Skip to content

The James Ellroy Trilogy

August 10, 2018

The publication of The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World marks the completion of what I informally describe as the James Ellroy trilogy, three critical works I have produced studying the life and work of the Demon Dog of American crime fiction.

I have discussed my aims and aspirations for each book elsewhere, for instance in ‘Story Behind the Story’ articles for The Rap Sheet. However, whenever writers look back at previous work (and I advise that you don’t do it too often), you’re liable to remember different details about the project every time. So, in the following post, I want to give some brief thoughts on each book with the hope that they will be of interest to hardcore Ellroy readers, casual fans and maybe even some potential converts.

Conversations with James Ellroy

Editing this book gave me the chance to get my own interviews with Ellroy in print and to publish, for the first time in some cases, other great interviews that Ellroy has given throughout his career. For instance, I was delighted to transcribe and publish Don Swaim’s superb 1987 radio interview with Ellroy.

University Press of Mississippi gave me a budget for purchasing the rights to publish each interview, and my job was to track down the copyright holder. This proved more difficult than it might seem at first. I was informed, during my enquiries, that the final editor of legendary crime fiction magazine Armchair Detective was missing and wanted by the IRS!

The first interview to feature in Conversations, a 1984 interview Ellroy gave to Duane Tucker for Armchair Detective has become a source of some debate among Ellroy scholars. Tucker told me he never conducted the interview and suspected Ellroy had used his name to write the interview himself. I received an evasive response from Ellroy when I put this to him. I wrote up my findings in the book, stating how I believed Ellroy had written the interview himself as a canny way of generating publicity. He was an unknown crime writer at the time, and by writing the interview himself it could be read as an early formulation of his Demon Dog literary persona.

Let’s just say I was ninety per cent sure Ellroy wrote the interview when I edited Conversations, and over the past few years, I have become one hundred per cent sure.

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction

This monograph was adapted from my doctoral thesis, and it’s probably the book I’m the most fond of. In the book, I expand on my theory that Ellroy’s Demon Dog persona was far more than a publicity generating device. I argue that Ellroy has crafted the Demon Dog alter-ego as a way of formulating narratives both on the page and, to some extent, external to the novels.

Both the thesis and book were really built on my research at the James Ellroy archive at the Thomas Cooper library, University of South Carolina. Located in the beautiful city of Columbia, the Thomas Cooper library is an extraordinary place to visit. While I was there, they were hosting an exhibition on Scottish poets. Every morning when I arrived at the archives reading room, the first thing I’d see was the typewriter Joseph Heller wrote the original manuscript for Catch 22 on. The Ellroy papers revealed a treasure trove of secrets, and the University’s archive has also acquired the papers of crime writing legends Elmore Leonard and George V Higgins.

Needless to say, it’s the perfect place for a writer to be inspired.

The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World

Perhaps my most vivid impression of working on this book is how far things have progressed for Ellroy, in terms of the critical work that is being produced on him, since I first began my thesis on the author in 2006. It was a privilege to work with established Ellroy scholars such as Jim Mancall and Anna Flügge, as well as such talented writers as Rodney Taveira and Nathan Ashman, both of whom are writing their own books on Ellroy.

I can see the day when Ellroy is read and studied with the same enthusiasm and fervent scholarship as Charles Dickens or Edgar Allan Poe are today, which is justified as I believe him to be a storyteller of the same calibre.

The Big Somewhere

Advertisements

The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World – Extract

August 3, 2018

The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World was published last month, and I thought I’d treat regular readers of this blog to a short extract from the book.

This is taken from the first chapter of the book in which I examine the influence of Raymond Chandler’s writing on Ellroy’s work:

James Ellroy has often reflected on other authors and on his own place within the literary canon. His opinion of crime writers and how they influenced him, however, has been changeful and, in some cases, caustically dismissive. His comments on Ross Macdonald, for example, show a re-evaluation of his own early tastes and influences: ‘I loved the Lew Archer books. I don’t know if I could stand them now’ (Hogan 1995: 58). Ellroy concedes that although the ‘lost child motif’ of Macdonald’s novels was formative in developing his early narrative structures, upon revisiting MacDonald’s novels, he found them to be ‘appallingly overwritten, full of metaphor’ (Hogan 1995: 58). This harsh re-evaluation comes just over ten years after he described Macdonald as ‘my greatest teacher’ (Tucker 1984: 7). Once Ellroy surpassed Macdonald’s influence by creating increasingly complex narratives and themes more expansive and interwoven than what he had learned from reading and studying the Lew Archer private detective novels, he subsequently played down the impact of MacDonald’s work. Through comparison with his own writing, he chastises the very thing that once inspired his novels. Macdonald’s novels, Ellroy later claimed, are ‘not really my bowl of rice’ (Hogan 1995: 58).

Although Ellroy has only fleetingly spoken of MacDonald, by contrast, other authors have gained a permanence in Ellroy’s writing and summation of his own work. Ellroy has consistently referred to the work of Raymond Chandler, in recent years with increasing scepticism. Ellroy acknowledges that Chandler’s writing was an significant influence on his first novel Brown’s Requiem (1981) but, as he put it, ‘I have less affection for (Chandler) by the day’ (Hogan 1995: 57). According to Ellroy, Chandler created a style which ‘is easy to adapt to the personal prejudices of the individual writers, which is why you now have the gay private eye, the black private eye, the woman private eye, and every other kind of private eye’ (Hogan 1995: 57). To an aspiring writer, Ellroy concedes this effect was beneficial; Brown’s Requiem melds Ellroy’s ‘personal prejudices’ onto the formula Chandler created in the Philip Marlowe novels. But rather than develop this Chandler-inspired narrative further, Ellroy claims that after the publication of his first novel, the influence came to an abrupt halt. Yet, unlike MacDonald, whom Ellroy does not go back to, Ellroy cannot help but refer to Chandler even if only to criticise. This inspiration, and subsequent recantation, focuses on Chandler’s work as a novelist. While Chandler made his name writing for pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Ellroy by contrast ‘didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories’ (Rich 181: 2008). This criticism is ironic given that Ellroy’s own education as a writer had been through reading pulp novels, and when, after developing a successful career as a novelist, Ellroy turned to composing his own short stories, he did not show much flair for them. Despite this, Ellroy has consistently stated that the private eye novel or anything else that could be considered Chandler-influenced were no longer present in his work. Arguably, Ellroy’s noir settings and old Hollywood narratives, would evoke, if not Chandler, then his contemporaries. The author Ellroy would credit with being an influence, more than anyone else, on the LA Quartet was Dashiell Hammett. As Lee Clark Mitchell has argued though, major thematic and stylistic differences which supposedly separate Chandler and Hammett’s work are less significant than has been assumed:

