If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the chances are you read the work of James Ellroy, and if you’re an Ellroy fan, I have a question – have you heard the name Randy Rice? I began my PhD on Ellroy by studying the hundreds of interviews Ellroy has given over the course of his career. One name popped up regularly in Ellroy’s recollections: Randy Rice. Rice was Ellroy’s closest friend during his years of drug and alcohol abuse. They shared many of the same vices, but when Rice got sober this gave Ellroy the confidence to follow his lead. Despite this, I didn’t think Rice warranted much attention in a study of Ellroy. He appeared at first to be merely a footnote in Ellroy’s life. It was only when I was editing Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) that I began to think otherwise. Rice seems to be a ubiquitous presence in Ellroy’s life in the 1970s, and an allusive presence in his early novels, and in this blogpost I’m going to examine the level of his influence on Ellroy.
However, I should confess what I don’t know about Rice. I don’t know his date of birth or what he did for a living (I would guess, like Ellroy, he was unemployed for long periods of time). I’ve not been able to find a photograph, so I’ve no idea what he looked like. All I know for sure is that he was Ellroy’s friend, and this is, I believe, what’s important. Interviewer Paul Duncan described Rice as a ‘childhood friend’ of Ellroy’s, and this French website puts the year they met as 1961. In his second memoir, The Hilliker Curse (2010), Rice pops up briefly when Ellroy describes how he once sold his own blood plasma, got drunk on the money with Rice at the Pacific Palisades, and then woke up days later in bed with a woman who ‘weighed three bills easy’. To make matters more surreal, he discovered he was in San Francisco and had absolutely no recollection how he had got there. In an interview with Martin Kihn, Ellroy describes how he was living on the rooftop of Rice’s apartment building ‘at Pico and Robertson in West Los Angeles’ in 1975 when he began screaming uncontrollably and suffering hallucinations. Rice called an ambulance and, by doing so, may well have saved Ellroy’s life. A doctor diagnosed Ellroy has having post-alcoholic brain syndrome, ironically a consequence of the sobriety Rice had urged him to pursue. In the documentary Feast of Death (2001), Ellroy describes how he invented ‘Dog Humour’ with Rice. Ellroy fans will recognise Dog Humour from his interviews, book readings and even sections of his fiction. It has to be seen to be believed, but I would describe it as Ellroy developing his own schtick by being deliberately provocative and offensive in every conceivable way: sexually, politically, racially. Once every possible taboo has been broken the reader or audience will realise Ellroy is being tongue-in-cheek, relax and enjoy the humour on its own level. To be clear, I enjoy Dog Humor, and I don’t think for a moment that Ellroy is a bigot, although I can understand why some people have jumped to that conclusion.
Rice’s influence on Ellroy in formulating Dog Humour indicates that he was to have a considerable, but until now, unseen effect on Ellroy’s writing career. In an interview with Don Swaim, Ellroy said he and Rice would ‘spend HOURS hashing over the Black Dahlia case and talking about crime fiction.’ In Ellroy’s debut novel Brown’s Requiem (1981), which is dedicated to Rice, the titular character Fritz Brown’s closest friend is an unemployed alcoholic named Walter. For all his flaws, Brown regards Walter as an extraordinary person:
Walter has taken fantasy into the dimension of genius. His is pure verbal fantasy: Walter has never written, filmed, or composed anything. Nonetheless, in his perpetual T-Bird haze he can transform his wino fantasies into insights and parables that touch at the quick of life. On his good days, that is. On his bad ones he can sound like a high school kid wired up on bad speed. I hoped he was on today, for I was exhilarated myself, and felt the need of his stimulus: the power of a Walter epigram can clarify the most puzzling day.
