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PD James

November 27, 2014

I was saddened to hear of the death of PD James. Often described as the grand dame or Queen of Crime, James managed to embrace the conventions of the Golden Age of Detective fiction while simultaneously raising the mystery story to new literary heights. She had one of the most beautiful and poetic writing styles of any crime writer I have come across. I have spent this evening reading the many tributes to her. Jake Kerridge’s piece in the Telegraph is very informative:

James was one of the first writers to combine a pleasingly complicated Christie-esque mystery with the depth of literary fiction, and she was the first of these new-style crime writers to be taken to the reading public’s heart. In her novel Devices and Desires (1989) she has a character reading an old-fashioned crime novel in which there is a “detective who, despite his uncertainties, would get there in the end because this was fiction; problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated, and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter.” The implication is clear: no such comforting falsehoods are to be expected at the end of a James novel. Everything will not be alright again once the murderer is caught. But millions of readers adored her uncompromising view of the evil lurking in ordinary life.

I have not read all of James’ work, but I would include The Private Patient (2008) and Innocent Blood (1980) as two of the best novels of their kind.

Thank you Lady James.

The UK and US House of Cards: A Special Relationship

November 16, 2014

When the political historians write the obituaries for the present government one factor they may overlook is the brief revival of Whiggism. This has been spearheaded by two men who are not at the heart of government, on the contrary, Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell both relish their reputation as outsiders. Both men are quite brilliant in their own way, but like many brilliant men there is much that is also quite awful about messrs Hannan and Carswell, I refer specifically to their plan to Americanise the British constitution.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

House of Cards (1990) was one of the most seminal television dramas I can remember growing up, and that’s quite something considering it came at the end of a Golden Age of British television drama. Ian Richardson was superb as the machiavellian Tory MP Francis Urquhart plotting his way to the office of Prime Minister. When I heard that Kevin Spacey was planning an American version of the drama my natural cynicism kicked in, surely it couldn’t be as good as the original I told myself. I was glad to have been proven wrong. Spacey’s Frank Underwood is every bit as compelling and deliciously malevolent as the original Francis Urquhart. Both versions of the political drama are currently available on Netflix, but if you have yet to see one or the other you may find a few spoilers in the following post. The differences between the two adaptations highlight how our respective political systems have evolved separately and distinctly.

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart

The British House of Cards begins with Francis Urquhart brooding in a darkened office. He picks up a framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher and says with a wry smile ‘Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end some day’ After being passed over for promotion by a new, mild-mannered and hapless Prime Minister Urquhart starts to plot his downfall. As a Chief Whip he is skilled in the dark arts and is fully aware that he can become PM without ever being elected. A Member of Parliament has to command the confidence of the House of Commons before he is invited to ‘kiss hands’ with the Queen. This confidence usually entails an overall majority, but a minority government sustained through a confidence and supply arrangement or Coalition are other options. Also, Urquhart is not the type to wait for the Prime Minister to lose office at a general election. That would make him a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition and his party would face a hard slog back to power. An incumbent Prime Minister could be overthrown through a vote of no confidence or a rebellion in his own party. However, Urquhart, brilliantly cunning, wins the trust of the Prime Minister while simultaneously undermining him. Eventually the PM is advised to do the honourable thing and fall on his sword. His last act is to advise his party to accept Urquhart as their leader, and by extension Prime Minister, oblivious to the fact that Urquhart has been betraying him throughout his brief premiership.

The US version begins at a similar point. A new President has been elected and Frank Underwood, Congressman and House majority whip, is expecting to be appointed Secretary of State. Finding himself denied the post, Underwood plots his revenge, but his path to power is a lot more difficult than Urquhart’s. The Presidency is a directly elected post. Unlike the UK, it theoretically doesn’t matter which party controls both Houses as it is next to impossible to dislodge a President mid-term. Underwood has to earn the trust of the President while simultaneously driving a wedge between him and the VP. If the VP can be pressured to stand down and Underwood nominated as his replacement, it would put Underwood a mere heartbeat away from the Presidency.

