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Ellroy and Hammett: The Tory and the Communist

January 20, 2014

Red Harvest HammettHow can two writers with such diametrically opposed political views seem to share a similar worldview? James Ellroy has often tried to portray the birth of American crime fiction as a stylistic struggle between Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with Ellroy himself drawing the bulk of his writing inspiration from Hammett. It’s a rather simplistic interpretation, but still, it resonates. In one of the interviews I conducted with him, Ellroy said:

I think he [Chandler] was lightweight compared to Dashiell Hammett. And I think that the language is overripe, the philosophy is gasbag. He came out of L.A., and he wrote in the first person. And it’s the L.A. of my early childhood and the L.A. before my birth, which is intensely romantic to me. And I sure as shit loved the books while I read them, but Hammett and Cain and Ross Macdonald have held in better in my mind. And I had to reread a little Hammett, because I wrote the Everyman Library introduction to one of their volumes, and was amazed at how my sensibility of the goon and the political fixer and the bagman and the hatchet man strike-breaker came out of that.

This ‘sensibility’ that Ellroy and Hammett share in their writing seems all the more remarkable given that Ellroy is a self-styled Tory and Hammett was a Communist. Both men’s political views informed their work, and both men, remarkably, share the same dark vision of America, where violence and corruption are ingrained into the political process and the public’s daily life. For Ellroy, Hammett’s greatest work was his ultra-violent indictment of industrial capitalism Red Harvest (1929), wherein his nameless detective the Continental Op is called on by the ailing newspaper czar old Elihu Wilsson to solve the murder of his son and clean up the mining town of Personville, which the Op is quick to christen Poisonville. From the very first page of Red Harvest, the reader will discern that they are entering a world where the normal rules don’t apply. The Op wanders from one hyperbolically violent scene to another as the characters settle their differences with bullets and dynamite. There is virtually no moral distinction in the narrative between politicians, gangsters and businessmen. As Ellroy put it in article on Hammett for the Guardian, ‘his workmen heroes refuse to soliloquise or indict – they know the game is rigged and they’re feeding off scraps of trickle-down graft.’ Even the detective himself must operate on this level, and in one of the most disturbing scenes he awakes from a surreal dream to find himself implicated in the brutal murder of the sultry but shopworn Dinah Brand.

I opened my eyes in the dull light of morning sun filtered through drawn blinds.

I was lying face down on the dining-room floor, my head resting on my left forearm. My right arm was stretched straight out. My right hand held the round blue and white handle of Dinah Brand’s ice pick. The pick’s six-inch needle-sharp blade was buried in Dinah Brand’s left breast.

She was lying on her back, dead. Her long muscular legs were stretched out towards the kitchen door. There was a run down the front of her right stocking.

Slowly, gently, as if afraid of awakening her, I let go of the ice pick, drew in my arm, and got up.

To the extent that Hammett was a direct influence on his writing, Ellroy has tried to transplant elements of Poisonville into his portrayal of 1940s and 50s Los Angeles. This was never more apparent than in White Jazz (1992), his most ahistorical novel, in which psychopathic killings and Mob-related violence push LA to the brink of anarchy. However, by the denouement, order has been restored and much of the corruption in the LAPD is still in place. I believe one scene may be inspired by the murder of Dinah Brand. The leading character and narrator of the novel, LAPD Lieutenant Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein, is heavily drugged and coerced into murdering fellow policeman Johnny Duhamel, essentially recreating the scenario of Red Harvest wherein the protagonist is unwittingly implicated in a murder, compromising his ability to go after the villains because there is no differentiation between him and them. Of course, neither character is an angel before the staged murder, with Klein having already committed several murders for the Mafia. The murder is taped and a horrified Klein watches the killing on film:

I thrashed – futile – sticky tape, no give.

A white screen.

Cut to:

Johnny Duhamel naked.

Cut to:

Dave Klein swinging a sword.

Zooming in – the sword grip: SSGT D.D. Klein USMC Saipan 7/24/43.

Cut to:

Johnny begging – ‘Please’ – mute sound.

Cut to:

Dave Klein thrashing – stabbing, missing.

Cut to:

A severed arm twitching on wax paper.

Klein narrates the scene as though he is the director or screenwriter, giving technical details such as ‘Cut to’. Ellroy not only breaks downs the barriers between cops and criminals, but also through Klein’s clipped, staccato first-person narration, he implicates himself in the anarchic madness of the text. It is another factor which links him to Hammett, and explains why he regards him more highly than Chandler:

Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be – gallant and with a lively satirist’s wit. Hammett wrote the man he feared he might be – tenuous and sceptical in all human dealings, corruptible and addicted to violent intrigue.

Ellroy is impressed by the contradictions of Hammett’s personality, describing it as ‘the Manoeuvre’ and dubbing him ‘the Poet of Collision’. Red Harvest was inspired by Hammett’s experiences as a Pinkerton operative, and he was once allegedly offered $5,000 to perform a contract murder. But his left-wing views were not entirely formed by his work, and he appears not to have a sudden conversion, rather as Ellroy put it ‘He stayed because he loved the work and figured he could chart a moral course through it. He was right and wrong. That disjuncture is the great theme of his work.’ Communism, that most inflexible of ideologies, did not negate Hammett’s patriotism, as his service during the Second World War indicates. Ellroy called it a ‘deep and troubled love for America’, but one that also made him an apologist for the Soviet Union. Ellroy’s Toryism is more knowingly rooted in disjuncture than Hammett’s Communism, and this awareness leads to greater nuance. Sure, Ellroy may behave like a right-wing nut at book readings or on chat shows, but that is part performance, as he refines his act as the wild man of American crime fiction. A closer examination of Ellroy’s political views reveal him to be a moderate conservative with a more optimistic view of his country than Hammett ever held. Hammett thought the universe was chaotic and therefore rules were arbitrary. Ellroy’s religious beliefs (which I will explore further in another post) allowed for a greater sense of a journey and meaning to emerge even from the violent chaos of White Jazz. Hammett believed the dehumanising nature of capitalism made people indistinct on several levels, but for Ellroy corruption fired characters individualism.

They may be generations apart, but Ellroy and Hammett were linked by their own disjuncture: Hammett the Communist, who thought order was impossible, Ellroy, the modern-day Tory and one of Hammett’s greatest admirers.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2014 10:56 am

    Fascinating stuff. It’s unusual to think about aesthetics in terms of political positioning, but of course both of these writers are explicitly political. Thirty years ago at school my Economics teacher suggested that rather than looking at the political spectrum as a line with left at one end and right at the other, it was more useful to see it as a circle, with extreme right and extreme left next to one another at one side and “extreme” liberal at the opposite side. That might be one way of explaining the similarity in their respective sensibilities.

    • January 23, 2014 2:47 pm

      Thanks Chris,

      I think Ellroy’s Toryism is definitely connected to aesthetics as you say. It wouldn’t be interesting enough for an American writer to call himself a Conservative or Republican. One similarity, I think, is how both men are fighting an urge to admire what they profess to detest in the opposing viewpoint. Ellroy the Tory errs towards small government and yet would admit to being an authoritarian. Communism promises to abolish the State and yet has produced the most authoritarian States in history.

  2. February 11, 2014 4:24 am

    Loved it.

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