firstly, all of the cast are excellent, but it’s Daniel Craig’s film all the way. I had some quibbles about Craig’s performance in Casino Royale. I thought he was just a bit too thuggish and lacking in humour. Now I see that Craig’s idiosyncratic sense of humour is much more subtle than in the earlier films. Gone are the old one liners that Bond spouted whenever a villain was inventively dispatched. Craig’s voice places a degree of absurdism on certain words, making his Bond much more self-aware than I think he’s been given credit for. Nor is this Bond a violent thug. As Spectre is wrapping up plot lines from the previous three films, there is a sense of finality as the end credits roll and the audience wonders whether Bond can live a normal life. Craig’s grown in the role so much that I felt a slight twinge of sadness that this will probably be his last. Of course I might be wrong about that, I hope I am… Aside from Craig, the next star of Spectre is the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. The use of colour is dazzling from scene to scene and evolves seamlessly as the narrative moves through various settings: from the vivacious explosion of colour in Mexico City to the brilliant fusion of gold and black in the coldly austere depiction of Rome. Hoytema masterly frames each setting with a distinctive colour identity. The harsh monochrome white of the Austrian Alps contrasts nicely with the blinding, sun-drenched North African desert.
spectre Daniel CraigOn the debit side, the one member of the cast who was truly wasted was not Monica Belluci (she handles her small but important role well) but Stephanie Sigman. Sigman plays Estrella in the pre-credits sequence set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, and while its a thrilling scene, we do not see nearly enough of her for it to make sense casting a recognisable actress in the role. Another gripe was the design of the new headquarters of British Intelligence. It looks cool, evoking both the Shard and Gherkin, and the spiral structure is fittingly symbolic, but, really, was glass architecture the best choice? The whole point of a secret service is that people shouldn’t be able to see in, plus the last HQ was destroyed in a bomb attack so, I repeat, did they think through the glass design?
Aside from that though, I was prepared to forgive Spectre its flaws as I was swept away by the romanticism of a film which embraced almost the entire history of the Bond series. And while every Bond film is over the top, and Spectre was no exception, there weren’t any nuking the fridge moments. The ‘nine eyes’ plot line was more interesting than a Bond-saves-the-world climax (in real life it’s called the five eyes), and this suited the meditative, almost languid pace of the film. This made me think Deborah Ross’ criticism was wide of the mark. Whatever its faults, Spectre is not a dumb action movie. For a mindless, and joyless, action movie watch any one of entries in The Expendables franchise.
Of course at the end of the day the only opinion that really matters is your own. So let me know what you thought of the movie in the comment thread below. Were you a Spectre sceptic or Bond believer?

Spectre Review: The Dead are Alive

November 1, 2015

SpectreYesterday my wife and I went to see Spectre. I hadn’t read any of the reviews and avoided the pre-release hype as much as possible so that my initial judgment of the film would not be coloured by anyone else’s opinion. My first reaction was that I liked it. I enjoyed the film a lot and think it ranks as one of the strongest entries in the series. And yet I also had the feeling that a significant minority of fans are not going to like it, but more on that later.

Spectre begins with the epigraph ‘the dead are alive’ hammered onto the screen with the brutal efficiency of an old typewriter. We are in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. A five minute tracking shot follows Bond (attired in suitably ghoulish costume) through the streets as he hunts down Mafia Boss cum terrorist Marco Sciarra. He overhears Sciarra make a cryptic reference to ‘the Pale King’ before all hell breaks loose and the scene climaxes with Bond and Sciarra battling on board an out-of-control helicopter. Back in London, M is furious that Bond was in Mexico on an unsanctioned mission. Whitehall mandarin Max Denbigh ‘C’ is planning to abolish the licence to kill OO agents, so Bond has only a short time to uncover the organisation Sciarra and ‘the Pale King’ are working for. That’s about all I’ll say about the plot here. There is a deliberately loose narrative structure as director Sam Mendes keeps events moving from set pieces in Mexico, Rome, Austria, Morocco and London. But while the script is lacking in some regards (the reliance on four letter words to get cheap laughs is grating) there are still plenty of surprises and hardcore fans will enjoy the multitude of references to the previous films. More than that though, Mendes seems to be paying tribute to cinema as much as the Bond canon. The opening tracking shot is not just technically brilliant, it is playful, vibrant and alive with sinisterly sexy possibility. The helicopter battle seems anticlimactic by comparison, being over-reliant on CGI (but it never descends to the level of Die Another Day’s abysmal CGI effects). In fact none of the action sequences had any adrenaline pumping quality. I was won over by the film’s leisurely elegance, its beautiful use of colour and the abundance of surreal images such as Bond and Mr White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (a very strong Lea Seydoux) encounter with a spotless Rolls Royce in the middle of the African desert. The best action sequence I thought was a bone-crunching fistfight between Bond and the unstoppable killing machine Mr Hinx. All of the villains are well played in Spectre. Dave Bautista is memorable as Hinx (good at murder but lacking in polite conversation), Andrew Scott is wonderfully sleazy as C, Jesper Christensen once again steals the show as Mr White (I’ve become quite fond of the character now), and Christoph Waltz is just outstanding as the leader of the titular Spectre organisation. His near perfect mixture of malevolence and goofiness is a reminder that a Bond film is only as good as its main villain.