In the UK, House of Cards was followed by two sequel mini-series To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995). In To Play the King, Urquhart seems unassailable as PM until he is confronted by the reign of a new King with very different political views to his own. The King, expertly played by Michael Kitchen and clearly modelled on Prince Charles, is so repulsed by Urquhart he increasingly oversteps the constitutional limitations of his role to challenge Urquhart’s power. The series was broadcast at a time when the House of Windsor was mired in scandal and the monarchy seemed more at risk than at any time since the long seclusion of Queen Victoria. However, we see another side to Urquhart; a glimpse of the principles that guide him in spite of the evil acts he is driven to. He does not seek to abolish the monarchy as his family have been Royalist since the Civil War. The King is pressured to abdicate and is replaced as Sovereign by his teenage son: a Head of State who can be easily manipulated by Urquhart. Clearly this is a narrative which the American House of Cards cannot follow. That being said, once he is ensconced as Vice President, Underwood resumes his clandestine war against the Head of State. He is not going stay in an office that John Nance Garner described as ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss.’ To date, fourteen Vice Presidents have become President. Eight of these were due to the death of a sitting President, including four assassinations. Gerald Ford assumed the office after Richard Nixon became the only President to have resigned the post. If you have yet to see the US version of House of Cards, I will leave it for you to guess what method Underwood uses to become leader of the free world.

Unfortunately, whoever you vote for at the next election I doubt it would stop the ongoing Americanisation of the UK constitution as devised by Hannan and Carswell and laid out in their book The Plan (2008). At this point in articles such as this it is customary to say ‘Now don’t get me wrong, some of my very best friends are…’ I’m not quite brave enough to forego the tradition. All I can say is having married an American, and spent most of my life studying American writers, I dearly love the US, but I do not wish to see American politics transposed onto this country. Hannan described the US system as ‘the most sublime Constitution devised by human intelligence.’ There may be some truth in his purple prose, but that doesn’t mean that ham-fisted attempts to impose it here will work. Most of my American friends and family agree incidentally. Some of the specific American style changes have been the creation of elected police commissioners and move to elected mayors. I’m sure there are readers who would lay bigger crimes at the government’s door, but take for example elected police commissioners. Every shrewd commentator on the left and right said it would lead to the politicisation of the police and was not the type of the reform that was needed, but the government ploughed on blindly with ideological certainty. Elected mayors were almost unanimously rejected by referendum as voters rightly feared the centralisation of power, but now we are told that Manchester will get one despite voting no anyway. At least they did get a vote, even if it was ignored. Here in Liverpool we were told we’d have to accept an elected mayor if we wanted one or not. To be fair, not all the changes to an American system can be laid at the government’s door; the move to a US-style paramilitary police force began long before the present lot came in. Hannan has since conceded that elected police commissioners have been disaster (although he blames the voters), and Carswell made the bizarre decision to defect to UKIP. Perhaps their ill-judged reforms can be reversed.

If you want to read one of the best fictional celebrations of both British and American culture, I would recommend George MacDonald Fraser’s Mr American (1980). The novel begins with Mark Franklin, the titular character, arriving in Liverpool on the RMS Mauretania in 1909. Ostensibly just another American prospector trying to discover his roots in the ‘old country’, Franklin hides a shadowy past as an outlaw but he is able to work his way to the very top of British society, including a friendship with King Edward VII ,until a criminal acquaintance from back home tracks him down and threatens everything. More than any other novel I’ve read, Mr American conveys the shared heritage and Romanticism of our two countries, whether it be the flashbacks to lawless American west or the bucolic life of the landed gentry, this book should appeal to anyone who is interested in the US or UK.

The quote below is taken from near the end of Mr American. The year is 1914, Britain is now at war with Imperial Germany, and Franklin is pondering whether he should return to the US or fight with the British. Whenever I think of the words below, they serve as a reminder that what our two countries share in kith and kin is far more valuable than politics:

to those imagined people on the road away, so very long ago, who had travelled so far and so well, so that he might travel back, and in the way of things, set out again. For he was going, and he could not really tell why; it was not that he was restless, or drawn like his ancestors by the horizon, or tired of his surroundings, or longing for the places of childhood – this was the place of childhood, far more than the Nebraska farm he could hardly remember, this was the place where the “free-born landholder, not of noble blood” had begun it in the unknown past, and where the generations of yeoman had tilled their land and planted their seed and courted their wives and watched their children grow, and in their time taken the terrible seven-foot staves cut from the hearts of these black twisted trees and gone out to the vineyards of Bordeaux and the passes of Spain in their country’s quarrel, and perhaps to Shrewsbury and Barnet and Bannockburn and Halidon Hill, and certainly to Edgehill and Naseby and Marston Moor – and to the long road of the pilgrims, across to the western sea to the place which in their homesick longing they had called New England. His people, and in a dim, half-understood way he had felt he was realising some great hope by coming home again, and now it was over, with the hope unfulfilled, and he could not tell why. He had wanted to stay, God knew but he wanted to stay, and yet there seemed to be nothing new to stay for.