At first glance Chandler seems utterly different from Hammett, though it soon becomes clear that he embraces his predecessor’s techniques, extending and complicating them via both setting and syntax. Or rather, he takes Hammett’s concentration on quirky details and ups the ante by lowering the stakes, giving us less essential description, more frequent diversions and digressions, as a way of further impeding the plot. (Mitchell 2015: 10)

Ellroy has been guilty of simplifying Chandler’s legacy, limiting it to the creation of the easily imitated hardboiled private detective. Like Chandler’s revisionism of Hammett’s themes, Ellroy ‘ups the ante by lowering the stakes’. The paradox here is that the hardboiled PI is not Chandler’s creation alone, his legacy is both smaller, and in some ways, creatively bigger than Ellroy gives him credit for. Ellroy began shifting his vision of the genre to Hammett, while not acknowledging that Chandler ‘embraces his predecessor’s techniques’. Yet, in interviews, Ellroy would rarely bring up Chandler’s name without also mentioning Hammett and vice versa, indicating some innate understanding of their pairing.

Ellroy’s open acknowledgement then disavowal of Chandler has not had its similar counterpart in Hammett, partly because Hammett’s influence on Ellroy’s work was more subliminal. As late as 2008, Ellroy claimed that in retrospect the work of Hammett had been more influential than he realised when he was first writing the Quartet novels: ‘I had to reread a little Hammett, because I wrote the Everyman Library introduction to one of their volumes, and was amazed at how my sensibility of the goon and the political fixer and the bagman and the hatchet man strike-breaker came out of that’ (Powell 2008b: 170). Ellroy looks more kindly on these subconscious influences, as his debt during and after the writing process is indistinct. They are not fully formed fonts of inspiration, as MacDonald ‘my greatest teacher’ was, nor do they provide any tangible impediment to creativity, as Chandler’s PI in Brown’s Requiem did (Tucker 1984: 7).

By continually playing Hammett against Chandler, the overt and the subverted, the defined and the undefinable, Ellroy has purposefully created a paradox in his relationship with two of the most important practitioners of detective fiction. Ellroy’s definition of the two men is key: Chandler, in Ellroy’s view, was conservative, predictable and set the conventions of the genre, whereas Hammett’s writing was edgy and existed in a narrative world without conventions. It is not difficult to observe, given Ellroy’s somewhat unhinged Demon Dog persona, why he would prefer the latter influence. But the oppositional roles he designs for both authors, both oddly reliant on each other, are too simplistic and conveniently suited to the image Ellroy was trying to acquire. In this chapter, I will argue that Chandler’s influence on Ellroy’s work extended far further than the debut novel in which Ellroy has always attempted to contain it, and that, much like how he overlooked Hammett for lengthy periods of his career, the Chandler effect has been more complex, undefinable and subliminal.

Neither Hammett nor Chandler could have known the enormous influence their writing would have in the field of crime fiction over fifty years since their death. Both men died relatively young, unhappy, and past their best. Neither man produced as much as was expected of their peers, such as Erle Stanley Gardner who wrote hundreds of books and had to employ pseudonyms in order to effectively market the enormous output. Nor was there such an interest in crime fiction as an academic discipline. It fell on Chandler himself to codify some of the traits of the hardboiled school in The Simple Art of Murder (1944), a practice which was common among writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction which Chandler explicitly criticises.

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. (Chandler 1944: 987)

Years later, Ellroy parodied these words to elevate his work above Chandler’s, and bring his narrative to the same plateau as Hammett’s:

Down these mean streets the single man who can make a difference must go. There is an institutionalized rebelliousness to it that comes out of a cheap liberalism that I despise. It’s always the rebel. It’s always the private eye standing up to the system. That doesn’t interest me. What interest me are the toadies of the system. (Duncan 1996: 85)

By separating Chandler’s detective ‘man of honor’ from the ‘toadies of the system’ Ellroy brings the genre full circle.

You can find out more about the book here.

The Big Somewhere

Secrets of Cinema – Mark Kermode’s Take on the Heist Movie

July 27, 2018

I’ve been enjoying Mark Kermode’s new series Secrets of Cinema, but after watching his latest offering on the heist movie, I was surprised by how much material on the genre or sub-genre he seemed to leave out. I started to make a list of variations on the heist formula that had been omitted and, sure enough, the task soon consumed me.

Kermode focused on a fairly pure heist movie formula where the main protagonists are  criminals, the buildup and planning are essential to the narrative, and the police play a minimal role. With this type of movie, at least one of the criminal gang has to be sympathetic so the audience has someone they can root for. Some of the variations I’m going to talk about cast the thieves in an unambiguously villainous light, and readers might argue these aren’t truly heist films. But as Kermode lost so much time talking about films like The Big Short (2015), The French Connection (1971), Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed (2006) which are categorically NOT heist films, then I feel its worth mentioning some alternatives.

Kermode

Kermode discussed The League of Gentlemen (1960) and its wonderful opening scene where Jack Hawkins emerges from a sewer in a spotless dinner jacket. Note that this film was made four years before Sean Connery famously emerged from the water in Goldfinger and took off his wet-suit to reveal a flawless white tux underneath. Goldfinger is, of course, a heist movie. It has a high-profile target in Fort Knox and an elaborate break-in involving poison gas, dynamite, lasers and an atom bomb, and one fantastic twist. After murdering the Mafia figures who have financed the heist, Auric Goldfinger plans to destroy the gold rather than remove it to increase the value of his own stock. In Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Simon Gruber pretends to pull off this con as he wants the FBI to believe he has blown up the gold he has stolen from the Federal Reserve Bank, but in fact he has kept it.