As Ellroy based Brown on himself, there is no doubt in my mind that he based Walter on Randy Rice. At the end of the novel, Walter dies of cirrhosis of the liver and Brown is left devastated. In Ellroy’s second novel, Clandestine (1982), there is a minor character named Randy Rice, a mailman who provides the leading character, Freddy Underhill, with some information pertaining to a murder investigation. However, Rice’s appearance is fleeting and Underhill’s friendship with a fellow police officer who is killed in action may have been more closely based on Ellroy’s friendship with Rice. In an interview Rodney Taveira, Ellroy describes how a visit to the cinema with Rice gave him the inspiration for the character of Danny Upshaw, an investigator who begins to doubt his sexuality, in the novel The Big Nowhere (1988):
Here’s the genesis of Danny Upshaw: my buddy Randy Rice and I went to see the William Friedkin movie Cruising. So he’s a young cop, presumably heterosexual, played by Al Pacino, and there’s gay killings in Greenwich Village circa 1980, pre-AIDS and all that.
Apologies for the lack of posts recently. There are lots of things I’m planning to blog about, but I have been swamped with work. Normal service will resume shortly. In the meantime, here are the details of some events I shall be speaking at in Liverpool. All are welcome:
I’ll be giving a talk ‘Royal Navy Films of the 1950s: A Voyage Through Post-War Britain’ on Thursday, October 2 at 126 Mount Pleasant, the Centre Lifelong Learning Building, 6:30 pm, and as a follow-up to that I’ll be introducing a screening of the classic war/noir hybrid The Ship That Died of Shame at the same location on Thursday, October 23 at 6pm.
The these last two events require enough people to sign up beforehand in order to go ahead, so if you are interested please contact the Centre for Lifelong Learning and book ahead.
I’ve been invited to speak on Women in Nordic Crime Fiction at the Nordic Church and Cultural Centre in Liverpool on May 30th. If you’re in Liverpool, and would like to visit this historical building (and eat some Scandinavian cake), please do come along (the event starts at 6 pm). I’ll be discussing depictions of women in Nordic crime fiction.
A few years ago I wrote a piece for The Rap Sheet on Theodora Keogh’s novel The Other Girl (1962) for their Book You Have to Read series, otherwise known as Forgotten Books. I only discovered Theodora Keogh and her writing after reading her obituary in the Telegraph. She had a remarkable life and career but in her later years her work had fallen into obscurity. The Other Girl is a disturbing, sometimes thrilling novel loosely based on the Black Dahlia murder case. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read, but especially to people interested in the Black Dahlia as it is an important and overlooked cultural depiction of the case. I’ve just learned from a fellow Theodora Keogh fan that Pharos editions, a Seattle based press, has just reissued Keogh’s novels The Tattooed Heart (1953) and My Name is Rose (1956) in a single volume featuring an introduction by Lidia Yuknavitch. Apparently, this is the first time these novels have been reissued since the 1970s, although Olympia Press did reissue Keogh’s other novels between 2002 and 2007.
I very much look forward to reading this volume, and I hope it leads to a wider revival of interest in Keogh’s work.
I was saddened to read that David Letterman has announced his retirement. Okay, he still has a year to go, and this announcement was not entirely unexpected but I, and I suspect many others, still felt a deep sense of loss. I remember a time when I was sitting in the pub with some friends discussing our favourite comedy shows. When I mentioned The Late Show with David Letterman everybody groaned. A lot of Brits just don’t get the exaggerated show-business style, the one-liners where you can see the punchline coming but laugh anyway, and the occasional outright silliness. Here in Britain we’ve become used to comedies being set on rundown council estates, mundane offices and inner-city parishes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and American audiences seemed to have lapped them up, but still, you can’t beat Letterman for sheer shameless, gleeful comedic entertainment.
I remember when I was an undergrad and was living in a house with seven other students (which was a disaster but I’ll save that story for another time). No one wanted to watch Letterman at 11 so I had to stay up to 6am to catch it. It would always be worth it for his opening monologue, the Top Ten, the comic sketches, the rapport with Paul Shaffer and Alan Kalter. I was less fussed about who the guests were. Letterman was the star. Alas, I never became famous enough to be a guest on the Late Show, but I would have the opportunity to sit in the Ed Sullivan Theatre watching the show being recorded.