James Ellroy in Manchester: In my Craft or Sullen Art

November 6, 2014
James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Thatre, Manchester

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester

Shortly before I went to see ‘An Evening with James Ellroy’ at the Dancehouse theatre in Manchester I re-watched an interview on YouTube he gave recently with Craig McDonald in Iowa City. The interview ends with Ellroy fielding questions from the audience and, with a little prompting, they ask him ‘Why do you write?’ He responded by reciting from memory Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘In my Craft or Sullen Art’. It’s a magnificent performance, all the more touching in the centenary year of Thomas’ birth. And so last night in Manchester, I and many other Ellroy fans, the lovers ‘who pay no praise or wages’, crammed into the Dancehouse to see the great man speak.

The evening began with a representative from Waterstones introducing Ellroy. After enthusiastic applause, Ellroy appeared on stage and launched into a lecture on his work. Much of this section was humorous, with Ellroy stating that his new novel Perfidia was ‘a book for the whole family if the name of your family was the fucking Charles Manson family’. He then promised the audience that if each and every one of us bought 1000 copies or more of Perfidia we could have unlimited sex with whoever we desire and still get into Heaven through a special dispensation granted by him ‘the Reverend Ellroy’. He then spoke more seriously about his work as a historical novelist and his aims with Perfidia. Revisiting the first LA Quartet characters at an earlier point in their lives without writing himself into chronological error was a gargantuan task which required rereading his past seven novels, compiling graphs, fact sheets and character bios. However, this is a world and history that is alive to him, as he has lived it experientially through his characters and by growing up in LA in his time. He quoted TS Eliot:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

No wonder then that the Second World War setting of Perfidia is so vivid to him despite the fact the conflict ended three years prior to his birth. Ellroy described how as an eight -year- old child he thought the war was still going on and his mother had to disabuse him of the notion. I’m not an Eliot expert, but a line from the same poem came to me when he was speaking, ‘History is now and England’. I felt it in the theatre that night.

Things progressed with Ellroy reading from Perfidia. He chose two passages, firstly the prologue, and then, a much more extensive and powerful quote from the diary entries of Kay Lake, originally a character in The Black Dahlia. Here at an earlier point in her life, she invites the reader into the inner sanctum of her thoughts on her country, as America prepares to enter the Second World War, and on her secret love for Bucky Bleichert. Dedicated Ellroy readers will recognise how these plotlines begin to build a new chronology of the LA Quartet. The quote begins with Kay seeing from her bedroom terrace ‘A line of armored vehicles chugged west on Sunset, to fevered scrutiny and applause’. Knowing that it portends her country going to war, the image instigates a chain reaction of memory in Kay: her upbringing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the brutal murder of a black man by the Ku Klux Klan, her ill-fated involvement with Jazz drummer and dope peddler Bobby DeWitt and how this led her to Lee Blanchard and the heart of the LAPD. The memories stop as the convoy passes out of her view, and the quote ends ‘Nothing before this moment exists. The war is coming. I’m going to enlist.’ Incidentally, at the Iowa City event Ellroy described how the idea for Perfidia began when he looked out of the window in his home in LA and suddenly the image came to him of Japanese-Americans being driven away for internment in Army trucks. The similarity between this vision and the opening of Kay’s diary makes me think this is one of his favourite passages in the novel.

Perfidia has split the critics. Were there any readers in the audience I wondered who would voice dissent? Not as such, but when Ellroy stated that he expected his readers to obsess over his work due to the sacrifices he’s made one plucky woman asked him what exactly had been the sacrifices. Ellroy explained that he’s sixty six years old, divorced, with no family and very little social life. If you think that would make him sound miserable, you’d be wrong. I’ve never seen a man brimming with so much energy. He seemed delighted to be in the UK and extolled a very anglosphere view of the world: one of the main themes of the new Quartet, he explained, was the defence of the West which he described as, Britain and America, the defence of civilisation as we know it. Ellroy also tied the UK and America to his love of the American idiom: ‘Hipster patois, Yiddish, Klan hate spiel’, he said it originated from writing in English, ‘the language of Shakespeare’.

