I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan, and I’m still with giddy with excitement after visiting such a remarkable and wondrous place. But as this is a crime fiction blog, I will not ramble on like an enthused tourist, but instead cut straight to my book review. I had to admit to our Japanese hosts that although I’ve read crime fiction from many different countries I was still woefully behind when it came to Japanese practitioners of the genre. They recommended Keigo Higashino’s Malice, and as I’d heard great things about Higashino’s smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X, I was happy read it in a single sitting on the long flight home.
When a critically acclaimed author, Kunihiko Hidaka, is found dead in his office Detective Kyochiro Kaga realises he has a locked room mystery on his hands. This is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. The killer soon confesses but that confession is tainted by lies and distortions. Kaga has to distinguish between fact and fiction in the life and death of the author Hidaka. Was fellow author and discoverer of Hidaka’s corpse really a friend or rival to the victim? How much did Hidaka’s beautiful widow really know about her husband? There is even a detail Kaga grapples with, which I thought was a red herring but connects eventually, about Hidaka incurring the wrath of his neighbour after poisoning her cat. With Malice, the title refers not so much to the crime but the rivalry between the two writers. The novel is structured as a series of character perspectives of events immediately prior to and after the death of Hidaka, although as the novel progresses, the reminiscences stretch back years. With each perspective, falsehoods, hidden details and repressed feelings emerge from what has been explained before. Some memory is relayed verbally. At other points it is given as written text. The implicated writer Nonoguchi seems relieved that he can recount his involvement through the written word:
Detective Kaga has given me special permission to complete the following account before I leave the room I currently occupy. Why I asked to be allowed to do so is, I’m sure, incomprehensible to him. I doubt he’d understand even if I told him that it was a writer’s basic instinct to want to finish a piece he’d started, even if it was begun under false pretences.
Yet I believe that my experiences over the past hour or so are worthy of recording. This, too, I credit to writer’s instinct – though what I write is the story of my ruination.
Higashino is a writer fascinated by the act of writing and a writer’s psyche. But this is not an indulgent exercise in navel-gazing, as there is a both a clever and gripping layering of meta-fictional storytelling in the text. The interlinking of the two writers work (who wrote what and why?) is complemented by themes such as the stories the writers are telling and living off the page. The importance, if any, of writing that goes unread and unpublished, and the nature of authorship over manuscripts that have been rewritten, revised, reedited, copied and for that matter plagiarized. All of these issues are seamlessly interwoven into the many satisfying twists and turns of the narrative. Higashino has clearly had a lot of fun with this mystery puzzle-cum-thesis on the writer’s craft, and by the time you get to the last page, rather like the punchlines that used to end Elmore Leonard’s novels, you’ll realise the joke’s on you.
If there’s a flaw, I’d have to say it is the interaction between the characters being occasionally stilted and awkward. I wouldn’t necessarily say this was Higashino’s fault; despite having two translators, I suspect something has been lost in the text in the transition from Japanese to English. The characters often come across as very clever people giving speeches to one another, or as Jane Jakemen put it the novel reads like ‘a study of intellectuals doing their very nasty damnedest.’ Although this is sometimes grating, it never overwhelms the enjoyment of the story. Higashino has crafted a fascinating, meticulously plotted mystery novel, and I’m looking forward to discovering his other work and the work of more Japanese crime writers.
I have written an essay in a new anthology of critical work on crime fiction (published this month). Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More is edited by Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti and features essays on authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sara Paretsky, David Peace, James Ellroy, Maurice Leblanc, Lisa Marklund, Andrea Camilleri and Jorge Luis Borges. My piece is titled ‘The Structure of the Whole: James Ellroy’s LA Quartet Series’.
It was a pleasure to work on this book, and I’m sure it will have great appeal to the student, scholar or fan of crime fiction. You can find out more about the book on Palgrave’s website. Here’s the full table of contents:
PART I: THE SUM OF ITS PARTS: WHAT MAKES A SERIES?