Which brings me to another point: the original Die Hard is a heist movie. True, none of the heist-men are sympathetic, but they have taken over the Nakatomi building to steal millions in Bearer Bonds under the pretext of making terrorist demands. We don’t think of Die Hard as a heist film as it is an Action flick that created its own formula, recycled in films such as Cliffhanger (Die Hard on a mountain) and Under Siege (Die Hard on a battleship). But in the Die Hard formula, the heist sequence is crucial. Think of the spectacular mid-air heist that goes wrong in Cliffhanger, and the stealing of the nukes in Under Siege.

Stealing nuclear weapons is a recurring trope that links the spy-action genre to the heist movie, and again its genesis is in Bond. Take Spectre agent Largo’s underwater theft of the atom bombs from the Vulcan Avro jet in Thunderball (1965).

Kermode couldn’t cover everything, but I’m glad he spent considerable time on Sexy Beast (2000). But I was surprised that he didn’t mention how Ray Winstone’s retired thief Gal Dove is a perfect example of the retired criminal doing ‘one last job’, which is an integral device of the formula. Likewise, I didn’t agree with his classification of Ben Kingsley’s character Don Logan as the loose cannon of the gang. Logan lives for organised crime and is disgusted that Dove resists his demands to re-enter the gang. If anything, Dove is the loose cannon for killing Logan, and then covering it up from his criminal colleagues when he is forced to go back to London to do the job.

When news of the Hatton Garden heist broke in 2015 it was remarkable how much the story paralleled Sexy Beast. A book on the case was titled Sexy Beasts: The Inside Story of the Hatton Garden Heist and a film about the heist, the third made so far, even stars Ray Winstone. It’s one of the most remarkably surreal films to have had any inspiration on real events as it contains dream sequences, demonic rabbits and an underwater break-in through a Turkish bath. That said, heists by their nature are improbable and two of the most recent heist films have been based on real-life events. Rob the Mob (2014) and The Wannabe (2015) are based on the exploits of Thomas and Rosemarie Uva, a Bonnie and Clyde couple who robbed Mafia social clubs in the early 1990s. Kermode spent some time discussing the Mob’s role in the heist film, but he failed to mention one of the best deviations on the formula when small-time crooks net a massive haul when they rob a business which, unbeknownst to them, is a Mafia front. Charley Varrick (1973) and Drive (2011) are two of my favourite films which show the bloody, chaotic consequences of stealing from the Mafia.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire Mark Kermode as a critic and love his reviews, rants and documentaries. I was really chuffed when he did a Kermode Uncut vlog on the Ourscreen screenings of Sorcerer that were set up for the films fortieth anniversary last year as I had arranged and introduced the Liverpool screening of Sorcerer. There was much in this documentary that I admired, including the discussion of how the robbery gang usually includes an expert in every field: explosives, safecracker, wheelman etc.

As classic heist movies traditionally include some form of thieves’ Supergroup it is surprising, or perhaps not, that more cinematic heists don’t end happily whereas a ragtag group of misfits like The Dirty Dozen famously got the job done. No matter how well the heist is planned it is likely to come undone by the simplest, involuntary action. Think of the sneeze in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).

In crime, as in art, the best results come not through perfect planning and personnel but by chance and happenstance. After all, when was the last time you bought a Traveling Wilburys album?

Ellroy Contradictions

July 23, 2018

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

I recently asked James Ellroy “What role does contradiction play in the noir universe?”  On such matters, Ellroy is characteristically curt and vague—satisfying the question with a throwaway line, occasionally suffused with an even briefer anecdote that is often never completed, and instead rudely interrupted by one of the Demon Dog’s trademark guttural grunts.

Contradiction, as any longtime fan and student of Ellroy knows, is as emblematic and germane to the Demon Dog as his over-the-top egotism, profanity, and love of promotion, and no interaction with Ellroy would be complete without it.

To try to understand—or even map the terrain of—Ellroy’s contradictory nature, it helps to look deeply at the genre which gave the Demon Dog a career.

In film noir, the contradictions are abundant:  The cop who is often as corrupt—or even more corrupt—than the criminals he pursues…The politician who publicly chastises incompetence while privately struggling to contain his own staggering ineptitude…The young married couple who hide a seething mutual bitterness and boredom (with attendant infidelities) behind a fatuously felicitous front.

Implicit within noir’s many contradictions (or perhaps the very backbone of such dissonance) is the disingenuous duplicity for which Ellroy has no tolerance…  This is an important matter to him—disingenuous people behaving disingenuously populate every single book he’s written, whether it’s demented Black Dahlia patriarch Emmet Sprague touting his bravery (when in fact, we learn Mr. Sprague is quite the usurious coward) or the willful parental dismissal embedded within the ambiguous paternity of the Herrick and Kafesjian children from White Jazz.

Noir depicts human existence as a disillusioned trek through corrupt, incompetent and decomposing societal systems.  Narratives are highly ironic, and as American philosopher Robert Pippin has noted, character focus is typically on that of a deftly deceptive, cunningly crafty anti-hero, who is also quite ruthless.  This anti-hero bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Lee Earle Ellroy, bombing around and making mischief—in between library book binges—in late 1960s L.A.

Noir also explores the constant theme of being trapped—either by a brutal bureaucracy, or even a self-bondage—trapping yourself within the confines of the public image you have constructed of yourself.  With Ellroy, that image is clearly his ubiquitous Demon Dog persona—an act so practiced and second nature to him, that it was (unfortunately and unnecessarily) a distracting, fourth-wall-shattering, and all-but-primary character in his last two novels Blood’s A Rover and Perfidia.

Ellroy has said in countless interviews that ever since he was a child, he’s craved attention.  As he mercilessly details in his autobiography My Dark Places, Ellroy went to great and often ridiculous lengths to make a spectacle of himself as a boy.  In a 2001 60 Minutes interview, Ellroy told Charlie Rose that his younger self was the “poster child for the ‘if-you-can’t-love-me-notice-me’ chapter in every child psychology text book.”  In the same interview, while discussing his tumultuous twenties, Ellroy describes his self-esteem then as “low, but obsessively optimistic.”  Rose notes the contradiction, and Ellroy affirms it, explaining away the deadlock with “I had this crazy notion at the height of my self-degradation that I was a pretty smart guy, and a capable guy underneath it all.”