The Q and A ended with Ellroy giving the same word perfect Dylan Thomas recitation that he gave in Iowa.  It inspired me to do some digging later that night. Ellroy has always been a poetry buff and his novels feature poetry quotations from WH Auden to Anne Sexton. In his debut novel, Brown’s Requiem (1981), the lead character Fritz Brown is readying himself for his final violent confrontation with the chief villain Haywood Cathcart when a poem suddenly comes to him in a dream:

There’s an electric calm at the

heart of the storm,

Transcendentally alive and safe and warm.

So get out now

And search the muse,

The blight is real,

You have to choose,

The choice is yours,

Your mind demurs,

It’s yours, it’s his, it’s ours, it’s hers.

Moral stands will save us yet,

The alternative is certain death.

Ellroy would have written this poem knowing he had no guarantee that the novel it appeared in would ever be published. At the time he was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict working as a golf caddy with dreams of becoming a great writer, but no experience of ever being published. That was over thirty years ago. It’s been a long road from caddying to Perfidia, but if any writers life-story could inspire you to search the muse it would be Ellroy’s. His barnstorming performance in Manchester was yet more proof of that.

Postscript: A large crowd stayed around afterwards to talk to Ellroy and get their copy of Perfidia signed. He acted with tremendous generosity and joie de vivre, chatting to everyone individually and treating them like royalty. Is it any wonder people love this man? When it came to my wife and I’s turn I reminded him of the interviews he gave to me by phone and at his home in LA. He responded by flattering me outrageously about my scholarship, pulled me in close and whispered ‘Steve, your work is iconic, KKK, iconic, KKK.’

It may be over-reading on my part (but hey, I’m a dreamer so humour me), but I wonder if this was a reference to his 1984 interview with Duane Tucker for Armchair Detective. The interview is the first to appear in Conversations with James Ellroy and, as I state in the book, there is reason to believe that the interview was never actually conducted by Tucker but written by Ellroy himself, possibly as an attempt to boost his profile as a young writer. One of the clues that Ellroy may have written the interview is the repeated spelling of icon as ikon in the text. The ikon spelling is common in Ellroy’s novels but seems unusual in the interview given that it should have been transcribed by Tucker.

As I say, possibly over-reading, but the words ‘your work is iconic, KKK, iconic, KKK’ were reverberating in my mind as I took the train home that evening.

The Paradox of Anti-Establishment Fiction

October 20, 2014

The Angry SilenceThe 1960 film The Angry Silence begins with a train arriving at the station of a provincial English town. A mild-mannered looking man in a crumpled suit disembarks, and his eyes pass over his new surroundings. It would be an innocent enough scene, but the man is an union agitator and agent provocateur on a mission to wreak havoc at a local factory.

We live in an age where politicians are now trying to claim the label ‘anti-Establishment’. The SNP want to liberate Scotland from Westminster rule, and UKIP claim they are the only alternative to the homogenised LIBLABCON political parties (read Allan Massie for the link between the two parties). While this relatively new phenomenon has occurred as the Tories and Labour have gradually lost their core support, anti-Establishment feeling has long been an important cultural influence in plays, novels, books and songs. Defining what exactly is the Establishment is no easy task. There have been only two post-war governments which have successfully created a political consensus by which we might say the Establishment operates. The Labour government led by Clement Attlee continued and expanded rationing after the war, nationalised heavy industry, raised taxes and created the NHS. Most of the workforce was unionised, thus giving the unions tremendous leverage over government, and some trade unionists became household names. Although it’s easy to be nostalgic about this bygone age, many writers at the time viewed it with disdain. Angry Young Men dramas and Kitchen Sink Realism portrayed how miserable life could be for much of the working class in 1950s and 60s Britain. DH Lawrence Sons and Lovers style novels about young men sent to work down mines but who yearn to be poets (a literary tradition wonderfully sent up in this Monty Python sketch) were winning the Booker Prize as late as 1976.