It all made for a great Bond film but an unusually subdued action film, which is why I think some of the younger fans who only really know Daniel Craig in the role won’t like it. Mendes seems to have reserved the London sequences for the younger fans. In these scenes all the lush romantic ambience of the film vanishes. In fact, Mendes noirish portrayal of London is so overcast in foggy gloom that if I worked for the London Tourist Board I’d consider suing. This for me was the one misstep, as things started to get reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but I appreciate different Bond fans take different things from the series. Daniel Craig has given the series a lot: Casino Royale seems to get better with every viewing, Quantum of Solace was a structural mess but still had some extraordinary scenes (the Vienna opera sequence is one of my favourite moments in cinema), Skyfall I thought was overrated, and Spectre wraps up all four films quite neatly. The resolution was so tidy that it dawned on me with sadness that this could be the last time Craig takes on the role. When the film ended, we sat through all the credits waiting for that reassuring message that ‘James Bond will Return’. When it finally came, its muted, split second appearance left me feeling despondent. I looked up to see a cleaner in a Halloween costume ready to usher us out of the screening (we were the last to leave). I know there are a lot of great actors out there who would be perfect as Bond, but Spectre was so good it made me want to see Craig in the role again. But if he doesn’t come back, then this film is a fine swansong.

An Evening with Sir Roger Moore at the Liverpool Empire: Life of a Legend

October 27, 2015
Roger MooreRoger Moore was my childhood hero. When I first discovered the James Bond films, he was the Bond I related to the most. He was a favourite onscreen hero for several generations of fans, and his memorable roles include Ivanhoe, Simon Templar and Lord Brett Sinclair. It is hard to think of another British star who was so loved by an army of fans and yet so frequently dismissed by critics. I remember reading a review for a film (that didn’t star Moore) a few years ago and the critic said ‘this film is so bad they might as well have put Roger Moore in it.’ When they’re blaming you for other people’s bad movies you know something went wrong with your critical reputation. But when I saw my boyhood hero stride onto the stage at the Liverpool Empire Theatre last night, still looking strong at 88, I couldn’t help thinking that no other living actor has taken such a leading role over so many stages of international film and television history. His first role was a walk-on part as a Roman soldier in Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945 where he saw his screen idol Stewart Granger playing Apollodorus deliver the line, ‘It is purple on the green below’. From that point on he was hooked. As an actor, he would try to model himself on Granger (they would star together 33 years later in The Wild Geese), and he still carries today those values of suave authority and charm that Granger embodied on screen. That being said, much of Moore’s early career was on the stage (he recounted sharing a class with Lois Maxwell, the future Miss Moneypenny at Rada in the 1940s), and he gave a suitably theatrical rendition of his first ever rehearsal as an actor, a recitation of Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge’ which he still remembers almost line for line to this day.
Roger Moore and Lana Turner

Roger Moore and Lana Turner in Diane (1956)

