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The Little Drummer Girl – Preview

September 20, 2018

The new BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl is due to air in November, and no doubt the Beeb are hoping to repeat the success of The Night Manager. Shortly after that miniseries aired, I suggested that of all the le Carré’s novels that have yet to be adapted, Our Game might be the most suited for television. Instead, the BBC have taken a significant gamble with controversial material which has already been adapted for the big screen (albeit not very successfully).

That said, The Little Drummer Girl is an extraordinary novel and, if handled right, this adaptation has the potential to be a critical and commercial hit.

Alexander Skarsgård as Becker, Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross – The Little Drumer Girl _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: © 2018 The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. All rights reserved.

The novel tells the story of Charlie, an English stage actress who, in addition to her theatrical career, has interests in radical left-wing activism and the cause of Palestinian liberation. She accepts an acting role on a Greek island only to discover the job is an elaborate ruse by Mossad agents to lure her into a scheme to ensnare Khalil, a Palestinian terrorist. Reluctant at first, Charlie agrees to the dangerous assignment and what follows is a cat and mouse game in which identity is suffused with contradiction, leaving the reader constantly guessing which way the characters will jump next.

You get the sense, for instance, that the spymaster Kurtz is every bit as good a thespian as Charlie, especially when he persuades the actress to accept the mission despite it going against all her pro-Palestinian instincts:

‘If I add that we are also Israeli citizens, I trust you will not immediately foam at the mouth, vomit, or jump out of the window, unless of course it is your personal conviction that Israel should be swept into the sea, napalmed, or handed over gift-wrapped to one or another of the many fastidious Arab organisations committed to our elimination.’

Later on in the novel, Charlie visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut and the deprivation she witnesses reawakens her sympathy for the Arab struggle, and compounds her guilt at the course she has taken:

I am a grieving, outraged widow and I have come here to take up my dead lover’s fight.

I am the awakened militant who has wasted too long on half measures and now stands before you sword in hand.

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

I am on fire but I am cunning and resourceful. I am the sleepy wasp that cannot wait all winter long to sting.

I’m Comrade Leila, a citizen of the world revolution.

Day and night.

The Little Drummer Girl may not be le Carré’s best novel (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyin my mind, holds this distinction), but it is the most fascinating work he has written in terms of research and composition.

When it was first published, the inspiration for Charlie’s character was widely believed to be rabble-rousing luvvie Vanessa Redgrave. In fact, as le Carré admitted in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, the inspiration was the author’s half sister: the actress Charlotte Cornwell: ‘she went through a dotty time politically and emerged from it very fast, and she talked to me about it. And I went up to Islington and mucked around various funny bookshops there that feed the extreme left, and the radical causes, and talked to one or two people in that world.’

le Carré also described having a narrative epiphany while watching Cornwell perform onstage: ‘it was pouring with rain, the most unbelievable noise on the roof, and Charlotte was really having to belt it out. I thought she was very good but she was over the top. I mean she was booming in order to defeat the rain and it was actually the moment, I think, where I thought: yes, I’ll use that.’ And he did, before the intrigue and suspense of the novel kicks in, le Carré gives a wry portrayal of the less than glamorous world of repertory theatre, including one scene where Mossad agents take Charlie’s ineffectual and unsuspecting theatrical agent Ned out for lunch at The Ivy. They get him sloshed on Chablis, and the bumbling old ass gladly tells them everything they need to know about his client.

le Carré’s research would continue with him interviewing Mossad agents and, from the other end of the spectrum, Yasser Arafat. The author was convinced that the plot to lure Charlie into being a pawn for Israeli Intelligence needed to be plausible: ‘I put it to the lads in Israel and they were enchanted with the idea and said: yes if it would work, yes they would do it.’

But le Carré was also determined to write a balanced book, one that would be sympathetic with Israel’s right to defend itself but indignant at abuses against Palestinians: ‘like my character Charlie, I had a love affair with the Palestinians, exactly as in the past I’ve had a love affair with the Jews. It is my job to radicalise, my job to feel the way.’ He found Arafat to be ‘a very infectious man; tremendously spontaneous and very witty.’ It was through Arafat that le Carré was able to visit, like his character Charlie, Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. This was during the run-up to the 1982 Lebanon War, and the hardships le Carré witnessed in the camps as well as the impending violence may have begun the author’s long drift to the left. But while his later novels descended into tedious anti-American hectoring, le Carré was committed to writing a politically evenhanded, well-judged book in The Little Drummer Girl and, broadly speaking, he succeeded.