The Angry Silence was one of the most interesting and overlooked British films of the era: a sort of kitchen sink thriller which is anti-establishment in tone through its portrayal of unaccountable and sinister trade union power. Richard Attenborough plays Tom Curtis, a factory worker who simply wants a quiet life and the chance to care for his Italian wife (Pier Angeli) and their two children. Their differing nationalities are reflected in the fact that she cooks him a pasta dish which he covers in ketchup and eats with a side plate of bread and butter. When the shop steward Bert Connolly (Bernard Lee) calls an unofficial, wildcat strike, Curtis decides to cross the picket line, angered by the union’s easily manipulated show- of- hands vote. Curtis is then subjected to the full vengeance of strikers determined to punish him and his fellow scabs. Bricks fly through windows, cars are set alight and the scene is set for a violent showdown that can only end in tragedy. The Angry Silence shouldn’t be dismissed as merely right-wing propaganda. Connolly is portrayed as an easily manipulated man who believes in trade union ideals but is powerless to stop the more thuggish strikers who are simply looking for a fight. Also, the film benefits from the then radical directing style of Guy Green. In the union meetings you can almost feel the sweaty tension as men cough, fidget and talk over each other. The sexual discussion is frank and progressive. Michael Craig (who shares a writing credit) has an interesting role as Curtis’ lodger and fair-weather friend Joe Wallace. More at home seducing young women than with union politics, Wallace falls for the one woman who won’t love him back unless he is prepared to take a stand against the men out to destroy Curtis.

GB84Twenty years on from the scathing critique of trade union power in The Angry Silence and the consensus established by the Attlee government was on the brink of collapse, the Wilson and Heath governments tried and failed to reform trade unions through In Place of Strife and the Industrial Relations Act respectively. The Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 enabled the Thatcher government to enact the most radical changes since the Attlee years, dismantling the consensus he had created. Industry was privatised, exchange controls abolished, taxes slashed and unions lost most of their power through the abolition of the show of hands vote and flying pickets. Perhaps the struggle that symbolized the changing structure of the British Establishment more than anything else was the miners’ strike of 1984-85. David Peace was just a teen growing up in West Yorkshire when the strike was at its height. His sympathy lay firmly with the miners and against the government. I was lucky enough to see Peace speak at the States of Crime conference in Belfast. He described how he felt compelled to write GB84 (2004), his epic novel on the miners strike, after looking back on events and realising how little he had done to help the miners in their struggle. The novel traces the government, police, media and security services attempts to subvert and undermine the strike. Peace’s hellish vision of England is a country far more dystopic than anything George Orwell could have imagined in 1984. However, like The Angry Silence, it would be wrong to label GB84 as just propaganda of a different stripe. The novel portrays the paranoia, casual racism and sometimes plain stupidity which was ingrained in the upper echelons of the National Union of Mineworkers. One of the more unsettling features of the novel is the bigotry extended towards the character of Stephen Sweet, businessman and political adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Sweet, allegedly based on David Hart, is a fanatically loyal servant to Thatcher and is referred to throughout as simply ‘the Jew’ by his driver. This portrayal of characters for whom racism is a casual attribute and not a defining characteristic owes a great deal to Peace’s reading of James Ellroy. Stylistically, this is a challenging novel with a non-linear narrative comprised of dreams, diaries, newspaper reports, biased and skewered perspectives. It is as though Peace has transposed Ellroy’s vision and narrative methods of the LA Quartet onto 1980s Yorkshire. While not all of Peace’s Ellrovian experiments have been successful, it does lead to some of the most exhilarating parts of the novel, as in the first-person prose of one striking miner:

Day 239. I get my orders from envelope. I go and do my picket. Kiveton Park again today. I take Tim and Gary and this other young lad. I drive down back roads and side-streets. I park car a good two mile or so from pit gates. I fall in and walk with rest of lads. I take abuse from police on way to front with rest of lads. Krk-Krk. I get stopped and searched for fireworks with rest of lads. I get to front with rest of lads. I stand in dark and cold. I squint into their searchlights with rest of lads. I blink with rest of lads. I tell television crews to fuck off home with rest of lads. I push with rest of lads. I shove with rest of lads. I shout with rest of lads. I call them what they are with rest of lads. I call them scabs with rest of lads. I watch their bus go in with rest of lads. I listen to coppers laugh and chant and bang their shields with rest of lads. I turn and walk away with rest of lads. I take abuse from police on way back to car with rest of lads. I drive Tim and Gary back to Thurcroft with that other young lad. I go in Welfare with most of lads. I get my dinner with some of the lads. I have a pint in the Hotel with a few of the lads. I crack jokes about Gadhafi with a couple of lads. I give a lift up Hardwick farm to this one lad. Then I go back to my blanket on bedroom floor in middle of afternoon and I lie there and I think, Fuck this for a game of soldiers.