Introduced and interviewed by Gareth Owen, who ghostwrote his memoirs, Sir Roger is a natural raconteur, and he talked through his seventy-year acting career in his usual disarming fashion. The highlights of this history, some of which he touched upon and others he did not, include his role as Stephen Colley in the play I Capture the Castle. The notices he received for his performances were so glowing that it led him to being offered both an MGM contract and a chance to join the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. He accepted the more lucrative MGM contract. If he had gone with the RSC, I doubt critics would have sniped years later that his acting range was limited to how high he can raise his eyebrows. His initial career in the US was not an unqualified success. Few people remember today that he replaced James Garner on the hit TV series Maverick. However, he would find tremendous success back in the UK as Simon Templar, aka The Saint in the biggest television show of the 1960s. Moore was in the running to be James Bond when Cubby Broccoli was first looking at actors for Dr No. However, it would not be until 1973, after squeezing in another TV hit The Persuaders! with Tony Curtis, that Moore landed the role of the cinema’s greatest hero. The story that Moore was Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond may well be false, even though it was repeated by Fleming’s biographer, but it is true that Moore immersed himself in Fleming’s writing when preparing for the role. As he revealed in a recent interview:

When I first took on the part, I read Fleming’s books. There was little offered in them about the character. However, I remember reading one line that said Bond had just completed a mission – meaning a kill. He didn’t particularly enjoy killing but took pride in doing his job well. That was the key to the role as far as I was concerned.
Last night Moore gave many anecdotes about members of the ‘Bond family’. There was a risque tale about the perverted sexual tastes of the actor Herve Villechaize, aka Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun, and there was one story that made a few people squirm in their chair when Moore described how he nearly had his buttocks blown off filming Stromberg’s death scene in The Spy Who Loved Me. If you don’t recall the scene it’s the one where Stromberg fires a mini missile at Bond from a gun hidden beneath a long dinner table (only in Bond!).
Aside from starring as Bond, Moore appeared in a series of films in the 1970s that when viewed today could easily be considered the best British films produced in a decade when looming economic disaster threatened to kill off the British film industry entirely. From his favourite role as Harold Pelham in the doppelganger thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) (the last film directed by the most underrated figure in British cinema Basil Dearden), to his leading roles in the action/adventures Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976) produced by strip-club-owner turned-film-producer Michael Klinger, Moore played a key role in keeping British cinema alive in its darkest hours collaborating with pugnacious and undervalued figures such as the directors Peter Hunt and Andrew V. McLaglen and producers Euan Lloyd and Lew Grade. This for me was the highlight of Moore’s career and an almost criminally overlooked chapter in British cinema history.
After he stood down as Bond, Moore put his acting career on the backburner and became a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, a subject he talked about with passion and eloquence. He movingly described how Audrey Hepburn persuaded him to get involved in the organisation shortly before she died of cancer. I was surprised Moore was as candid as he was at times. In interviews he has a tendency towards evasion, which I get the impression he employs when things are getting a little too close to home. Only on a few occasions in his long career has he dropped his guard to an interviewer. For instance, this interview with Barry Norman from the set of Moonraker is revealing when Norman asks him why he knocks his own talents so much. Last night was a treat for fans who wanted a glimpse of the man behind so many onscreen heroes. Of course at Sir Roger’s age no one should expect this to be the most dynamic show ever staged at the Empire Theatre. That being said, he was still on fine form regaling an enraptured audience with countless tales from a life well lived. You don’t see many actors in the style of Stewart Granger anymore. Sir Roger Moore is the epitome of the English gentleman actor and the last of his breed.
Postscript: Inevitably there were a few mentions of Spectre. Sir Roger claimed he hadn’t seen it yet but was typically enthusiastic about Daniel Craig returning as Bond. I’ve got tickets to see it this Saturday and needless to say I’m quite excited. Review to follow.

Warren G. Harding and the History that Inspired James Ellroy

October 18, 2015
James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Thatre, Manchester

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester

One of the most intriguing projects James Ellroy has worked on in his writing career was a novel he planned on President Warren G. Harding. In a 2001 interview with Craig McDonald, Ellroy stated he was interested in writing a novel on Harding as he wanted ‘to write about the ascent of a political figure for a long time’, and he was fascinated by the rumour the 29th President of the United States ‘was black or that there was black blood.’ When interviewed by Robert Birnbaum for, Ellroy expanded on his interest in Harding describing the dramatic potential of the black blood rumour as ‘an Ellroy story’. However, in a 2006 interview with McDonald, Ellroy claimed that although the Harding novel had been ‘the big plan’ he had now abandoned the project (in favour, as we now know, of a second Los Angeles Quartet). Ellroy mentioned to Birnbaum that one of the inspirations behind his Harding novel was ‘a wonderful book’ by Francis Russell titled The Shadow of Blooming Grove. Blooming Grove is a little town near Marion, Ohio, where Harding was from, and the title of Russell’s biography specifically refers to the rumour he had black blood, ‘the shadow’, that in less- enlightened times haunted Harding throughout his life. When I visited the Ellroy archive at University of South Carolina in 2009, I read through lots of Ellroy’s  correspondence and unpublished work, including ‘The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel’ and ‘L.A. Death Trip’; however, I was unable to find any notes or outline or character bio’s on a Harding novel. If Ellroy did any hard research or writing on his planned Harding novel, he must have subsequently destroyed it. This is a terrible shame, for having recently reread Russell’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove, I was able to spot many parallel’s in Harding’s story, and more importantly Russell’s, with themes in Ellroy’s work.