2. Stephen Burroughs, Serial Offender; Jon Blandford
3. The Myth of the Gentleman Burglar: Models of Serialization and Temporality in Early Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction; Federico Pagello
4. ‘More than the Sum of its Parts: Borges, Bioy Casares and the Phenomenon of the Séptimo Círculo Collection’; Carolina Miranda
5. Serializing Sullivan: Vian/Sullivan, the Série noire, and the effet de collection; Clara Sitbon, Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan and Alistair Rolls
6. Armed and Dangerous: Le Poulpe and the Formalization of French Noir; Pim Higginson
7. Acts of Violence: The World War II Veteran Private-Eye Movie as an Ideological Crime Series; Nick Heffernan
8. The Structure of the Whole: James Ellroy’s LA Quartet Series; Steven Powell
PART II: AS TIME GOES BY: PROGRESSING THE SERIES
9. The Maturity of Lord Peter Wimsey and Authorial Innovation Within a Series; Brittain Bright
10. Series Fiction and the Challenge of Ideology: the Feminism of Sara Paretsky; Sabine Vanacker
11. From Conflicted Mother to Lone Avenger: Transformations of the Woman Journalist Detective in Liza Marklund’s Crime Series; Kerstin Bergman
12. It’s All One Book. It’s All One World: George Pelecanos’s Washington DC; Eduardo Obradó
13. Serializing Evil: David Peace and the Formulæ of Crime Fiction; Nicoletta Vallorani
14. The Flavour of the Street: The Factory Series by Derek Raymond; Anna Pasolini
15. Andrea Camilleri’s Imaginary Vigàta, Between Formula and Innovation; Barbara Pezzotti
PART III: TRANPOSITION, IMITATION, INNOVATION
16. Sherlock Holmes in Hollywood: Film Series, Genre and Masculinities; Maysaa Jaber
17. Murder, Mayhem and Clever Branding: the Stunning Success of J.B. Fletcher; Rachel Franks and Donna Lee Brien
18. From flâneur to traceur?: Léo Malet and Cara Black Construct the PI’s Paris; Jean Anderson
19. The City Lives in Me: Connectivity and Embeddedness in Australia’s Peter Temple and Shane Maloney; Carolyn Beasley
20. ‘She’s pretty hardboiled, huh?’ Rewriting the Classic Detective in Veronica Mars; Taryn Norman
21. ‘Exspecta Inexspectata’: The Rise of the Supernatural in Hybrid; Detective Series for Young Readers; Lucy Andrew
The Venetian Vase celebrated its sixth birthday recently. In those six years, I’d say about 40 to 50% of the posts have been about James Ellroy. Of course I enjoy blogging about other forms of crime or genre fiction, from the James Bond films to Scandinavian crime fiction and even niche subjects like Eurosceptic and anti-Establishment fiction. However, I have been researching Ellroy’s life and work for years. He’s the subject of my PhD, and I have edited one book and written another on the author, so I was able in that time to keep this blog updated with elements of my ongoing research on Ellroy. Therefore, I’ve decided to create a new archival page on this blog featuring all of my substantial posts on Ellroy. You’ll find the new James Ellroy page at the top of this website next to the Books, About and Contact pages or simply follow this link.
My new book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their Crime Files Series. I’ll be blogging a lot about the book nearer its October 21 release date. Meanwhile, you can find information on the book and pre-order a copy from Palgrave’s website or Amazon.
The ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ conference was held at the University of Liverpool, 2 July 2015. My wife and I organised the conference, and it was a wonderful experience to meet academics, students and Ellroy enthusiasts from Brazil, Germany, Australia, Spain and of course the United Kingdom. Thank you to everyone who came and shared their research on the Demon Dog. We were also honoured to welcome two wonderful guest speakers: Martin Edwards and Woody Haut. You can read Woody’s talk here.
