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Mr Campion’s Wings – Review

November 17, 2021

A life in academe is full of surprises, but being carted off by the security services during an honorary doctorate ceremony tends not to be one of them. However, that is exactly what happens to Lady Amanda Campion at Cambridge University while her aristocratic husband Albert looks on in horror. This is the opening scene of Mr Campion’s Wings, the latest and possibly the best of the recent Albert Campion mysteries.

Mike Ripley’s continuation novels in the Campion series have more than done justice to the toffish detective created by Margery Allingham. Mr Campion’s Wings is the second novel in the series this year, after the excellent Mr Campion’s Coven. In that novel the setting was the early 1970s, and the plot was littered with references to witches and esoteric beliefs. Here, it is 1965. Britain is letting go of the Empire piece by piece, the Special Relationship has been damaged by the unmasking of the Cambridge Spy Ring which has led our American Cousins to believe that MI6 has more leaks than the dodgy plumbing in a Butlin’s Holiday Camp. Perhaps new technology can save the reputation of the UK. Harold Wilson has promised a ‘Britain that is going to be forged in the White Heat of this (scientific) revolution’. As it happens, the detained Lady Campion had been working on the Goshawk Project, tasked with creating a new aircraft with the rather novel design of swept-forward wings. Campion must investigate whether a grisly death at the Goshawk hangar is connected to his wife’s detention, and discover whether Russian (or even American) spies have been stealing Britain’s military secrets.

Fans of Albert Campion will not be disappointed with Ripley’s latest entry in the series. It is a delightfully witty mix of murder mystery and industrial espionage caper, topped off with a terrific chase scene of characters punting on the Cam. Best of all though, the novel is an insightful portrayal of Britain transitioning from the Imperial Age to the Jet Age. Recommended.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel – Review

November 5, 2021

Hawaii, December 1941.

The United States is slowly being drawn into the war in Europe. However, Honolulu continues at the slow pace of island life, that is, until a murder bears ominous signals of the carnage ahead. When a corpse is discovered on farmland, Detective Joe McGrady is called in to investigate. The case gets politically sensitive fast: the victim is the nephew of Admiral Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific fleet. McGrady follows a lead that will take him to Hong Kong. Before he departs, he says goodbye to his sweetheart Molly Radcliffe, determined to surprise her upon his return, which he hopes will only be in a few days. McGrady is unaware, of course, that on December 7th the Japanese will launch a devastating attack on Pearl Harbour in what President Roosevelt described as ‘a date which will live in infamy’. McGrady finds himself stranded in Hong Kong while the British forces, weak and depleted from their war with Nazi Germany, are on the brink of collapse to the advancing Imperial Japanese Army which is rapidly approaching the zenith of its power. McGrady is about to become a prisoner of war, but this is more a story about people who are hostages of fate. What makes McGrady such a strong character is despite being dragged from Hawaii to Hong Kong, to Japan, is his dogged, relentless determination to catch a killer despite the humanitarian catastrophe occurring all around him, which the author describes in harrowing detail but also in a fashion that evokes touching empathy. Kestrel doesn’t need to resort to violence to provide startling imagery. In one scene McGrady finds the murder victim’s car abandoned and about to be washed into the sea with the tide:

Henry Kimmel Willard’s maroon Ford was still hanging onto a rock. It looked like a light push would send it over. The water was dark blue. The same colour as the open ocean. When the car finally slipped off the rock and sank, it would be gone for good.

McGrady and his partner examine the car for evidence with only minutes to spare before it is washed away. This is a detective the reader roots for because he will stop at nothing to get the job done.

There are endless war stories about the combatants in the armies, navies and air forces of the world. Five Decembers tells the story of people behind the scenes; venal privateers, ideological zealots unaware that the world is changing irrespective of their rules, exhausted colonial administrators and jaded civil servants desperately trying to keep the system afloat. And at the heart of it all, a police detective determined to find justice for a murder victim when the war is killing people by the millions. McGrady holds firm to that torch of justice as fate drags him across the Pacific and back, leading to the novel’s unforgettable climax.

As James Ellroy might say, “Don’t pay the rent. Buy this book!”