So, will it work on television?

Well, a year after the novel was published there was a Hollywood film adaptation. Diane Keaton makes a superb Charlie, as le Carré said, ‘it didn’t have to be an English actress, it had to be a western one’, and by making the character American it gives her a Hanoi Jane feel. The problem lies in the direction. George Roy Hill had enjoyed huge success with such caper films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), and had helmed some tricky literary fare such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The World According to Garp (1982), but he was lost at sea with this material. Perhaps handling a politically explosive narrative made him reluctant to take risks and the tone of the film is flat and boring throughout.

This strikes me as a problem that could reoccur. The Israel/Palestine debate is every bit as contentious today as it was when le Carré’s novel was first published. The BBC’s, otherwise excellent, adaptation of McMafia was accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Russian and, with ongoing allegations of anti-Semitism rumbling in the Labour Party, it’s difficult to see how the TV adaptation won’t be both offensive and controversial to some viewers.

The Night Manager was a gloriously entertaining, globetrotting romp. If any le Carré novel was destined to be a hit on TV it was that one. The Little Drummer Girl is considerably more risky, but I hold to the view that le Carré wrote a fascinating and balanced novel, and if the BBC can catch its essence then this could be great television.

If you get a chance, read the book before the miniseries airs this November.

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Night Time Cool by Jamie Paradise

September 13, 2018

One of the most fascinating developments in crime fiction that I have observed over the past few years is to see more and more novelists riffing on James Ellroy’s prose style in their writing. That’s not to say there are a group of pale Ellrovian imitators out there, I’m talking about novelists as acclaimed as Craig McDonald, Megan Abbott and David Peace, all of whom have adapted Ellroy’s key themes into their own work, and provided their own idiosyncratic take on the obsessions that fuel the Demon Dog’s writing.

With his impressive debut Night Time Cool, Jamie Paradise can add his name to this illustrious list with a novel that explores the dark underbelly of criminal life in London 2015 to the soundtrack of a drug-fuelled, Ibiza-style clubbing night out.

Oh, and as for the influence of the Demon Dog, I’ll get to that later.

At the heart of Night Time Cool is a father-son conflict, albeit a rather complicated one.  Bent copper, Inspector Frederick Street, is deluded enough to think his son Elvis loves him: this is despite the fact that he treats him as appallingly as the low-life criminals he regularly shakes down for a cut of their earnings. Elvis concocts a complicated narcotics scam that will bring down his father hard, but the fearsome Street, nicknamed the ‘Sheriff of Shoreditch’, proves a worthy Oedipal adversary. Into this heady brew, Paradise adds Soho Porn Baron Wade Long, grasping spiv James Maroon and a host of other colourfully disreputable characters.

Jamie Paradise is the nom de plume of Guardian journalist Jamie Jackson. The author puts his journalistic skills to good use with short, action-packed sentences that convey story and pace with the rhythmic energy of the footy matches he has made his name reporting. Paradise isn’t your typical hand-wringing Guardianista though. His characters are hedonists and often callous, but they remain sympathetic. He never judges them harshly, as you sense he once lived this perennially broke but happily drifting from one rave to the next life, as his bio states he has lived in Ibiza, Goa, Pakistan and Thailand. Perhaps it is the exuberance of the DJ- life Paradise loves so much that gives the text its well-judged empathy for such outcast characters. That said, there were times when the highball mix of drugs and porn were getting a little too much for this reader, but just when I thought a scene was going to be pushed to excess, Paradise pulls it back to more engaging territory.

Take this scene when Elvis thinks back to finding his girlfriend Camilla performing a little ‘Love Me Tender’ with his father:

And, now, here it came – a surge on that memory; that scene. A tidal wave of memory.

Back to then.

As clear as it was when it happened; when this happened: walking up the stairs to the flat and the sound. That sound. Feeling what it was before he knew what it was.

The sound of night time; of the night.

Sex sounds.

Agony, torment; opening the door and walking in quiet. The sound got louder, more intense.