To consider Ellroy’s behavior under a noir context, film noir often features characters with no conscious idea of why they act as they do.  And while these characters might protest otherwise, as Pippin has noted, the films often present evidence indicating that any rationalizations for their motives often run perpendicular to their actions.  In other words, a contradiction.

A common noir motif is a character’s quest to make the intentional look accidental.  This is a plot cornerstone for Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir Double Indemnity, which Ellroy has listed as one of his favorite noirs. Could Ellroy’s contradictory nature then simply be a low-key dimension of his Demon Dog persona?  An intentional gimmick dressed as spontaneity? Ellroy has defined his famous act as “a calculated character that’s about 7% of who I am.”

Heraclitus wrote that “Character is fate.” Ellroy parodied this notion once to filmmaker Reinhart Jud when the Demon Dog said “Character is fake.  And the ‘character’ of my characters influences what’s going to happen to them.”  Could this also include James Ellroy himself?

Ellroy has stated many times that he created the Demon Dog persona as a promotional tool to boost book sales and raise his media profile.  Looking at the persona from a noir perspective, it seems like Ellroy has become lost (or rather, submerged) in the act… A few manipulative actions have snowballed into a monstrous—and quite demonic force—that even Ellroy can no longer control.  Noir often shows us this same paradigm—an endlessly ricocheting collision between the stubborn stasis of the past, and an unstoppable and uncontainable future.

Ellroy’s contradictions may also be the Demon Dog’s mimicry of the alienation and tension noir leaves spectators with, when they see characters also struggling ambiguously and quite deliberately without any of the familiar psychological characteristics moviegoers are accustomed to.  As Pippin has noted, what so often happens in these moments of dissonance, is that your own self-ascribed character traits are unrecognizably different from how you interpreted and presented them as, and are thus not nearly as immovable and unchangeable as you thought.

Such dissonance has fueled the long-standing argument that film noir is in fact not a legitimate genre, and instead, an ever-evolving celluloid concept that incorporated retroactively the insight and wisdom of its critics and analysts.  Ellroy himself seemed to reference this very point when he told Ron Hogan in a 1995 interview, “every interview I give is an opportunity to puncture the myth I’ve created about my work and refine it.”

The anthropologist David Berliner has argued that contradictions are an integral component to the human experience.  In fact, Berliner believes the psychological dissonance created by contradictions just may be a necessary catalyst for kick-starting imagination and progress.  We have all seen this process at work in nature, when opposing fault lines collide, and only a violent earthquake can resolve the impasse, giving way to new, though tenuously unified ground.

Berliner goes on to argue that such progress is a product of the brain’s efforts to resolve such oppositions, or—phrased another way—to establish closure. Ellroy readers will recognise closure as the fatuously expeditious and dismissive concept that Ellroy has labored to destroy for nearly 40 years.

I don’t recall the first moment I encountered Ellroy’s direct contradictory nature—whether it was an interview, a videotaped book introduction, or one of the countless websites devoted to the Demon Dog—but when I met Ellroy for the first time in 2009 on his Blood’s A Rover tour, I was already well versed in Ellroy’s elliptical and contradictory public persona.  On that particular evening, October 22, 2009, after spending the better part of an hour absolutely excoriating the Internet and all things cyberspace, the Demon Dog incredulously invited all of us to be his Facebook friends. (This was, of course, before Ellroy’s memorable admonishment of and exit from the social media juggernaut.)

In a brief afterword to the recently disgraced Bill O’Reilly’s 2002 book The No Spin Zone, the Demon Dog explicitly stated that he tuned in nightly to O’Reilly’s Fox News program while holed up in Kansas writing The Cold Six Thousand. Personally, I’ve never cared for Mr. O’Reilly. But, up until then, I had seen and read enough Ellroy interviews to believe the Demon Dog proudly lives sans television. This is something that Ellroy has repeated ad nauseum in the years since (“I don’t own a fucking television!”).

Religion is yet another matter in which Ellroy is a chaotic mass of contradictions:  Ellroy is a devout Christian who has made his zero-tolerance abhorrence of atheists and antitheists clear on countless occasions.  And yet—if you spend any length of time with Ellroy, you will invariably hear him quote from legendary antitheist (and fellow Vanity Fair scribe) Christopher Hitchens—who authored an exceptional 2007 book baring the bluntly Ellrovian title God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens, who died in 2011, was famous for absolutely demolishing his opponents in a debate (a signature move that came to be known as the Hitch Slap). It really would’ve been something to see Ellroy spar with Hitchens, as each man was as relentless as the other, neither willing to give an inch.

Blood’s A Rover was partially inspired by Ellroy’s torrid affair with a Jewish Marxist atheist named Joan—a woman who did such a number on the Demon Dog, that she (and her fictional counterpart) would inspire the apostatic shifts which dominate Rover’s latter half—when Ellroy’s tough guy right wingers get swept up in radical left-leaning causes and improbable inter-racial relationships—jarring contradictions to their former racist and right-wing selves. Though, as with so many of Ellroy’s characters, their misdeeds of the past will ultimately return to violently claim them, drowning out and expunging any new-found progress.

I asked Ellroy about the Joan juncture recently.  “How did you reconcile [Joan’s atheism]?  Because you’ve always had a legendary intolerance for atheists.”  Ellroy laughed, “I wanted it, man!” he said. “I wanted it!”  There’s certainly no denying that intense romantic desire will make even the staunchest men break their own rules, which in noir is a move that often precipitates their total destruction. The fragility of character is on display here, as this ultimate temptation (Joan) eventually reveals how unstable and unreliable those rules were all along.

Ellroy also told me that the pastor at his L.A. church advised him that “If you’re going to call someone a ‘cocksucker’, or ‘motherfucker’, at least follow it up with ‘God bless him,’ and you’ll be absolved.” I’ve seen the Demon Dog put this perverse reverse blessing into practice many times… “He’s a cocksucker, but God bless him.”  

Ellroy’s longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, even poked fun at and implicitly referenced their famous client’s contradictory ways with their introduction to an advanced reader’s copy of Blood’s A Rover, calling the book an “incendiary stand-alone sequel.”