No Time To Die – Revisited

October 17, 2021

No Time To Die may have won the critics round, but it seems to have divided James Bond fans. I had a feeling this would happen when I first saw it, and loved it, two weeks ago at one of the earliest screenings I could find. Seeing a Bond film twice at the cinema is something of a tradition for me, so I didn’t need much encouragement to return and re-watch Daniel Craig’s swansong as 007. Did it hold up on the second viewing? Yes, in fact it enhanced the film in many ways. Clocking in at just under three-hours this is the lengthiest Bond film of the entire series, and there is much in it to chew over. Rather than do a traditional review, I thought I’d pull out a few things from the film that either pleased or irked me this time round.

NTTD is an ensemble piece and the acting is almost universally superb, but the glittering prizes have to go Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux. As Bond and Madeleine they are so much like a real couple it’s uncanny. They even argue sexy. However, for an action film oddly preoccupied with domesticity it’s nice to see Ana de Armas giving the film some much needed oomph. Her onscreen time is little more than an extended cameo, but in it she manages to slay a dozen bad guys and the Bond Girl Curse to boot.

I enjoyed spotting the multiple references to the series filmic and literary legacy. Seeing a portrait of Judi Dench on an MI6 wall was nice and to see one of the relatively unknown Robert Brown was a delight. There’s a danger this could all get a bit too self-reverential, but the Bond audience tends to be older and appreciates these gestures as a sign they have not been forgotten. Although when I went to see the film with a chum we nearly forgot to wait for the closing words ‘James Bond Will Return’. We were halfway to the door when we realised the oversight. We stood and watched all the credits and listened to all of the incidental music which, like a bad Music Hall act, they play to ‘persuade’ you to leave the theatre. It wasn’t until the final copyright legalese had flashed on the screen that we saw those reassuring words.

James Bond will return but while we wait, No Time To Die is a thrilling addition to the series that stands up to repeated viewings.

And now the negatives:

Having had time to reassess Rami Malek’s performance, I don’t think I was too harsh on him last time round. I know Bond villains are not exactly supposed to be believable, but Malek has to convince the audience that his anger drives him to take revenge on the people who murdered his family and subsists to make him take his revenge on the world. Frankly, his subdued presence doesn’t accomplish that.

Billie Eilish’s song is a disappointment. Not bad, but not exactly great either. In fact, with the exception of Chris Cornell’s thumping good tune ‘You Know My Name’, all of the Bond songs of the Craig era have been interminable dirges in search of a chorus. Hard to believe (or is it?) that two of them have won Oscars.

I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a tribute to Sean and Roger. I can see the logic. The entire film is in some ways a tribute to Daniel Craig and OHMSS. However, a split second title card ‘In Memory of…’ wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Over to you dear readers. Have I overrated No Time To Die or did you enjoy it as much as I did?

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette:  The Cold Five Thousand

October 10, 2021

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the tenth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six, Seven, Eight and Nine.

Milwaukee’s police force frequently earned national acclaim and recognition for its efficiency and professionalism. In November 1937, such competence would be tested once again after an attempted robbery at the Luick Dairy plant shed blood on both sides. 

An Illustrated Guide to the Luick Dairy Farm Shootout Published in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 4, 1937

The five perpetrators, all transplants from Chicago—Edward Atkins, Patrick Connolly, Michael Kohlmeir, Charles Coffey, and gang leader Fred Reardon—had planned the heist meticulously for more than two months.  Their target was a safe in the dairy’s office.  The take—five grand cold.

In a series of interrogations after the burglary, Reardon, his eyes black and puffy from a scuffle with police, laid out the scheme…

Acting as an automobile salesman, Reardon telephoned the dairy’s cashier, Fred Tegge, and made an appointment with Tegge to demonstrate a car.  Upon arriving, Reardon pistol-whipped Tegge, and braced the cashier for the Luick office safe’s combination. 

Reardon left Connolly and Coffey to guard Tegge and his wife, who were both gagged and bound to chairs, while he, Atkins and Kohlmeir left for the dairy plant. Connolly and Coffey soon fled the Tegge home, however, after one of them answered a telephone call from a Tegge family member. Mrs. Tegge wriggled slowly out of her bonds, and then freed her husband, who called the police.