He had suspected; now creeping forward in the flat, he knew.

In the hallway, outside the bedroom, their bedroom; the door open, seeing them, catching them:

AT IT:

Camilla and his dad in bed.

Ok, I said I’d come back to the Ellroy influence, and it’s here in the fragmentary prose style: the ‘Back to then‘ voyeur’s memory which Ellroy might call a ‘THEN to NOW’ memory, and the realisation that behind the cool demeanour there are cauldrons of violence and sexual jealously in every strutting male.

Night Time Cool is the first novel in Paradise’s Dreams of Sun series. I thought it was riotous, exuberant and, as someone with no affinity for the drugs or clubbing scene, unexpectedly moving in places. If you’re easily offended you should give it a swerve, but if you like your genre writing as raw, experimental and edgy as its comes, then this is a crime tale for you.

State of Play: Scholarship on James Ellroy

September 1, 2018

With the release of my new book The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the major critical works that have been written about the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. Scholarly research is like a pyramid. Every new published work acts as a foundation for other researchers and academics to build on. Whether you agree with it or not, whether you chose to argue against it, every critical piece still has some intrinsic value.

There are far too many journal articles on Ellroy to go into here, but books about the author are still relatively rare. Here’s a lowdown of critical studies on Ellroy, excluding the ones which I have authored and discussed elsewhere.

Peter Wolfe’s Like Hot Knives to the Brain: James Ellroy’s Search for Himself  (2005) was the first full-length critical study of the author and, when I first read it, I confess I didn’t like it. I thought Wolfe’s thesis of tying Ellroy’s fiction to key moments in his life, as though all writing was a form of autobiography, was too reductive as a critical approach. Over the years, I’ve become more appreciative of Wolfe’s work. I can see now that my thesis of Ellroy’s Demon Dog literary persona acting as a form of narrative itself, both on and off the page, evolved in part from Wolfe’s ideas. Wolfe’s scathing assessment of L.A. Confidential, ‘The novel dims much of its luster by being too big, too sprawling, and too full of its own surge’, now seems ahead of its time. I’ve spoken to many Ellroy readers, and I share the view myself, that despite moments of Ellrovian brilliance, L.A. Confidential is the weakest entry in the Los Angeles Quartet.

Anna Flügge contributed a chapter to The Big Somewhere. Her study, James Ellroy and the Novel of Obsession (2010) is a brilliant critical work framing Ellroy’s key novels in what Flügge dubbed an ‘Obsession’ genre. Her work is not just about Ellroy, but also a study of genre theory and its history. Here’s a quote from the work where Flügge discusses the obsessive romanticism of Ellroy’s characters, a trait that might also be found in the author himself:

In Romanticism, the protagonists are often artists or scientists who put their profession above everything else. Their desire to transgress human and ethical limitations makes them great in the eyes of some, but also vicious since they risk utter destruction for their personal quests. They accept that they are alone on their quest, taking others only if they could use them.

If you have ever found yourself confused by Ellroy’s labyrinthine plotting, then Jim Mancall’s James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (2014) is the book for you. Using an A-Z encyclopaedic structure, Mancall expertly dissects the convoluted narratives of every Ellroy novel and short story, providing clarity with both plot synopses and character bios. But it is not just character and plot that interests Mancall, he explores all of the major themes of Ellroy’s writing. Of all the full-length studies on Ellroy, this is the one I find myself returning to the most.

Nathan Ashman’s James Ellroy and Voyeur Fiction is released later this year, and I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy. Unlike Mancall or I, Ashman does not attempt to cover all of Ellroy’s writing career, and limits his focus to the major novels of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA novels. This approach works well as Ashman is able to explore Ellroy’s obsession with voyeurism, and how this manifests itself in sexual desire, the cinema and the reports, memorandums, transcripts and innumerable forms of documents which compose J. Edgar Hoover’s secret archive. If Anna Flügge dubbed Ellroy’s works as the ‘novel of obsession’, then Ashman sees it as ‘voyeur fiction’.

I have no idea which critical studies of his own work Ellroy approves of and which, if any, he dislikes. Ellroy’s opinion of his own work, and the resulting scholarship, is only one strand of the narrative– his verbal and written storytelling will continue to be evaluated as long as there are people reading his work. Ellroy’s great power is his material. And I have no doubt it will be enjoyed for decades to come.