Russell begins his biography on the day of Harding’s inauguration March 4, 1921. An ailing Woodrow Wilson, exhausted after leading the US through World War I and having his plans to join the League of Nations sabotaged, makes polite conversation with the new president. Harding, the handsome mid-west Republican possessing bags of charm, is a very different character than the coldly intellectual Democrat Wilson. Harding has very little idea of what he hopes to accomplish with the presidency other than a vague notion of becoming America’s ‘best-loved president’. Russell gives a fascinating portrait of this affable but venal man. Harding was a charismatic speaker comfortable with large crowds, as evidenced in his front-porch campaign and the fact that he threw open the White House doors to greet thousands of ordinary Americans. He was more sketchy on policy: when pressed by a suffragette for his stance on women’s rights, he replied, ‘I had much rather that the party to which I belong should, in its conferences, make a declaration, than to assume a leadership or take an individual position on the question.’ Russell spends a lot of time on the complicated love-life of a president whose priapic disposition would have done Kennedy or Clinton proud. Never fully happy with his wife Florence, nicknamed ‘the Duchess’, Harding embarked on a long affair with Carrie Phillips, the beautiful and enigmatic wife of a Marion businessman. Phillips resided in Berlin for many years and was under investigation by the FBI for her alleged German sympathies during the Great War. In addition, she blackmailed the Republican party to the tune of thousands of dollars once Harding was nominated as the Republican candidate for the 1920 election. But perhaps more scandalous than this is Harding’s relationship with his other mistress Nan Britton. Britton was 31 years  younger than Harding and in 1919 she gave birth to his illegitimate daughter. Russell’s account of the time Britton and Harding were almost discovered by the Duchess having sex in a White House closet is straight out of a Carry-On film:

Once the Duchess nearly surprised them in their makeshift rendezvous. Ferguson, on Harding’s instructions, had gone on to the station to meet Nan on her way home from Chicago. The train was an hour late. When the two finally arrived at the White House through the back entrance, Harding was waiting for them in his office, boiling over with frustration and anxiety. “Where have you been?” he shouted red-faced at Ferguson. Finally mollified enough to lead Nan to the coat closet, he left Ferguson on guard outside the office door. The Secret Service man had not been there five minutes when the Duchess rushed up, arms akimbo and eyes ablaze. When she demanded that he stand aside, he refused, barring the door and telling her it was a strict Secret Service rule that no could enter there. Furiously she dashed round to the front entrance through Christian’s anteroom office. As soon as she disappeared, Ferguson banged on the closet door to warn Harding, then hustled Nan out the side door, telling her to go to his car and wait for him. Christian, suspecting what was up, took his time about admitting the Duchess, and when she finally burst into Harding’s office he was at his desk and there was no sign of Nan. Taking this in at a glance, she rushed out the same side door she had been forbidden to enter, glaring at Ferguson as she brushed past him.