Peace portrays the miners strike as the last English Civil War, a battle for the soul of the country. In that sense, it is every bit as much an anti-establishment piece as The Angry Silence. The paradox of anti-establishment fiction is that in a changing political landscape the anti-establishment novel or film of today is the pro-establishment piece of yesterday or tomorrow. While some of the politics of The Angry Silence and GB84 might seem naive, they are still works of raw power, and I’m more inclined to forgive a lack of nuance in the politics of culture than in today’s anti-establishment SNP and UKIP politicians. It’s time for a protest against protest, celebrating the achievements of the two main parties while protecting their legacy from the fringe elements of UK politics.

Cherish the Establishment, as we’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Perfidia Reviews – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

October 13, 2014

PerfidiaPerfidia has been out for a while now and many James Ellroy fans will have read it and formed a judgment. Personally, I thought it was a strong novel and an improvement on its predecessor Blood’s a Rover (2009), but reading what the other critics have said makes me think I’m in the minority. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of critics praised the book. It’s just that the praise felt a bit muted and the criticism more prolonged than Ellroy has come to expect. I wonder if this is the beginning of critical opinion turning against Ellroy. I think that would be an over-reaction, but to give you a sense of what I mean, I’ve compiled an overview of the mixed comments that came from reviewers.

Barry Forshaw, usually an Ellroy admirer, describes Perfidia as ‘the Finnegans Wake of crime novels’ and ‘for diehard enthusiasts only; the casual reader will melt away.’ However, he does add ‘at least Ellroy is still trying to expand the parameters of the crime novel – and perhaps we must pay him the compliment of cracking the prismatic (but exhilarating) prose that is his speciality.’

Forshaw acknowledges that Ellroy broke free of genre boundaries in his previous work, but as this is a return to the Los Angeles-set  noir that Ellroy had sworn he’d left behind, can the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction effectively live up to the standards he created for the genre? Dennis Lehane, whose themes of political corruption and of a criminal underworld often mirror Ellroy’s work, writes that some of the old motifs are looking tired:

while the endless and uncomfortable racial epithets feel true to the times and the men who utter them, the ceaseless “outing” of rumored homosexuals grows monotonous and, worse, predictable. Before I even saw the “Roosevelt” that followed “Eleanor,” I knew reference would be made to her rumored homosexual tendencies, and it was. Same went for Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant. The effect isn’t revelatory; it’s puerile.

But he’s more positive about the return of Dudley Smith and Ellroy’s ability to work magic with his most famous character:

In Dudley Smith, Ellroy has found the hellhound guide for his neon-noir Los Angeles underbelly. Smith, a demon removed from any concept of restraint, says at one point: “I destroy those I cannot control. I must be certain that those close to me share my identical interests. I’m benevolent within that construction. I’m ghastly outside of it.” Smith casts the same shadow over “Perfidia” that Judge Holden cast over Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” He’s writ large and writ evil, a monolith of corruption and utilitarian expediency. But unlike what Ellroy did with Smith’s previous appearances, here he sets his sights, to varying degrees of success, on the devil’s heart and the ways in which satanic charms often coexist with paternal benevolence. For Smith engenders loyalty as much as he does fear. In a world as sordid and chaotic as the one Ellroy depicts, the simple purity of Smith’s evil attains a kind of nobility.

Writing in the Seattle Times, Mark Lindquist is mostly positive, describing the novel as a ‘great read’ and hailing the return of Kay Lake as ‘the most engaging for me, illuminating the motives and desires of the men who are intertwined by the investigation.’ But he adds that this is unlikely to win Ellroy any new fans with so much of the narrative connected not just to the original LA Quartet, but also to the Underworld USA trilogy: ‘Your appreciation of Ellroy’s unabashed attempt at the Great American Novel will depend, in part, on your familiarity with his oeuvre.’