 

 

An Interview with Writer-Director Andrew Cull on In the Dark and the Enduring Mystery of Louise Paxton

August 24, 2018

Some time ago, I wrote a review of the internet horror series In the Dark. The story concerns Louise Paxton, a young woman who moves from her hometown of Norwich to a dream home in London. At first everything seems to be going well, with Louise enjoying her newly found freedom and life in the big city. But then, sinister things start to happen. Louise suspects she’s being watched or worse: an intruder may be periodically entering the apartment.

Is Louise paranoid, or is she genuinely being stalked, or is there even something paranormal at work? There are thirty-eight videos in the series, ranging from just a few seconds to around eight minutes in length. You can access them all on this YouTube page. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and watch them in order for the full immersive experience. The vérité horror style of In the Dark was quite different from my usual tastes in crime fiction, but I was floored by the series and felt compelled to write a review. Shortly thereafter, I wrote another piece unveiling Louise Paxton as the actress Zoe Richards. In the Dark was originally presented as a found-footage style elaborate hoax, and many internet viewers believed Louise Paxton was a real person. This may seem difficult to accept, but when you watch the drama, especially the disturbing ending, you’ll understand the fervent grip it had on viewers’ imaginations when the story first unfolded.

Over the years, interest in the Louise Paxton mystery has endured, and the original reviews I wrote of the drama have generated massive web traffic for this blog in locales as far flung as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia, Mexico among others. I’m periodically contacted by people who, in all sincerity, are concerned about Louise Paxton and want more information on her. This only made me more intrigued by the drama’s enduring appeal more than ten years after it debuted on YouTube.

I decided to contact the writer and director of In the Dark, Andrew Cull, and was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed by me. Since In the Dark, Andrew has gone on to success as the director of the feature film The Possession of David O’Reillyand is the author of the recent short story collection Bones. He now lives and works in Australia. The following interview was conducted by email:

Interviewer: Could you tell me the genesis of the idea for In the Dark? Were you inspired more by classic horror films or real-life cases in telling the story of Louise Paxton?

Cull: I’d been working in the UK film industry as a screenwriter for some time when I had the idea to create the Louise Paxton mystery. It was driven by two ideas really. At the time, it felt like horror movies had lost touch with character. Most of them seemed to be populated with unlikeable, 2D tropes, and I hated that. I wanted to create a horror story where you’d really come to care about the character at the heart of it. The second reason comes down to my love of found footage horror. At the time, YouTube wasn’t the powerhouse it is now. It was relatively new, but hugely exciting. I felt it’d be the perfect platform to tell an involving found footage horror story. I’d pitched the initial idea to a few producers, but no one was interested in getting behind it, and so I decided to push ahead and attempt the project myself.

I’ve been fascinated by ‘true horror’ from a young age. As a child I always had my head buried in a book. Those books were often about paranormal investigations. I was a huge fan of Maurice Grosse and his work. In the original outline for the Louise Paxton mystery there was going to be a paranormal investigator character based on Maurice Grosse. In the end, I decided against that as I wanted the horror to feel really personal. An experience shared almost solely between Louise and the viewer.

Andrew Cull

Writer-Director Andrew Cull. Photograph by Libby Double-King

Interviewer: In the early videos, a significant amount of time is set aside to show Louise settling into her new London home. Did these vérité sequences worry you, if there was a risk the audience might drift away unless they felt a constant threat level?

Cull: I knew from the beginning, that if the audience were going to connect with Louise they’d have to spend time with her, get to know her and, hopefully, to like her. It was a bit of a risk, but Louise is a very likeable character and I think those sequences really helped to draw our viewers into the film. In feature films you don’t get long to introduce and get to know your central characters. There are all sorts of contrived tricks to get you to like someone in a movie, but I wanted the experience with Louise to feel more organic. Like a real relationship.

I think, because of the way we set up Louise and her situation, some people were genuinely surprised when the horror began. That was wonderful! In just that, they’d had an experience you simply can’t get from watching a movie. Shooting a film for YouTube allowed us to be unpredictable in ways traditional cinema can’t be.