The Demon Dog’s contradictory nature finds its way into social settings too.  I had dinner with Ellroy at a swank Denver steakhouse in August, 2016, and as we each sawed our way through 26-ounce Cajun Delmonico, I couldn’t resist asking Ellroy about his brief stint as a vegetarian.  “Weren’t you a vegetarian for a while?”  “I was,” he replied.  “I love all animals…”  Extolling the virtues of vegetarianism while wolfing a monstrous cut of steak—as Ellroy’s GAY Edgar Hoover might say “I will not comment on the attendant irony.”

After experiencing Ellroy’s signature brand of literary virtuosity, particularly his compulsive focus on inexorable violence and bleak outcomes, an easy criticism of Ellroy is to call him a pessimist—plenty of people already have—and the Demon Dog counters such labeling with a stern rebuke (“I am not pessimistic, I am optimistic! I ignore the world to stay optimistic.”)  Interviewer Nicolas Alvarado recently suggested that Ellroy read relentlessly pessimistic philosopher Emil Cioran. Ellroy was so offended by the suggestion and Alvarado’s aggressive tone that he terminated the interview abruptly and stomped out of the room. I asked Ellroy about this interview recently, and reminded him how he walked out. Ellroy claimed not to remember, but looked somewhat embarrassed when I told him the interview was available on YouTube. “Great!” he said, with an almost exhausted dissatisfaction.  “That’s just what I need!”

When you sit at the right hand of the Demon Dog, it’s a shotgun seat to a wiillld ride through the sordid back alleyways of history… It’s also a prime perch to witness Ellroy’s contradictory nature in full force. I see Ellroy at least once every month, and all too often, half our conversations are about books he’s currently reading or re-reading.  And yet, Ellroy has endlessly told interviewers that he doesn’t read the works of others, despite also being a generous blurber. While promoting The Hilliker Curse, he told TIME magazine’s Rebecca Keegan that “you have to read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and read, and as you read for enjoyment and edification, unconsciously, you assimilate the rudiments of style and technique… it’s an informal education that is oddly formal,” when she asked him if people are born good writers, echoing Stephen King’s oft-repeated point that “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.” Keegan, seeing a contradiction, then astutely asks Ellroy what exactly he reads, citing how the Demon Dog’s office contains just multiple copies of his own novels.  Ellroy admits that he “hasn’t read in a very, very long time… I fear and dislike intrusions… I live in a world of my own cultural creation.”

In an examination of Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out of the Past, Robert Pippin offers an analysis of the film’s ill-fated protagonist, Jeff Bailey, that applies so unmistakably well to Ellroy, it’s difficult to remember these words were written about a fictional character:  “Jeff is a victim of his own actions, and his own actions are so both multiply and obscurely motivated, that they are barely ‘his own’, but they still remain his, attributable to him.  In all these senses, he is trapped by himself, by what he does, and who he happens to be.”

Jason Carter

The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World

July 11, 2018

I have written a ‘Story Behind the Story’ piece for The Rap Sheet about my new book on James Ellroy. Here’s an extract:

When I began my Ph.D. on the work of James Ellroy in 2006, there was relatively little critical material on this author who called himself “the demon dog of American crime fiction.” There were a number of good articles by critics such as Lee Horsley and Lee Spinks, and the first book about Ellroy, Peter Wolfe’s Like Hot Knives to the Brain: James Ellroy’s Search for Himself, had been released the previous year. On the whole, I was surprised that such a fascinating and controversial figure, who has arguably done more than any other author to reinvent and redefine crime fiction over the past half century (and has always had the knack for generating publicity), had not received more scholarly attention. In the past few years, this has changed. More and more journal articles about Ellroy have appeared, as well as books by Jim Mancall and Anna Flügge. I have contributed to this growing body of scholarship by editing Conversations with James Ellroy, writing several articles, and finally composing a book titled James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction. After the last book, I could have perhaps moved on to other projects. But I had this nagging feeling that there was unfinished business between the Demon Dog and me, and once an idea for a book lodges in your brain—sometimes it’s just impossible to walk away.

You can read the full piece here.

The Big Somewhere

The Chosen Ones by Howard Linsky

June 23, 2018

Eva Dunbar wakes in a large metal box. She has no idea who has taken her. She has no way out. She isn’t the first young woman to disappear. And with no leads Detective Ian Bradshaw has precious little time. When at last a body is found, the police hope the tragic discovery might at least provide a clue that will help them finally find the kidnapper. But then they identify the body – and realise the case is more twisted than they ever imagined . . .

Howard Linskey’s The Chosen Ones is the fourth novel in the Detective Ian Bradshaw series. Bradshaw is a compelling creation; an honest, dogged policeman often tasked with the most disturbing cases which have lead him to grapple with anxiety and depression. Bradshaw is assisted in his investigations by the journalists Tom Carney and Helen Norton. I enjoyed this novel as gripping thriller, with an interesting take on the Buddy-Buddy narrative, and full of twists and turns. Perhaps the final twist was just a bit too much for me but, more than a week after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it and that’s the sign of engaging writing.

Howard Linskey kindly agreed to answer some questions about his novel and writing:

Interviewer: The Chosen Ones is the fourth novel in your series featuring characters DS Ian Bradshaw and journalists Helen Norton and Tom Carney. What inspired you to create these characters, and why did you choose a detective/journalist team?

Linskey: With No Name Lane, the first book in the series, I had the idea for a story about a journalist who is suspended from his newspaper in London, so he returns home to investigate the case of a missing girl from his old village. Tom Carney then clashes with the police investigating the crime and the young woman who has taken his old job at the local paper. Then I thought it would be interesting if they eventually agreed to cooperate, with each one bringing the solution to a different piece of the puzzle. They also have contrasting skills and pursue leads in very different ways. Ian Bradshaw is restricted by police procedure and the law, whereas the journalists are free to use other methods to extract information and this brings ethical dilemmas. It gives me more options when I am writing about a case from the perspective of three contrasting people, from two very different worlds, who all want the same thing; answers.

Interviewer: Following on from this, how do you feel about the way these characters change over the course of a series. Do you map out how their personal and professional lives will change?