As with some of the best biographies the characters surrounding Harding are as just as interesting (perhaps more so) as he is. Ellroy would definitely have been interested in the glimpses Russell gives the reader of the young ambitious J. Edgar Hoover, angling to assume the role of Director of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI), a position he would hold for forty-eight years. In addition, Russell gives brilliant portraits of members of the Ohio Gang (the venal clique that surrounded Harding before and during his presidency and whose inherent corruption would lead to the Teapot Dome scandal and the posthumous destruction of his reputation). There is the ill-fated gofer Jess Smith: ‘His bulging brown eyes were gentle but the rest of his face was pulpy – pink, loose hanging cheeks, and a black mustache above moist, thick lips […] He liked to loll on the courthouse square, any courthouse square, his favourite expression as he buttonholed a passer-by being: “Whaddaya know?”‘ Then there is Harry Daugherty, the most inappropriate choice for Attorney General in US history, who when charged with being ‘either the most maligned man in America or the cleverest crook, Daugherty gave a half-smile, shrugged his shoulders, and told him: “You can take your choice.”‘ Although perhaps the most memorable character is the devious Bureau agent Gaston Bullock Means: ‘a Munchausen in modern dress and the arch-rogue of all the roguish and bizarre figures that infiltrated Washington in the Harding years.’ From his suspected role in the murder of a ‘wealthy scatterbrained widow’ to his attempts to exploit the tragedy of the Lindbergh kidnapping Means is a hissable villain who never once admitted wrongdoing but in reality had no redeeming features. But it is Russell’s fascination with the nature, potential and fate of written sources and their subsequent role in shaping history that would have had the biggest influence on Ellroy. I was gripped by the story of Professor William Estabrook Chancellor, a bigoted Economics Don who threw away a distinguished career in academe to pursue his obsession of exposing Harding’s supposed black family heritage. Chancellor tried to sabotage Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign with a pamphlet titled To the Men and Women of America – An Open Letter containing his dubious racial allegations. This backfired and led to Chancellor’s dismissal from Wooster College, Ohio. Chancellor, not to be deterred, was planning a scurrilous biography titled the Illustrated Life of President Warren G. Harding, but once Daugherty learned of this, Chancellor was forced to burn the manuscript in front of ‘secret service agents and Post Office Inspector C. S. Zimmerman’, although Zimmerman suspected it had been a “fake bonfire”. Chancellor then slipped away to Montreal, re-emerging in 1922 with ‘a manuscript copy that had not been burned, […] traveling under an assumed name, he came with his completed manuscript to Dayton where he registered at the Beckel Hotel and got in touch with two local shysters, Hugh Snepp and Cedric R. Brown.’ Snepp and Brown gave Chancellor the financial backing to publish his Harding book, now under a new title. The subsequent backlash would be even more ferocious this time:

No sooner did Daugherty learn of the book’s surreptitious publication than he ordered Jess and Burns to suppress it. Agents of the Bureau of Investigation combed Ohio, buying, borrowing, or seizing every copy they could lay hands on, removing the book from stores, libraries, and institutions. […] Chancellor’s book became one of the rarest bibliographical items in twentieth-century American history.

Shadow of Blooming GroveRussell cites three US libraries and one anonymous Marion lawyer who are known to have a copy. If Chancellor’s various manuscripts had not been suppressed could it have changed history? Probably not. Most Americans, even by the standards of the time, would have felt nothing but revulsion for Chancellor’s white supremacist views. However, Chancellor’s story felt familiar to me as state institutions suppressing publications to protect themselves is a recurring motif in the work of James Ellroy. In the denouement of White Jazz, the scandal obsessed tabloid Hush-Hush is blocked from publishing Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein’s written confession of his life of crime after the LAPD file a legal injunction against the magazine. If the article had been published, the LAPD corruption would have been exposed and the public would have learned how close LA had come to a complete breakdown of law and order. In American Tabloid, Hush-Hush is once again blocked from publishing a story that would have had potentially explosive political consequences. John F. Kennedy is secretly recorded enjoying a tryst with a mistress. When Hush-Hush try to publish the story, the LAPD, in scenes remarkably similar to what happened to Chancellor in Ohio, seize all copies of the magazine before it can be distributed. Now I’m not saying Ellroy used Russell’s history as an inspiration for these scenes (he may well have read the book after the aforementioned novels were published), but I do think chapter 22 of The Shadow of Blooming Grove was an allusive inspiration on the overall structure of the Underworld USA trilogy. Russell dedicates the final chapter ‘Centenary’ to how he uncovered 105 letters between Harding and his lover Carrie Phillips, and how this led to a legal battle that struck at the very heart of issues such as copyright, historical research and the public’s right to know the truth. In a story that could be the basis of a legal thriller, Russell details his first visit to Marion in October 1963. While lunching with a Mason-like group known as the ‘Lawyers Table’, which included the trustees of the Harding Memorial Association, he learned that a local lawyer, Don Williamson, was said to possess some letters between Harding and Carrie Phillips. When he visited Williamson ‘the plump pleasant man’ told him that he was afraid to handover the letters to the Memorial Association as he suspected they would burn all of them and the nature of Harding’s relationship with Phillips would be lost to history. Russell advised Williamson to present the letters to the Ohio Historical Society. But Russell it seems misjudged the society; rather than being devoted to research and scholarship the Ohio Historical Society was ‘predominantly political, heavily subsidized, and supervised by the state legislature, and that its trustees were appointed for reasons of politics rather than scholarship.’ Russell held the society’s president, the Columbus-based lawyer Fred J. Milligan, in particular contempt, ‘a man of aggressive naivete […] his talk crude and his voice harsh’ and most damning for a supposed historian ‘he had read little and written nothing.’ Nevertheless Russell and Williamson handed over the letters to the society unaware that Milligan was already plotting against them. Russell describes how the 1964 AGM of the Ohio Historical Society was heavily publicised as the society claimed to have acquired all of the Harding papers, partly due to Russell’s work, and would open them to researchers within six months. However, Milligan ‘told the 15 trustees – his hoarse voice edged with anger – that the Harding papers being released to view that day were not quite all. There were still other letters, some extraordinary private correspondence to consider. The board then sent the stenographer from the room and went into executive session […] Milligan informed the trustees that a large collection of Harding’s love letters to another man’s wife had come into possession of the society.’ In the meantime the existence of the letters was beginning to leak out and Russell ‘confirmed certain data which appeared in a story in The New York Times about the Harding letters. The coast-to-coast, and even European, reaction was more than I had bargained for.’ Harding’s nephew, Dr George T. Harding, enraged by the publication of certain erotic extracts which he claimed caused the family emotional distress, filed a suit asking for the impounding of the letters. After prolonged legal battles, during which time the letters were stored in a safe deposit box of the Ohio National Bank, the Harding family gained control of the letters and succeeded in blocking their publication.

Ultimately, Russell chose to publish The Shadow of Blooming Grove with blank spaces in the text where he had originally quoted from the letters. The effect of these deletions is tantalising to the reader. Take the quote below, taken from the ‘Centenary’ chapter, where Russell describes how Harding’s letters to Carrie Phillips confirmed he was also having an affair with Nan Britton:

Even before I read them I could see that they confirmed Nan Britton, for in her book she had told of receiving letters 40 pages long, written in pencil and enclosed in blue envelopes. I had thought such length preposterous and doubted her story because of it, but here were pencilled letters equally long, and enclosed in similar blue envelopes. Here the same expressions that he had used to Nan popped out of the scrawled pages: [—————————————————-]

By my count there are 28 quotations in the book redacted in this way, amounting to what Russell describes as ‘800 words from a text of 300,000.’ But what has any of this to do with James Ellroy? I believe Russell’s legal problems regarding the Carrie letters may have inspired Ellroy to structure the Underworld USA series to resemble an archive of historical sources in which the reader is given glimpses of confidential or censored documents. American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009) read as a secret history, more revealing and comprehensive than established historical sources. In Tabloid for instance, Bobby Kennedy orders J. Edgar Kennedy to handover all of his covert recordings of organised crime figures. But Hoover only gives Kennedy redacted versions of the tapes. Thus, Bobby Kennedy is unaware that the Mafia is conspiring to assassinate his brother. Hoover (and the reader of the novel) are privy to transcripts which give a glimpse of this conspiracy. By Blood’s a Rover, the fate of Hoover’s archive of files forms the conclusion of the trilogy. The series ends with Hoover’s death and the disposition of the files by left-wing activists reveal to an angry nation the illegal activities of the Intelligence community. Hoover’s death falls just after the theft of confidential files from the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, and just before the botched break-in at the Watergate Hotel. The Watergate scandal is only alluded to in the novel, but by the end of the series it is clear power has shifted from an underworld of organised crime and rogue Intelligence operatives to a different underworld of radical activists who are briefly able to expose corruption and hold power to account. But the ending is still clouded in ambiguity. The character in Blood’s a Rover who most closely resembles Ellroy, Don Crutchfield, becomes the recipient and custodian of the files but there remains doubt as to his ability to bring the revelations to public view. America may be more accountable following the death of Hoover and the old underworld but there are still forces at work that can block the release of damaging government secrets. I realise there is a big difference between racy letters being suppressed to spare the blushes of the Harding family and documents being classified because they reveal US intelligence’s role in criminal activity, but when I reread Crutchfield’s opening and closing monologue of Blood’s a Rover recently, I was struck by the similarity between his words and Francis Russell’s thinly concealed anger at the suppression of the Carrie letters. Russell knew that the letters he had read and wanted the American public to see could not be blocked from publication indefinitely, ‘Eventually, of course, the letters will be published as a part of history. Meanwhile each reader must make his own interpretation of them.’ The Library of Congress released the letters in July 2014. The letters caused a minor stir for being the ‘most sexually-explicit language ever credited to an American head of state’ but were more humorous than controversial, being sent-up on Last Week Tonight by John Oliver. Frankly, a President naming his right honourable member ‘Jerry’ is not shocking twenty years after a presidential scandal involving cigars and a semen stained dress. Russell predicted this: ‘Harding’s eroticism as expressed in his letters is naive, and even pathetic as the quality of his mind peeps through the boudoir phrases.’ Russell died in 1989. Everything I can find out about him suggests he had a fascinating life. According to his author’s bio, after serving as a captain in the Canadian Army during World War II he lived in ‘France, England, Holland, Ireland and Germany’. He won an Edgar award for his true-crime book Tragedy In Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1963) and spent his declining years in some style, living in the seventeenth-century house “The Lindens” in Sandwich on Cape Cod. But a quarter-century after his death, and with the release of the Carrie letters, how well does Russell’s scholarship hold up?