Upon arriving at the Luick Dairy, Atkins and Kohlmeir held up two plant workers, Lloyd McCarty and Edward Hegler, but failed to notice a third employee, Rudolph Orth, who ducked out a first floor window and called the police from a nearby tavern.

McCarty and Hegler led the bandits to the cashier’s office on the second floor which contained the safe with $5,000. There were two more safes in adjacent offices, but strangely, the bandits showed no interest in them. Reardon tried the combination Tegge had given him, and it failed. Reardon then untied McCarty and forced the Luick night clerk to try the safe’s combination himself. 

Detective Lieutenant John Niederhorn caught the call and dispatched two police squads to the scene.  Officers George Raabe and George Legge were on patrol nearby, and reached the scene first.  A second squad, comprised of Patrolmen Cecil Daugherty, Charles Smith, Alfred Bassett and rookie Elbert Wright arrived just moments later.

Raabe and Legge entered the dairy, and one of the burglars standing sentry outside the office opened fire. 

Raabe returned fire, and chased his assailant down a stairway.  The gunman continued to fire, ultimately pumping six bullets into Raabe’s abdomen, heart and hand, and then jumping over the policeman’s body to escape. Patrolman Wright fired four shots at the fleeing gunman, and one bullet smashed into a door frame barely an inch above his head.    

Raabe’s body was found near the alley entrance, so the police believed Raabe’s shooter, crouched and concealed in the darkness of the lower floors—shot Raabe as he reached the lower landing.   

Officer Legge shot Atkins in the cashier’s office while the burglar attempted to draw his gun. Officers Daugherty and Smith entered the dairy and bagged Reardon after a brief struggle in which Reardon used McCarty as a human shield while shooting both patrolmen—Daugherty in the hand, Smith in the hip. Reardon earned his first of two black eyes by initially refusing to disclose the names of his companions.  

Interviewed the next day, Officer Daugherty recalled a capricious scene that was also quite an acid test for rookie Patrolman Wright: “We drove in the alley and went in with guns drawn.  A crossfire opened up as we entered—two bandits in front and one to our right.”        

Though Reardon insisted there were no others involved beyond he and his four cohorts, Captain Kraemer was convinced otherwise.  Traumatized cashier Fred Tegge concurred, insisting that his uninvited guests numbered at least six.  Every detective on the force was summoned to headquarters at the request of Chief Joseph Kluchesky to chase down leads.

Rudolph Orth said he witnessed a man run from the dairy to a rose-mahogany 1937 Nash sedan parked in a vacant lot behind the dairy.       

While Milwaukee’s police searched for the sedan, police in Racine and Chicago watched railway stations in anticipation of the escaped gunmen.      

Burglar Michael Kohlmeir admitted to Detective Captain Adolph Kraemer and Detective John McGarvey that Kohlmeir shot and killed Raabe. Kohlmeir himself was also shot above the right hip, between the shoulder blades, and on the right hand, and the burglar had to undergo emergency surgery to treat his wounds. Captain Kraemer said Kohlmeir admitted shooting Raabe to at least six people at the hospital, but refused to sign a sworn statement.  

Under interrogation, Kohlmeir admitted that he was a former Detroit policeman.

Reardon’s three other cohorts; Patrick Connolly, Michael Kohlmeir, and Charles Coffey, were captured the next day in a raid on an apartment house located less than a block from the Safety Building, home to the police and sheriff’s departments. 

Under nearly constant interrogation since his arrest, Reardon finally divulged the address of the apartment where his companions could be found.  Apparently, the apartment was somewhere Reardon often stopped on his visits to Milwaukee to case the dairy plant, and Reardon had assured his companions it was a safe and easy hideout. 

Although Reardon supplied the primary information, a tavern keeper who lived adjacent to the hideout, told police that he may have seen Reardon and other members of the gang around his tavern earlier.

Sergeant Albert Kornitz led the apartment raid, which also included officers Oscar Tschury, Ray Carlson, Elmer Dennis, Edward Courtney, and Ignatz Napierala.  The officers entered the apartment with guns drawn.

Kohlmeir was lying in the bedroom, his stomach wrapped in several blood-stained sheets. The police sent Kohlmeir to the county emergency hospital and took two other suspects, Charles Carney and Patrick Connolly, apprehended at the apartment, to police headquarters. Kohlmeir was treated for two bullet wounds to the stomach and a bullet-grazing wound to the hand. 