Martin Edwards discussed his new book The Golden Age of Murder:
A speaker gives a talk on power relations in the Underworld USA trilogy:
A delegate brought along a Portugese translation of The Black Dahlia which featured strikingly sinister artwork:
And here’s some of the artwork which features at the beginning of every chapter:
Thanks again to everyone who attended and made the conference a wonderful event.
The 1960 Los Angeles setting of Woody Haut’s Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime is a pivotal year in American history: Power shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats as the Presidency was passed from Eisenhower to Kennedy. Social conservatism was swept away by sexual liberation and the Civil Rights movement, and the Blues sound pioneered by artists such as Muddy Waters, Skip James and Son House was adapted into the commercially successfully rock and pop style of, among others, British Invasion bands.
One man well placed to observe this history in the making is Abe Howard. A brilliant, unscrupulous freelance news reporter, Howard has built a reputation on his knack for getting the best images at crime scenes. Known by his colleagues, including the legendary Weegee, as ‘Abe on the spot’, Abe took photos of the bloodied corpses at the St Valentine’s Day massacre and opened the eyes of John Dillinger’s lifeless body outside the Biograph cinema in order to get the most striking image possible. But if Abe’s work has brought him close to the thrill of violence, it has also worn him down and made him a middle-aged cynic: ‘Fourteen years he’d been in Los Angeles, and he had nothing to show for it other than a bunch of negatives and some nightmarish images.’ The brutal murder of a young black jazz musician, Jimmy Estes, sparks a chain of events that will test Abe’s ability to endure this noir world. The photos he takes at the crime scene lead Abe to incur the wrath of LA Mob kingpin Mickey Cohen. Abe also tempts fate when he starts an affair with a woman potentially connected to the case, a blonde, alluring enough, in Raymond Chandler’s words, ‘to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’. But will his infidelity come at the loss of his wife and kids?
Haut is a renowned critic of crime fiction and film noir, and the reader will be aware of another, more metafictional pivotal moment in the 1960 setting as noir transitioned from what some critics deem to be classic or ‘legitimate’ noir period from 1941 to the late 1950s to the more self-conscious, colourful neo-noirs of 1960 onwards. Haut chose this setting ‘Not as nostalgia for a world gone by, but as the story of the city at a particular time and place, when, as someone once said, the old world was dying and the new had yet to be born.’ Haut deftly steers the narrative through the birth of this new world by essentially merging crime fiction styles. Abe’s lover Kim bears a striking, almost sinister resemblance to Lana Turner, and the LA lore sub-plot behind Turner, her daughter Cheryl Crane and the killing of Johnny Stompanato was reminiscent of a classic noir age when gangsters thought of themselves as movie stars and a thin line separated Hollywood and organised crime. In contrast, the late introduction of two bickering hit men reminded me of a contemporary practitioner of the genre.
We tend see what we want to see in some stories, and there were many plot details and stylistic flourishes I thought could be influenced by or references to James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The clipped, hardboiled prose at times felt particularly Ellrovian. This is not a limitation on the novel, however, far from it. Haut’s noir prose and dialogue bring the narrative to life so that the more you read, the more the thought of external influences are swept away by what Emory Holmes II describes as Haut’s ‘horizontal poetry’:
A fresh-faced actress snorting cocaine with her underage girlfriend in the back of a limousine. Snap. An ageing, but tearful, starlet in flagrante delicto with a sixteen year old boy. Snap. An up-and-coming young actor fucking that very same boy in the actor’s souped-up, cherry-red ‘53, accompanied on the car radio by the latest Chuck Berry song. “Oh shit, here comes trouble,” Mitchum would say when he saw Abe.
Indeed, Abe’s photographs are in themselves a form of poetry, telling a story both factually and aesthetically through the visual image. Some of the most pleasurable moments in the novel come through the banter and petty rivalry that exists between a group of 78 RPM Blues record collectors. For these quirky outsiders, the Blues sound is the highest form of poetry and the gramophone is to them what the camera is to Abe, but they too find that the murder of Jimmy Estes means they can no longer pursue their interests with objective distance. As Abe is plunged deeper and deeper into the repercussions of the Estes murder, the story comes to a gripping climax. Haut has crafted a seminal crime novel in Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, referencing both the history of noir and taking it into new territory. Highly recommended.
