A New Year and the End of an Era
Last month I had the viva for my thesis and I passed. I do have some corrections to make, but I have essentially completed my PhD. I’m planning to continue publishing my research on James Ellroy both on this blog and, hopefully, in book form. Stay tuned. Looking back over my seven years of doctoral study, I’ve been thinking a lot about crime novels that gave me a great deal of pleasure in between the endless drafting, redrafting and editing of my thesis, so I thought I’d talk a little about them here.
White Jazz by James Ellroy
I’m a fan of all of Ellroy’s novels and my favourite varies according to my mood. Right now I’m thinking it’s White Jazz (1992) as its just the most daring and subversive in terms of its depiction of LA and noir as a genre. The plotting is labyrinthine and almost impossible to summarise in just a few words. Narrated by LAPD Lieutenant Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein, White Jazz involves Mob contract killings, the Battle of Chavez Ravine, historical characters (including Jack Dragna, Mickey Cohen, Sam Giancana and Howard Hughes), a beautiful femme fatale and a grade Z horror movie. The first time I read this novel, I was shaking with excitement, exhilaration and fear when I got to the last page. David Peace summed up the novel’s power: ‘His novel White Jazz was the Sex Pistols for me. It reinvented crime writing and I realised that, if you want to write the best crime book, then you have to write better than Ellroy.’
I only started reading P.D. James in the last year or two, and I think she is just one helluva of a great writer. The Cordelia Gray novels are excellent, the Adam Dalgliesh novels are even better, but my favourite so far is the standalone work Innocent Blood (1980). Phillipa Palfrey is the adopted daughter of a well- to- do couple. When Phillipa takes advantage of a new law allowing her to contact her biological parents, she discovers they were convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl. What follows is not a straight forward murder mystery, but a revealing character study with plenty of suspense. A sub-plot involves the murdered girl’s father plotting his revenge. James’ conservatism is evident in the early chapters, and she makes a strong case that you can’t legislate human behaviour. It is clear from her writing, however, that James understands human behaviour, and I can’t think of another novelist who can write about England so well.
I’ve just got to include a Scandi crime novel, and The Laughing Policeman (1968) might just be the best Scandi crime novel of them all! A massacre on a bus in a Stockholm street has left eight people dead and world-weary detective Martin Beck is forced to investigate. It’s a complex case with shades of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (1936), and the final twist is stunning. Jonathan Franzen wrote, ‘I’ve read The Laughing Policeman six or eight times. Each time I reach the final twist on the final page, I shiver afresh.’ He neglects too mention it’s also a very funny conclusion.
James M. Cain’s reputation rests on four classic novels The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Serenade (1937), Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943). His later life was a sad story of a writer trying to build a more literary reputation while his career slowly crumbled. Double Indemnity, originally serialised by Liberty magazine in 1936, tells the story of an insurance agent and his lover plotting the murder of her husband to look like an accident and collect the insurance policy. Billy Wilder’s film adaptation is a classic, but he and screenwriter Raymond Chandler changed the ending. The ending to the film is still dark, but it doesn’t match the ending of the novel for sheer haunting beauty.
Smiley’s People by John le Carré
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) seemed to capture the anti-establishment mood of the Sixties; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) was a classic work inspired by the Cambridge Five, particularly Kim Philby; and A Perfect Spy (1986) is le Carré’s most autobiographical work. But my favourite novel has always been Smiley’s People (1979). The case is complex, beginning with the murder of an Estonian emigre and ex-agent of Smiley’s, but it is never impenetrable for the reader. The way Smiley pieces it together bit by bit (and working almost entirely on his own for much of the novel) is ingenious. This was le Carré’s goodbye to Smiley (he pops up again briefly in The Secret Pilgrim (1990)) and the character was never more intriguing, both gentle and kind but ruthless when he needs to be. The ending is brilliant too, but unlike White Jazz which made me feel like I’d been hit with a sledgehammer, Smiley is understated in his final confrontation with his Soviet nemesis Karla, and the novel is all the more quietly moving as a result.