Linskey: They do change and develop along the way, as we all do. They get a little older and possibly wiser and are affected by what happens to them. We are all shaped by our experiences. When those experiences involve investigations into murder and the disturbing reasons behind those killings then it is bound to have an effect. I explore this in the books; with Detective Ian Bradshaw in particular, carrying scars from previous cases, which results in spells of depression, stress and anxiety, including panic attacks. Tom and Helen both have personal lives that affect them in other ways too. Tom was abandoned by his mother when he was a small child and tends to be commitment phobic as a result. Helen had issues surrounding her relationship with a controlling partner that she finally breaks free from. Helen and Tom are also attracted to one another and care for each other but their timing is always a little off, with one or the other in a relationship at any one time. I only tend to plan their personal lives one book at a time, so I’m not restricted by a long-term plan.

Interviewer: How do you feel the series is different from your David Blake novels?

Linskey: Aside from the north east setting and some of the humour that is sprinkled in with all the serious stuff, these books are very different. My first trilogy followed Blake, who starts off as a white-collar criminal slowly dragged into a very murky world of organised crime. He has to adapt in order to survive and protect his loved ones. The four books in the Bradshaw/Norton/Carney series are all about unravelling mysteries that surround cold or seemingly unsolvable cases. There is peril and danger in these stories too but my main characters are mostly trying to work out what has happened to someone who has been murdered or has gone missing, so they can bring closure and justice to a difficult case.

Interviewer: The Chosen Ones jumps around a little chronologically, from the 1970s to the present day. How do you get accuracy in your period setting? Do you do a lot of research to achieve this?

Linskey: The short answer is I lived through it all, so that certainly helps. ‘The Search’ for example is partly set in 1976 and I can remember that long hot summer, as I was nine years old back then. I was also a journalist in the nineties, like Tom and Helen. I do research though, because you can’t entirely rely on your memory and there are always specific topics to look into as well. ‘The Chosen Ones’ needed research on the Cold War, underground bunkers, bible quotations and the development of technology, to ensure I didn’t write something that wasn’t accurate for its time. The trickiest part of the research is when you are enjoying the reading too much and lose an entire morning without writing a word. That leads to panic and intense catch-up sessions to get the word count back on track.

Interviewer: In the Author’s Note you describe how the plot was inspired by the discovery of ‘Scotland’s Secret Bunker’ in St Andrews. Do you have any vivid memories of the Cold War? Are there any films or novels dealing with the threat of Nuclear War which inspired you?

Linskey: I remember growing up in an era where we all thought the world could abruptly end if there was a misunderstanding between super powers or our technology let us down but it is only recently that we have learned how close we came to Armageddon back then. I’ve been re-watching the Terminator films with my daughter and they hit on a stark and simple fact that makes them compelling; we rely on computers and technology so much but what if they go wrong? If they malfunction, nuclear warheads could conceivably be launched in error and it nearly happened. If you think this seems far-fetched, check out a couple of times when the world came to the brink of nuclear war, which astonishingly occurred within a month of each other back in 1983. ‘Able Archer’ was a war game played out by NATO, which the Soviet union mistakenly thought was an actual attempt to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against them. It seems incredible now but they almost fired on us first, because they feared they were about to be wiped out. Then there is the case of Stanislav Petrov, who died last year. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian armed forces, who should in theory have responded to a report from their early warning system that nuclear missiles had been fired from the United States. He doubted its veracity and didn’t urge retaliation but, if he had obeyed orders, none of us would be here. It turned out that the early warning system had malfunctioned. It’s incredible when you think how high the stakes were and how close we have come to total annihilation.

Interviewer: Central to the novel is a kidnapping plot and there are some disturbing themes of sexual abuse, religious paranoia and mental breakdown. How do you navigate this territory as a writer?

Linskey: In a word, carefully. If you are writing crime novels then you have to tackle themes that are disturbing. What I desperately want to avoid is exploiting them in a gratuitous way. You won’t get torture-porn in my books and I hope that is quite clear from reading them. The religious element in The Chosen Ones is to show how biblical phrases, written two thousand years ago, can be selectively chosen to justify more or less anything. If you have an evil or twisted mind it is amazing how you can locate verses that give you carte blanche to beat or kill someone. The bible also repeatedly states that women must be obedient and subservient to men, particularly fathers and husbands, which is obviously something I am very strongly against. I suppose I am saying that, even if you believe in God (and I emphatically do not believe in the biblical God), then don’t just unquestioningly use the ancient, primitive words of the bible as your moral code.

Interviewer: One of the sub-plots deals with how ethical lines are crossed when senior police officers are racing for promotion. Is this something you felt passionately about, and wanted to condemn in the text?

Linskey: I do feel passionately about corruption of any kind and this behaviour is a form of it. Anyone who has worked for private companies, witnesses a level of arse-covering, selfishness and duplicity in senior management that can make you feel quite sickly at times. When this is transplanted into the world of the police, where things really do matter, because they are dealing with criminals, victims and justice it can cause actual, lasting harm to real people. There is a lot of this kind of behaviour, in all walks of life, published in the newspapers every day and it never fails to anger me. South Yorkshire police, for example, behaved disgracefully over Hillsborough, Orgreave and Rotherham and that is just one police force. Having said that I am at pains to make the point that there are a lot of very fine police officers out there, including DS Ian Bradshaw. I certainly don’t condemn them all and try to present a balanced view of the police, with the good appearing alongside the bad.

Interviewer: You’ve indicated Bradshaw, Norton and Carney will return in a new novel in 2019. Can you give us any hints as what this novel will be about?

Linskey: A young girl called Alice Teale is last seen leaving school one evening, after taking part in out-of-hours activities. She’s only seventeen and never reaches her home. As Ian Bradshaw starts to uncover the truth about the case, he realises Alice is from a small town that is riddled with secrets but which one of them is responsible for her disappearance? Facing police budget cuts and manpower shortages, he asks Tom and Helen to help him out again but there is a catch this time. There is no money to pay them. They become involved in the search for Alice anyway and finally learn that in a town full of secrets, hers is the biggest.

Love Me Fierce in Danger – James Ellroy and Sexuality

May 30, 2018

James Ellroy has always been obsessed with women. He claims the LA Quartet could be subtitled ‘Bad Men in Love with Strong Women’. His second memoir The Hilliker Curse chronicles his lifelong sexual fascination with women, from his mother to a litany of ‘Girlfriends, wives, one-night stands, paid companions’ and voyeuristic fantasies. Ellroy once told me, ‘my books are all about one thing and one thing only, a man needs a woman. This is the Romantic’s code.’