Who would be your ideal guest at dinner party? It’s a question often posed (although never I assume at dinner parties), to discern something of the speaker’s interests. I’ve never quite known how to answer that question, but after reading Martin Edwards The Golden Age of Murder, I’ve decided that rather than invite a famous person to dinner in an ideal world, I would invite myself to one of the Detection Club dinners in the 1930s or 1940s. Over crème brûlée and cognac I could eavesdrop on John Dickson Carr discuss his masterwork The Hollow Man (1935) before he segued into a rant about the socialist policies of the Attlee Government or G.K. Chesterton debate the wording of the Club’s initiation oath in between discussions of ecclesiastical matters. Like the plot of many a classic mystery, Edwards has used a deceptively simple setting and starting point, a dining society, to examine ‘The mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story’. It’s cast of characters include Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Croft and Edmund Crispin to name but a few of the writers who produced their best work in the period John Strachey dubbed ‘The Golden Age of Detection Fiction’.
Martin Edwards is the bestselling author of the Harry Devlin novels and Lake District Mysteries and also happens to be the Detection Club’s archivist, a position which made him the ideal candidate to write The Golden Age of Murder. Edwards brings his skill as a novelist to approach the history of the Golden Age as a mystery that needs to be solved. What made these writers tick? Why did some authors walk away from the genre while others dedicated their lives to mysteries? And what about the cases they discussed over the boozy Detection Club lunches at the Dorchester and pondered over long into the night in their studies? One of Edwards aims with this history is to elevate the Golden Age above the lazy criticism which has dismissed the genre as cozy, predictable and without literary merit. On the last point, Edwards gives details of many literary figures, P.G. Wodehouse, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Cecil Day Lewis, who either admired or produced works of detective fiction. As an Americanist, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s famous quote on Dashiell Hammett, which gives this blog its name:
Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. […] Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.
Chandler’s words have a generous dose of ironic humour, but his basic idea carries great weight in critical circles – that hardboiled realism replaced the flippant style of the Golden Age. Edwards seeks to debunk this myth in part by looking at the true crime cases which inspired Golden Age writers. It is easy to see how past generations were in turn fascinated and repulsed by murder just as much as they are today even though twenty-four hour media means we are often saturated by graphic images. Doctor Crippen’s poisoning of his wife Cora, and the events leading to the execution of Herbert Rowse Armstrong (the only solicitor to be hanged in the UK), inspired Anthony Berkeley to write Malice Aforethought (1931). The novel was an early example of the ‘inverted detective story’, and it also gave Berkeley a platform to express his sympathy for Crippen, the wronged adulterer trapped in a marriage to a woman who ‘deserved murdering’. It was in both the criminal cases and the characters of Crippen and Armstrong which inspired stories radical in their exploration of forensic science and psychological profiles. There are many cases referenced in The Golden Age of Murder — one that had me hooked in particular was the murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell, the original ‘real-life locked room mystery’, which inspired S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case (1926).
The constant talk of murder is alleviated, or perhaps should I say enhanced, by Edwards dry wit. He compares Dorothy L Sayers obstinacy towards rewrites, ‘No, no! I will not alter a word…’, to Margaret Thatcher’s famous triple no, and his description of R. Austin Freeman’s character of Romney Pringle is priceless: ‘Pringle is a villain who masquerades as a ‘literary agent’ – a concept which might strike a chord with some writers.’
Are there any flaws? I can’t think of any obvious ones, but Edwards does mention the natural limitations of historical research in the acknowledgements of the book:
I met, spoke to or corresponded with members of the families of several early members of the Detection Club. Understandably, memories of events dating back more than half a century were often hazy, but their reminiscences gave me a fuller understanding of the past. Once or twice, I felt there was a danger of intruding on private unhappiness; the legitimate public interest in such things has its limits, and I have striven to reflect that in writing this book.