Last year I visited New York for the first time. I was there partly to retrace the steps of James Ellroy during a particularly interesting period of his literary career and partly just as a tourist. Walking through Broadway, my wife and I stumbled across the Ed Sullivan Theater with the large picture of Letterman outside it. ‘Let’s see if we can get tickets’ my better half suggested. My English cynicism kicked in. I knew tickets were free but were allocated on a lottery basis and competition must be fierce. Still we put our names down and were told to call back later in the day. As neither of our mobiles worked abroad we called back from a phone box (not easy to find these days), only to be told that we hadn’t been selected. Still, call back tomorrow they said just in case anyone dropped out. We called back the next day merely as a formality, but to our delight we were told we were in. Queuing up in the Ed Sullivan Theater, chatting to Australian tourists, I felt somewhat apprehensive. We had no idea who the guests were and I was terrified that Letterman would pick on me on national television. Regular viewers will know he often engages people in the audience and more than a few of them come across as foolish. The interns (some of whom were quite fetching, no wonder he strayed) briefed us before we took our seats. Letterman feeds off your energy, they said. If he feels the audience is not involved he may hold back some of the best material for another show. We want hearty laughter and enthusiastic applause, even if you don’t find everything funny, but no cheering as it’s a distraction. So, they took us to our seats, and I was taken aback by how small everything was. The stage looks a lot bigger on TV and there were times when I thought the cameraman was going to knock over someone in the band. Before filming began, the audience was fired up with some funny videos and a stand-up comic. Letterman came on to say a few words. This was the only time it felt like he was talking to the audience directly. When filming began he was looking into a camera that was right in front of him, which I assume is a lot less nerve-wracking than looking out at an auditorium of several hundred people. There were TV sets in the auditorium so we could see the show in the same way it was broadcast that very night. The show itself was a joy to watch. The monologue was very funny. The Edward Snowden scandal was in the news and there were lots of jokes about his ‘hot, pole-dancing girlfriend’. One sketch I thought that dragged was trimmed down a lot when it was shown on TV. The guests were Idris Elba and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom were charming, although the films they were plugging looked awful. During the commercial breaks we were treated to several thumping rock songs by the ever-excellent Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra. The closing musical act was Dale Watson and the Lone Stars performing the wonderful ‘I Lie When I Drink’.
Leaving the Ed Sullivan Theater that day I felt completely invigorated and overjoyed. Thank you David Letterman.
Before beginning my review of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013) it might be helpful to give a little personal background. My wife is from the Detroit suburbs. I first visited the city in 2006 and have been back many times. In spite of all its problems, I do love the city and am happy to call it home when I’m in the US. So, when my father-in-law bought me a copy of LeDuff’s bestselling, deeply personal view of Detroit, I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, work commitments meant that I just didn’t have the time until just last week. After spending a night flashing the hash, I was rushed to hospital with abdominal pains and told that I needed my appendix removed. I read the book restricted to a hospital bed, doped up to my eyeballs, which you might argue is the perfect way to learn about Detroit.
LeDuff is a Detroit native who, like many of his fellow Detroiters, left the city in search of a better life and career. He has enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalist, contributing to a Pulitzer prize winning New York Times series and winning the Meyer Berger award. However, after finding himself somewhat bored with the direction of his career, LeDuff began to feel an irresistible urge to write about his hometown. But the big newspapers were not interested:
No thanks, they told me. Detroit was nothing. Besides, the newspaper and magazine businesses were crumbling and the last thing any executive editor was willing to do was spend the money to open a boutique bureau in Dead City.