However, critics would be wrong to dismiss Ellroy’s fiction as consumed with macho, heterosexual stereotypes. Ellroy has written about queer relationships in fiction and biography with the same obsessed fervour that drives his portrayal of male/female relationships. In his memoir My Dark Places (1996), Ellroy claims his first sexual contact as a teenager was with another boy, ‘a neighbourhood kid’. Their physical relationship began with acts of mutual masturbation. Ellroy ‘loved it and hated it’. He worried his father might find out if he talked in his sleep through what he described as dreams ‘scarier than my worst Black Dahlia nightmares’. The friendship with the boy eventually became strained to the point where the boy challenged Ellroy to a fight. The bout became an excuse for both lads to reassert their heterosexuality: ‘We heaved, lurched, thrashed, flailed and powder-puff-punched the shit out of each other’ until ‘we ended up dehydrated and falling-down dizzy and unable to lift our arms.’ Ellroy lost the fight, but boxing would prove the perfect metaphor for the sexual obsessions which permeate through his narrative worlds.

The first significant portrayal of gay characters in Ellroy’s work appears in his novel Blood on the Moon (1984). The novel is ‘contrapunctually-structured’, alternating between the lead detective Lloyd Hopkins and the serial killer he is hunting, Theodore Verplanck. Verplanck has become a serial killer, as the rage imbued in him after being raped as a teenager manifests itself in his desire to murder women. The novel opens with the teenage Verplanck being ambushed at his school, Marshall High, by two class bullies. Larry ‘Birdman’ Craigie and Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines despise Verplanck’s effeminacy and how Verplanck had mocked their swaggering machismo in his poetry. The carefully planned assault becomes chaotic when Whitey discovers the violence has made him sexually aroused:

Now Whitey knew what his hardness meant, and he knelt beside the poet and pulled off his Levi cords and boxer shorts and spread his legs and blunderingly plunged himself into him. The poet screamed once he entered; then his breathing settled into something strangely like ironic laughter.

As Jim Mancall has argued, Ellroy’s early portrayals of gay characters tend to restrict it to being a psycho-sexual motive for murder. Is the reader to believe that Verplanck enjoys being raped, as evidenced in his ironic laughter during the attack? If so, the text hasn’t aged well, and it is possible to see how Ellroy has drawn the wrath of such critics as Mike Davis. That is not to say that Verplanck isn’t sympathetic, despite the murderous acts he embarks on as a consequence of this trauma. Whitey and Birdman become lovers, held together by a mutual loathing.  When Verplanck is stalking one of his female victims, he is overcome with fear when he sees her in an intimate embrace with another woman. Lesbianism further confuses his sexuality and enrages his psychopathic desires. Verplanck kills women before they can be tainted by sexual union. As his only experience of sex was horrific, he assumes it will be the same for all women. Murder is a form of female salvation in his eyes. 

Ellroy would return to the sexually motivated serial killer in greater depth in Killer on the Road (originally published as Silent Terror). The novel is structured as the memoir of mass murderer Martin Plunkett, written at Sing Sing where Plunkett is serving four consecutive life sentences. Ellroy imbues Plunkett with many autobiographical traits the reader will recognise, and makes the later revelation of the killer’s sexuality quite revealing. Plunkett is not a sympathetic character but Ellroy is open about identifying with him anyway. Plunkett is from a broken home in LA. His father is charismatic, workshy and sex-obsessed. Plunkett lives with his disturbed mother, who essentially becomes his first victim when he starts replacing her medication with benzedrine. Her behaviour becomes increasingly uncontrollable until she slits open her wrists in the bathtub. Plunkett drinks the bloody bathwater while waiting for the Emergency services to arrive. This is the beginning of Plunkett’s killing spree. His favourite victims are blonde women. While on his murderous road trip across the US, Plunkett is detained in Wisconsin by State Troopers. One of the Troopers, Ross Anderson, has witnessed him commit a murder. Thinking that the game is up, Plunkett is relieved and surprised to discover that Anderson is also a serial killer. Furthermore, the smooth-talking lawman recognises the sexual orientation which Plunkett has been repressing and seduces him. The unlikely pillow talk of the two lovebird serial killers gives a barbed insight into the sexual motivations that drives them: ‘Apples and oranges. You like blonds, I like brunettes; that guy they caught last year, the Pittsburgh Pistolwhipper, he liked redheads. Like they used to say back in the ’60’s, ‘Do you own thing.” Plunkett is both drawn to and repelled by Anderson. He resists the urge to ‘maim his beauty’, casting Anderson in the role of the sexually attractive female that had been his typical victim. If it is love that stops Plunkett from killing Anderson, then it is also his undoing. When Anderson is captured he quickly betrays Plunkett to the authorities.

With The Big Nowhere, Ellroy began approaching sexuality with more sensitivity and maturity. Although, ironically, the novel was inspired by a film which had been widely denounced as homophobic. Ellroy took inspiration from William Friedkin’s Cruising about ‘a young cop, presumably heterosexual, played by Al Pacino, and there’s gay killings in Greenwich Village circa 1980’. Ellroy freely admitted the film was ‘bad, it’s elliptical, it’s just full of shit’.  At the time, the film was met with protests by gay activists. However, Ellroy took the premise of a detective going undercover and finding himself drawn to the underground LGBT culture for The Big Nowhere. Danny Upshaw is the Sheriff’s Deputy who is tasked with infiltrating a group of Hollywood communist sympathisers, the leader of which is Claire ‘the Red Queen’ DeHaven. Upshaw is gleefully instructed by his superiors that he might ‘have to fuck the pants off of her’ in the line of duty. While he responds in the affirmative, it is clear Upshaw’s heart isn’t really in it, whereas many an Ellroy protagonist would have become sexually-obsessed with DeHaven (as Dudley Smith does in Perfidia). When Upshaw flirts with an attractive secretary to win favours he is ‘disgusted’ when she ‘tried to return the wink, but her false eyelash stuck to the ridge below her eye, and she had to fumble her cigarette into an ashtray and pull it free.’ These hints as to his sexual orientation are later revealed more forcefully when Upshaw encounters the ‘talent agent’ pimp Felix Gordean who taunts him over his failure to hide his sexuality behind a hyper-masculine cop role. With both Upshaw, and Plunkett in Killer on the Road, the repression of sexual desire is so strong that both men are surprised at their sexuality, and it falls on other gay men to reveal it to them. However, even in death, Upshaw conjures up a form of denial. When Upshaw commits suicide he decides to slit his throat open rather than the less painful method of putting a gun in his mouth because of the phallic symbolism of the latter, and the thought that cops might use it for lewd humour. It is his final act of sexual repression, and yet it also acknowledges that a sexual motivation can be found in every act.