Warren G. Harding Home in Marion, Ohio

Warren G. Harding Home in Marion, Ohio

A few years ago my wife and I were visiting friends in Ohio and decided to drop by Harding’s Marion home (now a museum run by the Ohio Historical Society who changed their name to the Ohio History Connection two months before the Carrie letters were finally released) and his final resting place, the Harding tomb, nearby. We were given a guided tour by a friendly history teacher who worked in the museum over the summer. Chatting amicably away with her, when I mentioned The Shadow of Blooming Grove the pleasant mood suddenly evaporated. According to the teacher, Russell’s book was ‘terrible trash’ and not a serious history. Perhaps she was right, I’m not enough of an expert on the era to have spotted mistakes that a Harding scholar might see in Russell’s research. It did occur to me however, that Russell’s dispute with the Harding heirs and the Ohio Historical Society was still causing some lingering resentment fifty years after the initial controversy of the Carrie Phillips letters. In Russell’s defence, I would have to say that The Shadow of Blooming Grove reads brilliantly throughout its 663 pages. Russell paces the story very well, from Harding’s Capraesque role as editor of the Marion Star to his gradual rise in the murky world of Ohio politics (Lieutenant Governor, State Senator) in the age of the political boss. Also, the complex machinations of government, whether in Ohio or Washington DC, could easily be tedious and over detailed but Russell handles each stage of the story well. I was racing through the book by the time events move to Harding’s role as Senator and Presidential candidate. Now it may well be that Russell’s approach is too novelistic for a biography (the corruption of the Ohio Gang has proved ripe material for fiction being adapted in Gore Vidal’s novel Hollywood (1990) and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire), and I have not heard the Ohio Historical Society’s response to his allegations, but the story is so fascinating I admired how suspense built as events moved towards Harding’s sudden death just two years into his presidency. Russell does test one account against another at several times in the text, and demolishes scurrilous rumours that Harding was murdered, a theory put forth in The Strange Death of President Harding (1931) by the dastardly Gaston Means. All in all, Russell’s work has survived the test of time as a valuable and fascinating history. The most recent edition was published in 1988. I suggest it might be time for a new edition of The Shadow of Blooming Grove to be published with the quotes from the Carrie letters put back in.

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction – Extract

October 7, 2015

Ellroy Powell

My new book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is released on October 21 as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files series. Here’s an extract from the introduction:

James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. He grew up in the epicentre of American noir at the height of the classic film noir period: ‘I remember feeling that things were going on outside the frame of what I was seeing. The language I got partly from my father, who swore a lot. It was an older L.A., a man’s L.A., where everybody smoked cigarettes and ate steak and went to fights’ (Kihn 1992: 32). This experiential, inchoate knowledge of Los Angeles was to prove Ellroy’s most valuable education. He absorbed what he saw at home and on the streets, and culturally he gravitated towards this world more than any other: ‘My passion for movies does not extend beyond their depiction of crime. My filmic pantheon rarely goes past 1959 and the end of the film noir age’ (Ellroy 1997a: xvii).