Interviewer: Zoe Richards gives an extraordinary performance as Louise. In terms of directing her, and the rest of the cast, was it a case of following the script exactly or did you allow room for improvisation?

Cull: For me, the highlight of directing any project is working with the actors. I loved that in the theatre, and I love it in filmmaking. In The Possession of David O’Reilly, my favourite scenes aren’t the monster sequences, they’re ones with David and Alex in the kitchen talking. I firmly believe, that for good horror you don’t need a huge budget and special effects, you need a great story with great actors giving engaging and realistic performances.

The script for the Louise Paxton mystery consisted of a series of episode outlines that I wrote and we fleshed out on set. It was important to me that whoever was playing Louise didn’t get too tied up with remembering a script word for word. That would take away from the realism of the performance. We’d talk everything through, make sure we covered the points that were most important to the scene, and then rehearse and do as many takes as we needed to get everything in. When we were ready to shoot I’d often find myself hiding somewhere in the house, staying out of the path of Zoe’s scene, listening to Zoe’s performance and making any notes for further takes.

Interviewer: Louise’s backstory with Joel is intriguing. Was this inspired at all by the Slasher genre where the romantic or sexually active couple tend to be punished, whereas chaste characters survive or live longer?

Cull: I wanted Louise to have lots of friends back in Norwich. For two reasons. It made for a more rounded and believable character. It also allowed us to have other characters interacting with her online via comments and remarks that she’d reference in the videos. I played almost all those characters online; commenting, posting reply edits of videos. With regards to Joel, he was something of a red herring.

Interviewer: As it is not a traditional film or TV show did you find In the Dark a difficult production to mount? Was there a fear that the central hoax could unravel at any time?

Cull: We originally shot the core story in a week, with a plan to play the videos over two weeks. Audience interaction would come from commenting and Louise (me) responding to the comments. Well, about a week into uploading the videos I realised that the production could, and should, run for a longer period of time. The initial interaction from viewers was slow but really exciting. If we increased the number of videos, and stretched out the time the project ran for, we could really create an experience for viewers that they wouldn’t be able to have anywhere else. In the end, the whole thing ran for over three months, and became a much bigger production than I’d originally planned. We shot a lot more reaction material based directly on what viewers had posted. I’d write comments (as Louise) to lead people into discussions, but the user interactions we got definitely helped to shape the extra videos we shot along the way.

As for the hoax unravelling, I thought the whole thing could blow up at any minute! There were definitely times when I thought we’d gone too far. The turning key, or the muddy handprints for example. But, viewers stuck with it. It even seemed that the further we went the more invested some viewers became. I controlled the comments posted on the videos, so we didn’t have too many people crying foul, but I was genuinely surprised with how far people were prepared to follow us.

Interviewer: The final video is quite chilling. Have you ever felt tempted to continue the story from there? There’s a lot of people out there who want to know what happened to Louise!

Cull: Of course! I’ve thought about it on numerous occasions. I don’t think I’d ever directly pick up Louise’s story, but I’m certainly interested in taking the idea in a different direction or creating an offshoot project. It’d be particularly interesting now. YouTube, and streaming, has changed so much since we created Louise Paxton and her story.

Interviewer: The legacy of In the Dark is difficult to quantify. It seems a direct influence on Marble Hornets and also the concept of streaming stories. What do you think is the legacy of the work, and how did it affect your career?

Cull: If I hadn’t gotten fed up with pitching ideas, and decided to do it myself and create Louise Paxton, it’s unlikely I’d have had the chance to direct The Possession of David O’Reilly (UK title: The Torment). In some ways In The Dark was a proof of concept project. I wrote and directed it to prove that I could direct and that my ideas worked. It worked, and I’m very grateful for that.

We were the first YouTube streaming horror series. I think we’ve likely influenced others that have followed. That’s a really wonderful legacy for the project. I’d always hoped that people would talk about In the Dark. That it’d become an urban legend. I think, to an extent, it has.

I still get emails about Louise. Asking if she’s okay, did she really disappear? I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt when I get messages like that, but it means that people are still experiencing the story the way we’d hoped they would ten years after we originally made it. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

It’s been a pleasure to talk about In the Dark with you. Thank you, Steven.

Louise (4)

Zoe Richards as Louise Paxton

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

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?

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