LeDuff finally secured a position at the Detroit News, a newspaper whose money problems mirrored those of the city itself. The offices were dimly lit and LeDuff had to get use to broken chairs, broken tables and computers that didn’t work. Given his rather uncomfortable working conditions, it is perhaps no surprise that LeDuff has written an unconventional and eccentric book. If you are looking for a scholarly, chronological history of Detroit, then this is not the book for you. LeDuff begins on the day he was covering a ghoulish story – the discovery of a corpse encased in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building – and then jumps back to the riots of 1967, charting the history of the city from the corrupt mayoralty of Coleman Young to the recent ultra-corrupt mayoralty of Kwame Kilpatrick. Like many Detroiters, LeDuff has personally suffered from the decline of the city. His sister fell in with a group of bikers and became a prostitute. She died in a car crash. LeDuff also writes candidly and movingly about one time when his marriage was on the rocks, and he came close to committing a serious act of domestic abuse. There are many sad and sickening stories in this book, but there is also a great deal of humour in the indignation:
I was going to find out who was responsible for the outrage of murderers walking free while the city burned night after night. I was going to become a real reporter. Someone had to answer for this shit. The dignified burial of Johnnie Dollar and the demolition of Harris’s death house gave me confidence. The people of Greater Detroit deserved better than to be robbed by their leaders and forgotten by their neighbors.
I threw my cigarette butt into the sewer grate. I looked up into the rain. That’s when a bird shit in my face.
The chapters on Mayor Kilpatrick and his venal, money-grubbing minion Monica Conyers are particularly good. For readers not familiar with Kilpatrick, he is probably one of the most corrupt politicians in American history and is currently serving twenty-eight years in prison. Although LeDuff is on shaky legal ground when he explores longstanding rumours that a stripper, Tamara Greene, was assaulted by Kilpatrick’s wife Carlita at the Manoogian Mansion party. Greene was later murdered in a drive-by shooting and some commentators suggested a political conspiracy. Far-fetched? Yes, but in Detroit anything’s possible. Still, there’s something rather pathetic about Kilpatrick and Conyers, which makes it impossible to view them as complete villains. LeDuff reproduces text messages between Kilpatrick and chief of staff and lover Christine Beatty which are just hilarious, as LeDuff puts it:
While lacking meter and polish, the fire and passion in their electronified love sonnets must surely rate with those of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
All in all, a fascinating and funny book. In an odd way, it made me look forward to going back to Detroit.
Amazon.com is now displaying the front cover of James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia, and it’s quite striking. I expect a novel such as this will feature many different front covers over the years, but I thought I would say a few words about this one. The novel is set in Los Angeles, December 1941, during America’s entry into the Second World War. Ellroy has revealed that the notorious internment of over 100,000 citizens of Japanese heritage will be a major theme of the novel, although judging by this interview expect Ellroy’s portrayal to be controversial:
Although the story is very much about the injustice of the internment of the Japanese – most of them innocent – let me say, and this is very un-PC, the f*cking internment was not the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag.
The cover then is very symbolic. The Japanese flag looms in the air over the lights of the City of Angels by night. Pearl Harbor, of course, was an aerial attack therefore the elevated flag seems appropriate. Also, the flag hangs ominously suggesting the widespread paranoia following Pearl Harbor that there was a Japanese Fifth Column in the US. At first I thought the cover was somewhat misjudged considering Japanese-Americans are, to a certain degree, the victims of this period of LA history. Why should the flag tower above LA as though they were more powerful than the city? However, the flag on the cover is the Japanese national flag. If I am not mistaken, the more aggressive symbol of Japanese imperialism at the time was the flag of the Imperial Navy:
It may be over-reading, but perhaps by choosing the Japanese national flag the cover designer is demonstrating that this is a story about Japanese-Americans as people and not about the Empire of Japan and its colonial ambitions, for which the Imperial Navy flag may have been more appropriate as the sun’s rays suggest expansion whereas internment completely overestimated Imperial Japan’s infiltration of the US.
Anyway, this makes me hungry to read the book so its fairly good advertising.