The city and the era had an enormous influence on his formative years and on his identity as a crime writer. One of Ellroy’s main aims as a crime novelist has been to revisit and reimagine this noir era in the LA Quartet series. Noir presents a world where politics is a byword for corruption, individuals are morally compromised, and protagonists are resigned to their fate knowing there will be no happy endings. It is noir’s darkness which makes it so attractive, and Ellroy’s historical fiction has captured the essence of this noir paradox. Yet even though his writing style is nostalgically drawn to film noir and detective fiction in the era of the 1940s and 1950s, Ellroy’s noir vision deconstructs both the perceived glamour and social conservatism of the era: his LA is a city riven with organized crime and LAPD corruption.

The history of Los Angeles and its cinematic identity was just one inspiration for Ellroy. He would also draw on biographical elements of his own life in his fiction, including, most notably, the unsolved murder of his mother Geneva Hilliker Ellroy in 1958. Ellroy would entwine LA narratives with that of his mother’s death to deepen, contextualize, spiritualize and fictionalize his mother’s influence on his life. Ellroy’s childhood discovery of the Black Dahlia case, the most famous unsolved murder in LA history, while reading Jack Webb’s The Badge (1958), was also significant. Before he reached adolescence, Ellroy had discovered the two main obsessions of his literary career: his mother’s murder and the Black Dahlia herself – Elizabeth Short.

Ellroy’s path to becoming a writer, however, was to be an unconventional one. With his father’s death in 1965, Ellroy lost all restraining influences. The next few years of his life were characterized by drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, petty crime and several stints in the LA County Jail. It was a brush with death that finally persuaded Ellroy to reform and start writing. In 1975, Ellroy suffered a mental and physical breakdown, which he has described as ‘post-alcoholic brain syndrome’, but he did not stop substance abusing until he nearly died of pneumonia and a lung abscess (Kihn 1992: 25). In 1977, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous which became a turning point: employment followed sobriety. His first novel, Brown’s Requiem, was published in 1981. Ellroy slowly and steadily built his reputation as a crime writer. His breakthrough came with his seventh novel, The Black Dahlia (1987), in which he created a fictional solution to the murder of Elizabeth Short and allusively explored his obsession with his mother’s murder. Since then, Ellroy has become one of the most prominent of contemporary crime writers through the publication of a series of novels merging noir with historical revisionism in the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy.

In parallel to his work as a novelist, Ellroy has developed a public persona as the self-styled Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. Through interviews, Ellroy found an outlet for his literary persona, elevating standard publicity opportunities into a form of creative performance, building and deconstructing narratives which in turn play with the semi-biographical as well as the purely fictional narratives of the novels: ‘As critical acclaim and response has built up, every interview I give is a chance to puncture the myth I’ve created about my work and refine it’ (Hogan 1995: 60). The documentaries James Ellroy: American Dog (2006) and Feast of Death (2001) feature scenes with Ellroy at his favourite LA restaurant, the Pacific Dining Car, holding court with his contacts in the LAPD alongside fellow writers such as Bruce Wagner and Larry Harnisch and show-business friends Dana Delany and Nick Nolte, discussing unsolved cases and LA history. Few crime writers could match Ellroy in terms of clout and his ability to generate publicity, but by his own admission much of what he says should be taken with a degree of scepticism. Ellroy is an author at ease with his own sense of celebrity, but, in one of the many contradictory sides of his character, he relishes his self-crafted image as an outsider – too edgy, unpredictable and maverick to ever truly belong to the Hollywood or publishing establishment. He can be an intimidating figure to some journalists, as Iain Johnston wrote during one interview: ‘The myopic stare of James Ellroy, too, reveals much about his character – his suppressed anxiety, resolute obsession, locked down concentration, fierce determination and wild, black humour, are all detectable there’ (Johnston 2014). In his public appearances, Ellroy cuts a striking figure, often dressed in garish Hawaiian shirts, spouting outrageous right-wing views and barking like a dog. This manic behaviour might seem to contradict his reputation as an acclaimed historical novelist, but in part Ellroy maintains his creativity and uniqueness by eschewing respectability.

You can find more information on the book on Palgrave’s website.


Henning Mankell (1948-2015)

October 5, 2015

Henning_Mankell_3_2011_ShankboneI was sad to read that Henning Mankell has passed away at the age of 67 after suffering from cancer. There have been many great crime writers, but Mankell became one of the very best by creating the character Kurt Wallander who, like Poirot or Philip Marlowe, people felt they knew because they liked him and sympathised with him.

RIP Henning.


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