On Amazon the reader reviews have been more unambiguously positive, with one reviewer comparing Ellroy’s work favourably to Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. Surely the biggest compliment a historical novelist could hope for.

In the Guardian, Edward Docx is similarly awestruck, describing Perfidia as ‘a genuinely impressive feat of sustained literary energy: 90% of novelists couldn’t get anywhere near it.’ And yet Docx senses a certain inverse proportion to Ellroy’s writing. For all the brilliance of the stylistic experiments, they appear to be in equal parts maddening, a problem not helped by Ellroy’s now inescapable literary persona:

Great novelists disappear so that their characters no longer seem to partake in their creator’s sensibilities but instead become real unto themselves and thus to the reader. But Ellroy cross-infects his cast list with such similar traits and strains that they begin to flatten into collage rather than come forward as people.

The baffling contradiction of Ellroy’s persona is that he can criticise his past work in a way that bolsters his confidence about the new novels. Forshaw states that Ellroy ‘disowned’ The Cold Six Thousand (2001) before Blood’s a Rover was released. In a recent interview with Craig McDonald at the Iowa City Book Festival, Ellroy emphatically stated that his second novel Clandestine, which features Dudley Smith and references to the Black Dahlia case, does not fit into his new larger Quartet narrative. I wonder why any author would be so scathing of their past work when they’ll always be critics happy to do that for you, and what does it do to your sales when potential readers think you don’t believe in your own work?

The answer, I suspect, is that for Ellroy no standards of writing are too high. He’s already reinvented the genre several times, but with Perfidia and the Second LA Quartet, he’s come back for one more go.

Mr Campion’s Farewell – Review

October 1, 2014

Mr Campion's FarewellThe year is 1969: Man has just walked on the moon, progressive values have led to a cultural revolution and a new age of consumerism is changing every British household. But in the sleepy Suffolk village of Lindsay Carfax, time stands still. Aristocratic detective Albert Campion arrives on the scene to discreetly investigate the Carders, a shadowy group of nine local bigwigs who are rumoured to run the entire village between them and have a demeanour that would make the Masons seem welcoming. It’s not long before Campion begins to unearth some disturbing secrets hidden beneath the bucolic veneer of Lindsay Carfax. People in the village have been disappearing and then reappearing after nine days, a number that reappears with cryptic regularity. Were the Carders involved in the fatal overdose of two archaeology students, and, if so, how long before they devise a similar end for Campion?

Albert Campion was one of the most impressive characters of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and beyond. Mike Ripley’s triumphant resurrection of the character reads not just as a fine novel in its own right but also a remarkable piece of scholarship. Campion was the invention of Margery Allingham. The first novel in the series appeared in 1929, and after Allingham’s death in 1966, her widow Philip ‘Pip’ Youngman Carter completed one Campion novel and wrote two others before he died in 1969. With the full cooperation of the Margery Allingham Society, Ripley has completed this new Campion novel from a manuscript Pip was working on shortly before he died. The manuscript ‘contained revisions and minor corrections but no plot outline, character synopsis or plan’, and must have been a Herculean task to complete after lying untouched for over forty years. I had wondered at the outset whether I would be able to spot which parts were written by Pip and which bits were clearly Mike Ripley at work. I soon gave up on that task. The story unravels seamlessly with excitement and lashings of Wodehousian wit. Knowing a little about Ripley’s previous work such as Angel’s Unaware, I like to think Campion’s humorous encounter with a rather unimpressive archaeologist is pure Ripley:

If he had ever given the subject much thought, which he had not, Mr Campion’s ideal archaeologist would have been a tall, muscular, sun-bronzed figure; a man of military bearing, with a pencil dark moustache and gleaming teeth, dressed in jodphurs, riding boots and pith helmet. He would be fluent in at least a dozen languages – ancient and modern – of the Middle East, and be accompanied everywhere by a fiercely loyal Sikh manservant with a ruby in his turban and several curved daggers concealed about his person. He would be the sort of man who was fatherly to his army of native diggers and who would not give a fig for a Pharoah’s curse.

Dr Mortimer Casson, however, was short, skinny to the point of emaciation and had buck teeth which made him lisp when he spoke. His hair was unkempt, unwashed and unruly and Campion thought he still detected boyish curls which had survived what were clearly Dr Casson’s attempts at self-barbering. At least, Mr Campion hoped the haircut had been self-inflicted; if it had been paid for, it had been a fee extorted under false pretences.