Ellroy would offer a radically different portrayal of sexuality with the character of Lenny Sands in American Tabloid. Sands is a Jewish lounge entertainer and Mob associate. He is in no doubt as to his sexuality, but he is still in the closet, as it could lead to a death sentence from his Mob employers. He gets a taste of Mob hypocrisy when, during a visit to the gay haunt Perry’s Little Log Cabin, he sees Outfit hitman ‘Icepick’ Tony Iannone snogging another man. Iannone and Sands lock eyes, knowing they have discovered a secret about each other that could lead to either man’s death. Immediately, a chase and fight ensues which ends with Sands stabbing Iannone to death in a back alley. Sands is coerced by FBI agent Ward Littell into becoming an informer after the murder. Littell is a devout Catholic who had tailed Sands to the gay bar. Upon seeing both the gangster and the lounge entertainer in a gay hotspot a morally confused Littell thinks ‘Tony/Lenny/Lenny/Tony – who knows who’s QUEER?’ Outfit Boss Sam Giancana uses his press connections to suppress reports Iannone’s corpse was found near a Queer bar as he refuses to believe he was gay.

Sands, like Upshaw, also decides to end his life. Yet, his death reads like a proud embracing of his sexuality as he opens his wrists and writes ‘I am a homosexual’ on the wall in his own blood. ‘Who would have believed it?’ Giancana is caught on FBI wiretap discussing Sands sexuality and suicide. Lenny Sands is proof that Ellroy had matured in his portrayal of queer characters. Unlike the dubious pseudo-science of his early serial killers, there was a historical basis in his creation of Sands. The Mafia did extort money out of gay bars (Friedkin needed permission from Genovese mobster Matty ‘the Horse’ Ianniello before he could film in the gay bars for Cruising), and then there was the case of mobster John D’Amato who was murdered by his gangster buddies after being outed.

Gay men would continue to appear in Ellroy’s work. Marshall Bowen, the black LAPD cop in Blood’s a Rover is a reconstituted form of the Upshaw character. Bowen resembles Upshaw in that his undercover status– FBI informant assigned to infiltrate Black militant groups– is also hiding his sexuality. Mancall identifies Bowen as Ellroy’s most mature fictional queer character to date. When the actor Sal Mineo is employed to seduce Bowen in a honeytrap, Bowen intuits and foils the scheme by simply resisting Mineo’s charms. Mancall dubs this as ‘a nearly singular moment in Ellroy’s fiction – a gay man who is mature enough to have some control over his sexuality’. Perhaps Ellroy took inspiration from his fictional portrayal of a real-life gay figure. The scene is a reworking of a plot device in The Cold Six Thousand wherein Mineo is hired to seduce Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. The snare fails and J. Edgar Hoover is disappointed he will never get to see the secret recording of the tryst. ‘O bird thou never wert’ he laments, quoting a Romantic poet to an underling.

In Perfidia, Ellroy once again created a character who is visibly marginalised because of race or ethnicity, and is also hiding his sexuality to avoid other forms of discrimination. Hideo Ashida is a brilliant chemist and the only Japanese American who is permitted to work for the LAPD in the early 1940s. While his Japanese compatriots are being interred at Manzanar and Heart Mountain in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Ashida has to deal with daily distrust and loathing from his police colleagues while trying to contain his feelings for Bucky Bleichert. Bleichert, unaware that both Ashida and Kay Lake are falling for him, has also managed to forge a wartime career at the LAPD despite his German heritage.

Bleichert, as readers of The Black Dahlia will know, becomes a star boxer (Mr Ice) for the LAPD. Ellroy is a lifelong boxing enthusiast and has never shirked from its homoerotic aspects. In an interview I conducted with the author, he describes an incident when he was locked up in the LA County Jail. Ellroy got into a fight with a Mexican drag queen by the name of Peaches. Peaches had been teasing him, so Ellroy thought, ‘I know I gotta pop Peaches or people’ll think I’m a sissy and I’ll be subject to some unwanted scrutiny’. Ellroy knocked down Peaches with one punch to the approval of the inmates present. ‘But then Peaches gets up, and Peaches has hands like Muhammed Ali, and Peaches kicked my fucking ass.’ Peaches ‘never got a sex change, he couldn’t afford it, but he kicked my ass!’ Peaches was a strong figure who left a major impression on Ellroy. Ellroy may never be a gay icon, but through Danny Upshaw, Lenny Sands, Marshall Bowen and Hideo Ashida, to name a few, he created queer characters who are all strong and distinct in their different ways. It’s true they struggle to control their sexuality, as Mancall puts it, but this is also a defining characteristic of Ellroy’s ‘Bad Men’ Dave Klein, Pete Bondurant and Wayne Tedrow Jnr who have to reconcile ‘the Life’ with the ‘Strong Women’ they love.

As Ellroy told Rodney Taveira, his obsession with strong, beautiful and often unobtainable women, as well as with sexuality dates back to his first sexual experience and the fight that followed it:

89% of males in 1948 admit to some homosexuality, but it didn’t mean they were a homo. I knew that when I was doing it with my buddy that I wasn’t a homo. But I was afraid people would think I was a homo. I’m an American man who’s straight so that kind of shit scares me. But you want to know why there’s all this gay shit in my books? It’s because in ‘62 this neighbourhood kid and I pulled each other off. It ain’t hard to figure that one out.

For Ellroy, and all of his characters that follow the Romantic’s code, the struggle goes on.

%d bloggers like this: