Elmore Leonard, one of the giants of American crime writing, passed away last Tuesday at the age of 87. Leonard was one of a few truly great writers who kick-started my passion for crime fiction. His characters were tough and yet endearingly odd. His stories were often bizarre but still believable. He maintained a consistently high quality of writing in his prolific output. Over at the Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce has put together a collection of tributes from crime writers, critics and bloggers, to which I have contributed a few words. The tribute is split into two parts. You can read it here and here.
Thank you for the great stories Dutch. We will be reading them for a long time to come.
I have never liked football, so I won’t be reading David Peace’s latest novel Red or Dead about Bill Shankly’s tenure as manager of Liverpool Football Club, although judging by the reviews so far even the most diehard football fan would struggle to wade through this 700 page plus epic tome. Iain Macintosh reviews the book in the Mirror and slams Peace’s mind-numbingly repetitive prose style. Here is a passage from the novel he quotes from:
Every morning Liverpool Football Club trained in the wind. Liverpool Football Club played in the wind. And Liverpool Football Club beat Arsenal Football Club in the wind. Every morning Liverpool Football Club trained in the rain. Liverpool Football Club played in the rain. And Liverpool Football Club beat Leyton Orient Football Club in the rain. Every morning Liverpool Football Club trained in the mud. Liverpool Football Club played in the mud. And Liverpool Football Club beat Birmingham City Football Club in the mud.
And he adds wearily, ‘It goes on like this all the way down the page with every conceivable meteorological condition carefully catalogued until you’re screaming, “For the love of God, man! Just say FC!”’
I admire David Peace. He has written excellent historical crime fiction, and when I saw him speak in Belfast a few years ago he came across as intelligent and charming. He is well known for being a fan of James Ellroy, and you can some of the themes of Ellroy’s LA Quartet transplanted into Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. Peace’s novel on the miner’s strike GB84 (2004) looks back on that event as a form of endless cycle of conspiracies, not dissimilar, although smaller in scale, to Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. Of course the similarities in their work go further than just theme and plotting, Peace has been heavily influenced by Ellroy’s sparse, reductive prose style, and this seems to be where he has gone wrong with Red or Dead. Peace has always dabbled with a certain clipped prose, giving the reader fragments of thought and dialogue, and gradually this style has become more concise, and this is where it seems history has repeated itself, and repeated itself, and repeated itself. According to story by Nat Sobel, James Ellroy came across his now signature prose style almost by accident after an editor demanded he make cuts to LA Confidential (1990), but he was reluctant to lose a single character or scene:
James came to my house to talk about what we could do about it. I had the manuscript on the desk in front of me, and as a joke I said to James, ‘Well, maybe we could cut out a few small words.’ I meant it entirely as a joke. But I started going through a manuscript page and cut out about a dozen words on the page. James said, ‘Give me that.’ I gave him the page. And he just kept cutting. He was cutting and cutting and cutting. When he was done with the page, it looked like a redacted piece from the CIA. I said, ‘James, how would they be able to read this?’ He said, ‘Let me read you the page.’ It was terrific. He said, ‘I know what I have to do.’ He took the whole manuscript back and cut hundreds of pages from the book and developed the style. That editor never knew what we had to do, but she forced him into creating this special Ellroy style, which his reputation as a stylist is really based on. It came from her, sight unseen, saying ‘Cut 25 percent of the book.’ He wound up cutting enough without cutting a single scene from that book.
Personally, I think Ellroy’s style had been evolving for some time, and there is a danger to putting it all down to a sudden epiphany. In any event, Ellroy achieved great critical acclaim with his new writing style, and he continued to adapt it with great success in his novels White Jazz (1992) and American Tabloid (1995). Then, in 2001 The Cold Six Thousand was published and this is where many Ellroy fans and critics thought he had taken the style to far. Here’s an example:
He saw Fed cars. He saw Fed surveillance. Feds perched down the road. Feds watched the meets. Feds checked licence plates.
Local Feds – non-FBI – Dwight Holly’s boys.
Wayne Senior was distracted. Wayne Senior was tract-obsessed. Wayne Senior missed the heat. Wayne Senior talked. Wayne Senior torqued Wayne. Wayne Senior worked to impress.
Does this look at all familiar to the quote from Red or Dead? Sure, there is the lack of adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions which is a hallmark of Ellroy’s style but by refusing to allow any modifications to the sentence, he dooms the book to a dreary repetition, just as Peace has done with his latest work. Incidentally, The Cold Six Thousand is also around the 700 page mark, so we have an idea where this style takes us in terms of length. I know fellow Ellroy fans who gave up reading the novel halfway through. I have read it twice now, and I like it, but that’s because it covers five years of fascinating American history from 1963 to 1968. The story is strong enough to forgive the stylistic indulgences and there are moments in the novel where the style actually helps the action come alive. Still, it’s a grueling read and Ellroy has practically disowned it in some interviews. In his latest novel, Blood’s a Rover (2009), he returned to a more engaging style. Many fans breathed a sigh of relief, perhaps Peace should do the same. Even football fans would admit that the game can be boring at times, but its easier to forgive occasional stretches of boredom in a ninety minute football game than it is in a pretentious magnum opus about the sport. Besides, a boring game might come alive suddenly, Peace seems to have to a style too rigid for that to happen.
One issue in which there seems to be a big difference between Ellroy and Peace is the two men’s political views. Despite both men writing of the past as a web of conspiracies Ellroy is a conservative, a Tory in his own words, whereas Peace is a man of the left. An article in the New Statesman about the politics of football sums up Peace’s intentions with Red or Dead:
In an interview in the forthcoming edition of the Blizzard, a quarterly in the vanguard of the new, post-Hornby football writing, Peace describes Red or Dead as “a Socialist Book. I think Shankly’s socialism was fundamental and integral to every aspect of his life and work. It was about equality, on and off the pitch, and working for the people and the supporters of Liverpool. It was about communal work for communal success. And I do admire this and lament its absence.” But this is no tiresome jumpers-for-goalposts pining for the muddy pitches, questionable tackling and even more questionable haircuts of a purer, irrecoverable past. As one reviewer has pointed out: “This isn’t a book about the way things were or the way things are. This is a book about the way things should be.”
The irony is Peace may have inadvertently conveyed the worst of socialism. Through its repetition, ideological lack of imagination or pragmatism, and complete contempt for what the reader wants Red or Dead is the least communal book imaginable. Iain Macintosh concludes his review of the novel:
And so Iain sighed. Iain closed the book. Iain lifted the book above his head. Iain brought the book down on his head with as much force as he could muster. Iain slipped into the sweet, sweet embrace of unconsciousness.
Peace is a great writer, but it seems like he deserves a critical drubbing for Red or Dead. You never know, maybe he’ll receive a phone call from a fellow writer from across the pond who’ll tell him, “Don’t worry pal, I’ve been there.”
I’ve written an article for the British Politics Review about a new trend developing in British genre fiction – Euroscepticism. Over the past forty years, politicians have debated endlessly about the pros and cons of the United Kingdom’s membership of the Common Market, latterly the EEC and now the European Union. Given the intensity of this debate, it is surprising that ‘Europe’– the EU as a political entity– has not featured more prominently in British novels. However, a few novelists have approached the issue head-on, Andrew Roberts’ The Aachen Memorandum (1995), Michael Dobbs’ A Sentimental Traitor (2012) and Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy (2012), take a distinctly Eurosceptic slant and cover a wide range of genres: political, spy, crime and science fiction. The examples I give are all broadly conservative in their views, but I also argue there are historical grounds for writers on the left to make an impact in this genre. Just as the Great Depression contributed to the birth of hardboiled pulp fiction in the US, the current Eurozone crisis could lead to a literary flowering on this side of the pond. The prospect of an In/Out referendum on Britain’s EU membership is likely to be top of the agenda come the next general election. Consequently, British novelists are becoming much less reticent to explore the matter in their books.
You can read my article and the entire issue online here.
I’d like to thank Mike Ripley and Bob Cornwell for sharing their encyclopedic knowledge of the genre with me, which was very helpful when I was writing the piece.
This is the second time I’ve written for the British Politics Review. It is edited by a great bunch of people, and I’m thrilled to be published alongside such distinguished writers. Here’s the link to a previous article I wrote for the BPR, on Tony Blair and Robert Harris’ The Ghost.
In his autobiographical essay ‘The Great Right Place’ James Ellroy describes himself as a Tory Mystic:
L.A. had overdosed me. Extreme stimulation had fried my brain pan. I had raped a beautiful place. I had usurped its essence to tell myself sick stories. My mind was infused with an L.A. virus. Wrong L.A. thoughts and undue L.A. stimuli could unravel me.
I believed it then. I don’t disbelieve it now. I was a tory mystic then, and I remain one.
Ellroy uses the term to explain his complex relationship with LA. His love of his home city, a loyalty to an institution or place bordering on Romanticism might loosely parallel Tory attitudes to national history and identity here in the UK. Still, it’s a conspicuous use of a political label which appears to be an oxymoron, and I quizzed Ellroy about it in an interview reprinted in Conversations with James Ellroy:
Interviewer: So did you choose “Tory” because it seems more nuanced? It’s not a particularly American term “Tory,” it’s distinctly British.
Ellroy: Yeah, you’re right, I did it for just that reason. Because right-wing is loaded.
Looking back, I see that I was wrong to say Tory is a distinctly British term. Tory was a common term for a loyalist before and after the American Revolution. Many loyalists fled to Canada where the Conservative Party are still known colloquially as Tories to this day. However it is rare enough in modern American discourse for Ellroy to adopt and adapt it to his literary persona in order to avoid the label right-wing.
To analyse Ellroy’s political views and the extent his politics can be found in his novels is no easy task. For some critics like Mike Davis, Ellroy is ‘a neo-Nazi in American writing’. Other readers may think that his tales of LAPD corruption and political conspiracies are some kind of angry, left-wing indictment of the US. I would argue that both views are wrong and that Ellroy’s Toryism relates to a British literary tradition known as Tory Anarchism. Peter Wilkin has written a book on this phenomenon, The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism (2010):
The idea of a Tory anarchist was first coined by Orwell to describe both Jonathan Swift and himself, and at its broadest it describes someone who is both a radical and a traditionalist. To be a Tory anarchist, then, is to embrace all manner of contradictions. It is a defence of good manners, good grammar, local customs and practices, respect for the individual and for privacy and an overwhelming hostility to the expanding power of the modern state. Tory anarchists celebrate Britain’s class system but at times condemn all classes for their role in Britain’s decline. They believe in both the idiosyncratic qualities of the British and at the same time mock their hypocrisy, stupidity, philistinism and vulgarity. Orwell saw Tory anarchism as a part of Britain’s, mainly England’s, rich social history, manifesting itself in particular figures at different times and places.
Daniel McCarthy argues that the term could be applied to many American figures, independent of references to the English Class system or its customs, ‘Tory anarchism isn’t really an idea at all, just a intuition.’ So many of the writers who have been or could be labelled Tory anarchists John Osborne, John le Carre, Christopher Hitchens would be horrified at the term. For many on the left, being a Trot is okay, but to be Tory is unacceptable. In a sense it describes a contrarian, a left-wing figure with conservative tendencies, or in the case of Hitchens, someone who moves further to the right. Hitchens was known for his far-left views early in his career, writing for the Socialist Worker and protesting against the Vietnam War. At the same time he enjoyed dining at right- wing clubs, where he once ate pudding called ‘Bombe Hanoi’. One of my favourite Hitchens anecdotes is the time he claimed Margaret Thatcher showed him, shall we say, the smack of firm government. Ellroy expressed admiration for Hitchens. They shared a hatred of Bill Clinton. Ellroy’s criticisms of Clinton usually refer specifically to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, as to be fair, Clinton’s brand of triangulation, third-way politics seemed just as slippery as Ellroy’s views.
Ellroy the contrarian often delights in offending people, even groups of people who are usually offending each other. In an interview with Keith Phipps, Ellroy describes a book reading of ‘Jungletown Jihad’, a comic novella featuring some hilariously politically incorrect depictions of Muslim terrorists: ‘The walkouts I get from reading this are hilarious. I was just at a book fair in the South. I knew I’d get ten liberals and ten Christians walking out, and I did.’
Ellroy, however, has at times taken offence when people push him for some political statement. He once told Craig McDonald that he felt no obligation to let his views be known:
Interviewer: You’re asked to weigh in a lot on topical matters—everything from politics to the death penalty.
Ellroy: Here’s where we get to a point where I coin a phrase. Actually, my wife coined it: “The specious proximity of media.” Why—this happens all the time, particularly in academic communities—should I comment on George W. Bush? This is like going to England and the little guy with a brogue says, “Hey lad, what do you think of the Troubles in Northern Ireland?” Or, you go to Berkeley and the androgynous human being asks, “What do you think of gay rights?”
Ellroy may not feel the need to evangelise his political views, but we can still imply a degree of politics in his answer to McDonald. On the subject of Berkeley, in his first novel Brown’s Requiem (1981), Ellroy displays a Tory streak in his cynicism towards counter-culture movements. Leading character Fritz Brown describes how a brief visit to Berkeley, ‘gave me the creeps: the people passing by looked aesthetic and angry, driven inward by forces they couldn’t comprehend and rendered sickly by their refusal to eat meat.’ Is Ellroy’s cynicism towards leftist counter-culture relevant? His darkest years were the late sixties and early seventies. It was a time of the Summer of Love and the Hippy movement, but for Ellroy personally it was a period of drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and crime. In one exchange I had with him, he expressed his admiration for the patriotic, conservative values of President Reagan by comparing them to the puerile and pointless nature of Punk Rock:
I have friends, contemporaries, who were big in the punk rock movement. And it’s just silly, puerile noise to me. I asked a magazine editor, a friend of mine, a woman who’s fifty-six, “What was punk rock about?” and she said it was a reaction to Reagan. And I said history has been very, very kind to Ronald Reagan. Very kind to this man who I think even the most reluctant liberal historian would concede as being one of the greatest American leaders of the past two hundred years. He was a massive presence. He took down the Soviet Union and did amazing things, and he was flawed in other ways as well. You know, OR a bunch of spiky-chinned, purple-haired kids jumping up and down. Come on! Just come on!
There is a sense of Tory Anarchism here. The lament of the breakdown in manners and good taste compared with the admiration for a political office which dates back to his country’s independence. On the subject of the Presidency, the 1960 Presidential election is one of Ellroy’s earliest political memories:
I was for Richard Nixon in 1960 when I was twelve, because my father was. [...] When I was a kid, Eisenhower had been president forever, and all of a sudden, everything in the world was all about Jack Kennedy. The primary election—I was twelve, interested in politics; my father was from Massachusetts, had an accent like Kennedy—everything was about him. He handled it with a certain ironic detachment that was appealing. He was amused, he was bemused, and people mistook it for love. Bad miscalculation. Everything was about him for some years, especially after he was elected. I couldn’t believe it, because he looked so young and he had his run and he died. It’s like being with a woman and she leaves you before the sex gets stale. You’re always going to think of her, you’re always going to want more, you didn’t get enough. That’s how America was with Jack.
Ellroy was to take these childhood memories of the aura surrounding President Kennedy and craft them into his greatest novel, American Tabloid (1995). American Tabloid covers five years of US history, beginning in 1958 and ending on the day of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. It is taken from the perspective of and even dedicated to the Underworld characters, both in organised crime and law enforcement, who conspire to kill Kennedy. Ellroy’s introduction to the novel reads:
Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.
They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American history would not exist as we know it.
It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here’s to them.
Ellroy strikes a tone which is both irreverent and profound. Although he is demythologising the Kennedy era, he feels a Tory instinct to ‘build a new myth’. American Tabloid was followed by two more novels which make up the Underworld USA trilogy. The trilogy ends with the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, and by its completion, Ellroy had covered one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history: an era of political assassination, mass rioting, the Vietnam War and the dawn of the Watergate scandal. And yet despite all this, Ellroy is ever the patriot and optimist. One of my favourite Ellroy quotes came when I asked him if there was something positive in his depiction of America. He replied:
I love America and my books are all about one thing and one thing only, a man needs a woman. This is the Romantic’s code.
Romanticism and Toryism go hand in hand with Ellroy. It’s a more complex view than being seen simply as a Republican supporter. Ellroy voted for George W. Bush to ‘repudiate Gore and Clintonism and nobody hates Bill Clinton more than me’. However, he told Rolling Stone that he voted for Obama in 2008. He described his views on Obama in more detail to the Daily Telegraph:
What I do know is we’ve just concluded the most duplicitous American presidency in living memory. And the new guy is coming to grips with the facts: America has to rule the world, or someone worse than us will. A capitalist economy has to prevail, because massive social programs tend not to work. Still, I don’t think it’s that much of a shock to him. Obama is much more of a Tory than most people realized.
Ellroy sees the parallels between Obama and Kennedy. To their supporters both men embodied the hope that America was at the dawn of a new Golden Age. In his view though Obama understands the reality of politics better than Kennedy, (or perhaps Kennedy’s defenders), the limitations of his office and the need for change to be slow and in keeping with the traditions of his country. This is what makes Obama a Tory in Ellroy’s eyes.
There are many more examples of Ellroy’s political statements that I could talk about here. Sometimes he is thoughtful and nuanced and at other times he is sly, combative and relishes his ability to shock. Sometimes he can be all of these things at once. I’ll end with another quote from the author which I think sum up his views best. Ellroy is at heart a floating voter (although tribally more on the Right) who holds the Tory anarchist view that all Presidents, Democrat or Republican, do good and bad things in service to their country, and laments the fact that more people don’t see it this way. This is from my fourth interview with Ellroy:
It’s just the reluctance with which people would step back from the precipice of their own belief that shocks and appalls me. And you can’t get people to, on either the right or the left. You can’t tell a liberal, well, “read Edmund Morris’s book, Dutch: a Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and to one degree or another,” you’ll notice I qualified that, “you’ll dig Ronald Reagan.” You can’t tell right-wingers, “read any one of the great biographies of Franklin Roosevelt, step back a bit, you will dig Franklin Roosevelt.” You can’t.
Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) is an archetypal film noir and one of my favourite films. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a troubled screenwriter with a violent temper who is suspected of murdering a young woman and whose behaviour gradually convinces those around him, including his lover and the police, that he is the killer. Bogart’s performance is full of cynicism and menace. His scenes with Gloria Grahame, playing Laurel Gray, an aspiring movie actress, are tense with sex and fear; their on-screen relationship deteriorates into maelstrom of jealousy, threatened violence, and sleeping pills. Despite admiring the film, I didn’t read the novel from which it was adapted until quite recently, when it was reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. I think it’s wonderful.
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes was published in 1947 and was her eleventh novel. It is a highly accomplished, fast-paced psychological drama in which the reader unwillingly sympathises with Dix Steele even though it is obvious from quite early on that he is a sociopath, and most likely a rapist and murderer. Like Jim Thompson, whose later The Killer Inside Me (1952) is much more graphic in its description than In a Lonely Place Hughes manages to encourage and sustain a lurid desire to know more about disturbed Dix Steele. Later, when things are clearer, you want him to get caught, but not just yet. She does so with observant, more or less elegant prose and smart dialogue, this from when Dix takes Laurel to dinner:
“You think you’ll know me the next time you see me?”
He returned to her actuality. He laughed but his words weren’t made of laughter. “I knew before I ever saw you.”
Her eyes widened.
“And you knew me.”
She let her lashes fall. They curved, long as a child’s, russet against her cheeks. She said, “You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you, Dix?”
Her eyes opened full again and laughter echoed through her. “Oh, brother!” she breathed.
The corniness of Dix’s words in this scene are partly what Laurel’s exclamation is about, but it also hints at her cynicism about their possible future relationship, and perhaps also her realisation, even at this early stage, that he is going to be trouble. Dix the psycho-killer lives in the certainty of his feelings at a given moment and attaches himself to Laurel with an emotional force that is both sincerely felt, and utterly artificial. Hughes makes sure her female character shows that she knows they are overblown too, though she doesn’t yet know why.
This relationship, and the one between Dix Steele and Laurel Gray in the film, are mirror images of one another. Here Laurel Gray has already begun to suspect, subconsciously, that Dix is not quite as he should be, and she is right; in the film, the relationship is ruined by false suspicion and misplaced distrust. In the one, a woman is taken in by a dangerous, controlling man; in the other, a damaged, troubled man loses the woman he loves because he is unable to allay her fears about him.
Book and film are radically different from one another, and at a deeper level than plot alone. Where Hughes’s novel can be read as an examination of masculinity through an extreme version in which women are objectified, exploited, killed, and dumped by the roadside, in the film adaptation neither Laurel nor Dix ever really understand or trust each other. This bleak analysis of human relationships, of men betrayed by women, is a trope of classic Film Noir, but both novel and film have interesting things to say about loneliness and isolation. Bogart-Dix’s ‘lonely places’ are his isolation under false accusation and the existential loneliness of a war hero, a writer in decline and a man without a woman. In Hughes’s original, lonely places are where girls are killed, the sad apartments where men and women live isolated and alone, and the corners into which compulsive liars are backed by their delusions. In the novel, Dixon Steele’s loneliest place is his own deranged mind. In the film he is driven to loneliness in a postwar America which suspects outsiders and fears imagination.
I have recently been in Michigan visiting family. On the journey home my wife and I stopped off in New York for a few days. It was my first visit to this amazing city, and the beauty and exuberance of the place just floored me. I had been due to visit New York as part of a high school trip in 2001. Part of our itinerary was a visit to the World Trade Center. 9/11 happened, and the trip was postponed, then cancelled. I never made new arrangements to visit. Finally I have made the journey, and it was worth every minute of the wait. It was moving to visit the 9/11 Memorial built on the site of the twin towers where so many people lost their lives. If you get a chance, I would also recommend the Queen Elizabeth II September 11th Garden at Hanover Square, founded in memory of the British and Commonwealth victims.
Whenever I travel I like to look up some of the tucked away places that either relate to my research or to crime fiction in general. A few years ago, I visited Los Angeles to interview James Ellroy and also visited some of the sites which were connected to key moments in Ellroy’s life. New York played a key role in the life-story of Ellroy. When his first novel Brown’s Requiem was published in 1981, Ellroy at the age of thirty-three moved from LA to Eastchester near New York. As he put it in an interview with Don Swaim, he ’wanted to wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep and boogie-woogie down Broadway to the Gershwin beat’. However, the cross-country move coincided with a difficult early stage of his writing career. Ellroy’s manuscript ‘L.A. Death Trip’ was turned down by seventeen publishers. Ellroy had not faced this sort of rejection with his first two novels, and he would take typically dramatic steps to turn his luck around. Renowned crime fiction editor Otto Penzler ran the Mysterious Bookshop at the time. It was, and is, popular with both readers and writers of crime fiction. In an interview with Poets&Writers, agent Nat Sobel describes Ellroy’s first visit to the Mysterious Bookshop, and how he marched into Otto Penzler’s office and announced:
“I am the demon dog of American crime fiction.” Otto said, “I’ve never heard of you.” James said he had this manuscript, which Otto sent to me as the first manuscript of the Mysterious Literary Agency. It was Ellroy’s third novel, which I edited, as did Otto. About that time, Otto got financing to start Mysterious Press. He told me he wanted to buy Ellroy’s novel for his first list. So the Mysterious Literary Agency went out of business.
Penzler may have been startled by the brazen Ellroy, but it would be the beginning of a long and productive partnership between the two men. The story of the meeting differs slightly between the numerous versions I have read over the years, but I find its most striking detail is Ellroy’s use of the Demon Dog name so early in his career. According to its website, the Mysterious Bookshop was originally located in midtown (it doesn’t specify where exactly). Its new address is 58 Warren Street in Tribeca. I found it to be a charming, characterful place with crime books of every conceivable style crammed onto the shelves of its four walls. Here are a few photos we took:
No visit to a bookshop of this calibre would be complete without buying some reading matter for the journey home. I purchased The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) by Sax Rohmer and Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh.
Another location in New York related to Ellroy’s career is the library where he began his research on the Black Dahlia case which was to lead to one of his most powerful novels. In one of my interviews with Ellroy, published in Conversations with James Ellroy, he describes the methods of research he used which laid the foundation for the novel:
I went out: I got three hundred dollars in quarters, put them in three triple reinforced pillowcases. Went into downtown New York City library, the one at Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, and got on interlibrary loan the L.A. newspapers from that time. Fed quarters to it and made photocopies. Reprinted white on black and extrapolated off the actual facts of the case with fictional characters. That’s how I built that book.
The library on Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue is the impressive Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Although, Ellroy may have been referring to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York public library, which is practically next door and is somewhat nondescript by comparison. I spent a pleasant hour exploring the Schwarzman and admiring its beautiful old world design. It was nice to think of Ellroy researching the Dahlia case here almost thirty years ago and perhaps being inspired by the interior’s wonderfully musty atmosphere.
I’ve never blogged about cover art before, partly because I don’t know much about the subject, but I enjoy blogs such as Killer Covers and John D MacDonald Covers so much that I thought I would give it a try. Joseph Wambaugh is, in my opinion, one of the finest American crime writers working today, and over the years I have been impressed and intrigued by the cover art featured on his books, especially his books which have wrap-around cover art. In this post I’m going to briefly discuss the cover art on two books written by Wambaugh: Lines and Shadows (1984) and The Secrets of Harry Bright (1985). The artist is not credited in either edition I have selected, so if you happen to know who it is please get in touch via the comment thread.
Lines and Shadows is one of Wambaugh’s works of non-fiction, or the ‘non-fiction novel’ to quote the term coined by Wambaugh’s mentor Truman Capote. It follows the Border Crime Task Force of the San Diego Police Department from 1976 to 1978. The writing is at its sharpest when focused on the personal lives of the policemen or discussing the politics behind their assignment. The drawbacks of books of this kind, however, is that the writer is hostage to facts, which does not always lead to the strongest narrative. For this reason, the book drags, and the story never feels quite as interesting as it should be.
The front cover of this book is not outstanding: just a small image set against a black backdrop. But when you open the book, the excitement begins with a cast of characters crammed into an intriguing collage: there’s a hero on a motorbike, beautiful women, a boisterous gangster-type, a grizzled hardboiled looking man smoking a cigarette and lots of gunplay. It reminds me a little of the posters of Bruce Lee films or some of the James Bond films of the 1970s where a lot of the action set-pieces of the film were crammed into small images on the poster. They could be a bit too busy at times but certainly conveyed the sense of an epic, exciting story.
The Secrets of Harry Bright was a return to fiction for Wambaugh and is a wonderfully absurdist mixture of black comedy, tragedy and mystery set in the fictional Mineral Springs, California. I’ve written a full-length review of the novel here. This cover image is wonderfully minimalist. I like the way the reds and oranges convey the blinding, oppressive heat of the Sonoran desert. Unlike Lines and Shadows, in which the inside pages extend the cover art, for The Secrets of Harry Bright, the style is completely different. We’re back to the action-packed images, which is odd, as it is not a novel that relies on much action. The car explosion, if I remember correctly, belongs to the back-story. The inside cover art seems to reassure the reader that you’re still in a Wambaugh story, even if the promises of action made by the artist aren’t delivered in the story.