The story is never too reliant on humour however. I was quietly moved by the portrayal of Campion who, in this story, is pushing seventy and knows he is more suited to the last days of the Victorian era in which he was born rather than the rapidly changing society of Post-War Britain. All of the old favourites are here and struggling to cope with modern society: Campion’s wonderfully caustic wife Lady Amanda, not to mention Magersfontein Lugg, a gruff ex-burglar and now Campion’s loyal servant. This makes the premise of the novel fiendishly clever. Campion walks into a village straight out of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction but this is a world in which the old rules of the genre don’t apply. A splendidly Ruritanian sub-plot involves Campion’s son and daughter-in-law visiting Monte Carlo to investigate the aging doyenne of the Carder’s spending an unaccounted for fortune in the world famous casinos.

Mr Campion’s Farewell is a crime fiction event which should appeal to new readers and long term Campion devotees. Severn House have commissioned another Campion adventure from Ripley titled Mr Campion’s Fox.

Perfidia – Review

September 21, 2014

PerfidiaJames Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia begins with a ‘Thunderbolt Broadcast’ on K-L-A-N Radio. The salacious gossip, casual bigotry, hyperbolic and alliterative language will be familiar to Ellroy readers who remember the Hush-Hush tabloid articles which appeared in the novels of the first Los Angeles Quartet. For this second Quartet, Ellroy begins by implying he’s going to give us the Ellrovian style we have grown to love but not how we have come to expect it.

Los Angeles, December, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has brought America into the war. The Japanese of LA, as American as any other immigrant group, are suddenly designated ‘enemy aliens’ and are about to suffer the indignity of internment. The LAPD’s top police chemist, Hideo Ashida, is given an exemption on the grounds of his exceptional skills and usefulness in investigating a brutal murder of a Japanese family of four, which the killer has designed to look like a seppuku. Ashida has conflict raging inside him. Guilt-ridden at how he has avoided the fate of his fellow Japanese-Americans, Ashida is quiet and precise but burning with attraction for the sultry Kay Lake. Japanese by temperament, Ashida is nevertheless fully aware he’s part of a Noir world and in love with its danger: ‘He chose this male world. He’s learning its customs and codes. It’s unbearably thrilling.’ From a quadruple murder, Ellroy weaves a typically complex plot involving eugenics and plastic surgery, red-baiting and Japanese hating, internment and shady property deals and, bizarrely, rumours of a Japanese submarine off the west coast. As a prequel, all the old stars of the Quartet are here: Dudley Smith, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert. I was also pleased to see the return of more minor characters such as Saul Lesnick, Nort Layman and Sid Hudgens, not to mention characters from the Underworld USA trilogy. Be warned, if you’ve never been inclined to prequels you probably won’t enjoy Perfidia. As a lifelong Ellroy reader, I enjoyed many of the incidental pleasures the novel provides. Ellroy fans will delight in connecting the dots from previous books. Incest has often been a theme in Ellroy’s work but here the writing feels incestuous. I couldn’t decide whether he went too far with a few details, such as the connection between Dudley Smith and Elizabeth Short. However, there is plenty of fully original material here to complement the revisionism of his regular Quartet characters. Ashida is a compelling figure, and Ellroy’s portrayal of future LAPD Chief William H. Parker, who is equally brilliant and inadequate in everything he does, ranks among his best writing.

With Perfidia, Ellroy has proved once again he is a master of historical fiction. This is World War Two told as Noir. Ellroy strips away the hindsight the reader has in viewing history. No character has any contrived understanding of what the future holds for their country. Instead there is paranoia and drug-induced madness. Dudley Smith hits on the uncertainty everyone feels when he quotes Shakespeare:

The bay trees in our country are all withered

And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven.

The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth

And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change.

This is another reference to an earlier Ellroy novel, but not from the Quartet, the quotation served as the epigraph for Ellroy’s novel Blood on the Moon (1984). Ellroy was an almost unknown crime writer when he wrote that novel. Now he is perhaps the most famous crime writer in the world. Perfidia didn’t quite leave me as moved or thrilled as his best novels such as The Big Nowhere (1988) and American Tabloid (1995), but I was gripped nonetheless, and by the last page I was left eagerly wanting more in what is bound to be an incredible Second Quartet.






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