But in drawing attention to how we will never have a complete knowledge of the era, Edwards achievement seems all the more remarkable. He sheds new light on Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance and Dorothy L. Sayers lifelong guilt over her illegitimate child. There are other revelations which I won’t mention here as I don’t want to give the game away, but Mark Lawson’s incisive review of the book for the Guardian accurately conveys how Edwards employs the detective story as a form of historical technique:
He [Edwards] succeeds by adopting the tease-and-reveal structure of a mystery story. The opening chapter notes that two leading golden age authors, unable to leave their marriages, conducted a love affair hinted at in coded notes and clues in their books. But the identity of the couple is withheld for 400 pages until a coda which attaches a new significance to their plots involving the horrible deaths of spouses.
Even the endnotes are crammed with so many fascinating tidbits that if you blink you’ll miss things. I didn’t know, for instance, that as a young man Len Deighton once served Agatha Christie champagne when he was working as a BOAC flight attendant. He reminded her of the incident years later when he was admitted to the Detection Club. Furthermore, I was constantly scribbling down titles of works Edwards claims are unjustly forgotten but could now, with this book and renewed interest in the genre, see new life. Titles I made note of for future reading included Israel Rank (1907), A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) and a parody of hardboiled crime fiction ‘The Policeman Only Taps Once’. All in all, The Golden Age of Murder is an important and absorbing history which reminds us, like the episodes of Poirot and Sherlock which draw in massive audiences, that the enduring popularity of Golden Age detective fiction transcends the critical snobbery which has accompanied it.
In his essay ‘Out of the Past’, James Ellroy describes how ‘Half-buried memories speak to me.’ A few of these ‘brief synaptic blips […] transmogrify into fiction.’ It was a faded memory of Dick Contino, the star accordion player whose career never fully recovered being imprisoned for draft dodging during the Korean War, that Ellroy claimed was a major, but unconscious, influence on his writing of the LA Quartet.
Dick Contino began his meteoric rise to fame in 1947 when he won the Horace Heidt talent contest at the age of 17. How he won his fame, lost it, and then subsequently rebuilt his career has all the hallmarks of a classic Ellroy story. Contino’s skill as an accordionist made him a heartthrob. He had over 500 fan clubs across the country, dated Gloria DeHaven and Piper Laurie, and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 48 times. Ellroy describes his childhood memory of Contino as ‘A man gyrating with an accordion – pumping his “Stomach Steinway” for all it’s worth.’ However, things started to go downhill when Contino was drafted for the Korean War. Contino started suffering from panic attacks, but the army still judged him fit to serve. The day before he was due to be inducted into the army, Contino suffered another bout of anxiety and took off. His disappearance became a media sensation, and the FBI became involved in the hunt to find him. After surrendering to federal authorities, Contino was sentenced to six months in jail and fined ten thousand dollars.
I had some knowledge of Contino’s life through Ellroy’s writing on him, but I wanted to find out more about the man and purchased the only biography of Contino I could find. Accordian Man: The Legendary Dick Contino (1994) is a fairly slim bio written by Contino’s friend Bob Bove. Bove’s writing is suffused with an admiration for his subject that verges on the hagiographic, but the book is useful as a chronological account of Contino’s life, and by the end I found myself being won over by its all-American optimism. There were plenty of snippets of info I found interesting, such as this one from Contino’s trial:
On the day he was to be sentenced, Contino stepped into an elevator and, to his surprise, encountered Judge A.P. Roche who was presiding at the trial. In the solitude of the elevator car, Contino poured out his heart to the judge, telling him that he’d changed his mind – that he would gladly serve his country. To Contino’s surprise, Roche refused his offer.
“I’m not interested in your offer, Mr. Contino,” the Judge stated. “I’ve decided to use you as an example to others who seek to avoid military service.”
And this one, from Contino’s time in prison at McNeil Island:
In prison, Contino became close friends with Jim Coletti, his cellmate and a convicted murderer.
“Jim Coletti was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” Dick recalls fondly. “He befriended me at a time when many people turned their backs on me.”
“Often, when I would get the blues, Jim gave me the support that I needed to carry. He encouraged me to continue performing while I’m in prison and, he never missed a performance.”
“No matter what happens, I’ll never forget him.”
The only Jim Coletti I can find who matches this description is James Colletti, who became the Boss of the Denver Crime Family. Contino did occasional private performances for the Mob later in his career, so perhaps his cellmate was the future Mafia Boss. Bove however, is not so much interested in gossip as in vindicating the disgraced accordionist. He details how Contino was shipped to Korea after he served his sentence, and this is where the author met him. Contino served his country with distinction and was honourably discharged with numerous military commendations. Contino slowly and successfully started to rebuild his career, but he found himself blackballed from some gigs and booed by audiences because of his reputation as a draft dodger. The public seemed unaware that after completing his sentence Contino had served his country without complaint. Ellroy himself admits his childhood opinion of Contino was coloured by his father’s dismissal of the accordionist, “That guy’s no good. He’s a draft dodger”, when he appeared on TV. Shortly thereafter, the young Ellroy saw Contino playing the lead in the B-Movie Daddy-O (1958). The film was universally slated and has been mocked in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Clearly Contino took the role as he was struggling to find work, and looking back on the film many years later, Ellroy believes the accordionist acquitted himself honourably as an actor: ‘he can act: he’s an obvious natural, at ease with the camera. Dig: atrocious lines get upgraded to mediocre every time he opens his mouth.’ Bove also dismissed the film as a turkey but praised Contino’s performance ‘Although he did the best he could, Dick was unable to overcome the ‘B’ quality scripts and amateurish production values that hounded each project.’ I’ve never seen the entire film, but there are several scenes available on YouTube and I’d agree with Ellroy and Bove that Contino brings some gravitas to the role:
After watching Daddy-O as a child, Ellroy did not consciously think of Contino again for decades until ‘Fate intervened, via photograph and video cassette.’ The photograph was a picture of Ellroy as a boy, taken on the day he discovered his mother had been murdered. A friend of Ellroy’s dug up the photo and it formed part of a confluence of events that persuaded Ellroy to begin a re-investigation of his mother’s murder which he detailed in his memoir My Dark Places (1996). Ellroy claimed that staring at the photo of himself as a boy sparked a memory of his viewing of Daddy-O. Eventually, the ‘video cassette’ became just as significant to his literary plans as the photograph: after re-watching Daddy-O, Ellroy met with Contino in Las Vegas. They sparked an instant rapport, and Ellroy was surprised to learn of some of the hardships Contino had faced due to the misconceptions built around his Korean War service. Ellroy’s conversations with Contino would form the genesis of his next work of fiction: ‘Dick Contino’s Blues was blasting its way into my consciousness. It seemed to be coming from somewhere far outside my volition.’ Ellroy asked Contino if he could make him the eponymous star of the novella, telling him it would be about “Fear, courage and heavily compromised redemptions.” In the event, Dick Contino’s Blues marked a shift in Ellroy’s writing away from a sparse noir style to a more outlandish, cartoon-like prose which he has, thankfully, limited to his short stories and novellas, and not experimented with in the novels. However, the onset of memories which began with re-watching Daddy-O did not just inspire Ellroy’s future literary plans, it led him to reassess his past work:
In 1990 I wrote White Jazz. A major sub-plot features a grade z movie being filmed on the same Griffith Park locales as Daddy-O.
Jung wrote: “What is not brought to consciousness comes to us as fate.”
I should have seen Dick Contino coming a long time ago.
It is in the novels of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy where you can best find Ellroy’s expression of the ‘heavily compromised redemption’ that Contino experienced in real life. As Ellroy is now writing the second volume of his new LA Quartet, Dick Contino will continue to inspire him, however allusively.