At the hospital, Kohlmeir insisted he had been shot three times by a man as he left the apartment. “I know all you guys are against me,” Kohlmeir moaned to detective sergeant Martin Fallon. “That’s why I won’t cooperate.”

Kohlmeir’s fingertips were acid-burned, a common ploy to eliminate fingerprint identification. When police questioned Kohlmeir about his burns, the former Detroit policeman laughed and claimed they were burned during a chemical fire in a laboratory.

Reardon proved to be the most perplexing of the group, a fact quite evident to the no less than six officers (Detective Captain Adolph Kraemer, Inspector Hugo Schranz, Deputy Inspector Hugo Goehlen, Captain Robert Sandout, and even Chief Joseph Kluchesky) conducting his interrogation. Due to a flurry of aliases (Fred William Young, Fred Burchitell, Fred Daniels, Fred Kane, Fred Kinsey, Joe Willis, etc…), the Milwaukee police struggled even to pin down his real name. 

Reardon had a prolific rap sheet that noted numerous arrests for aggravated armed robbery as far back as 1919. The gang leader also served spurts of state prison time in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas.  At the time of his arrest at the Luick Dairy, Reardon was on parole from an Illinois prison. 

Reardon’s long criminal history eventually caught the attention of the feds, who knew Reardon was a “peter man”—police jargon for a bank robber who knows how to blow open a safe. 

Subsequent investigation of Reardon would reveal that he was a former associate of notorious Michigan killer Fred Burke, who was killed by police just a few years earlier.

Just two days after the robbery, Milwaukee District Attorney Herbert J. Steffes said in a press conference that he would issue first degree murder warrants for Reardon, Patrick Connolly, Charles Coffey and Michael Kohlmeir, along with charges for imprisonment and kidnapping, and assault with intent to rob and murder. Steffes also hit the four bandits with charges for the attempted murder of patrolmen Charles Smith and Cecil Daugherty.

Tavernkeeper Thomas Smee, owner and operator of Smee’s Tavern was charged with being an accessory after the fact, while bartender Edward Sweeney was held as a material witness. Both Smee and Sweeney lived at the apartment house where the three bandits were captured. The Milwaukee police made the connection between the bandits and Smee’s Tavern after police found a letter addressed to Reardon at the tavern.      

Milwaukee police located the rose-mahogany sedan Kohlmeir escaped in at a nearby parking station.  The sedan was brought to the police station, where its locked doors were forced open, revealing blood stains on the front seat and gear shift. The sedan bore Minnesota license plates, while several other Alabama and Illinois license plates were found inside.

As word of the failed Luick Dairy robbery quickly spread around Wisconsin, authorities in Racine wondered if members of Reardon’s gang might be responsible for recent safe robberies in their community. Racine Police Chief Grover Lutter was particularly interested in questioning Reardon about the gang leader’s possible involvement in two such incidents at Racine department stores.   

News of the robbery even reached Columbus, Ohio, where authorities  wondered if Reardon’s gang could have been responsible for the September 27th killing of Columbus Patrolman George Conn in Freeport, Ohio. Captain George Mingle of the Ohio State Police arranged for ballistics tests of weapons used by Reardon’s gang. Captain Mingle was particularly interested in a particular gun confiscated from Reardon, as bullets from the same type of gun were extracted from Conn’s body.

The time element of the gang’s movements seemed to also cohere with the timeline of officer Conn’s murder, according to Captain Mingle, as Conn’s killers used a car stolen in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 13, and transit between St. Paul and Columbus passes invariably through Milwaukee.

Mingle, along with Detective Oscar Tschury both interrogated Reardon, who gave them no clear answers.  Though Captain Mingle hoped to take Reardon back to Ohio to face charges in the Conn killing, Mingle acknowledged that his Milwaukee counterparts had too much dirt on Reardon to ever hope that they would ever release him, even if ballistics pinned Reardon to Conn’s death.

In Chicago, the Milwaukee robbery caught the attention of Lieutenant Daniel Healy of the Chicago Detective Bureau. Lieutenant Healy confidently believed the bandits behind the Luick robbery were also responsible for the December 1933 robbery of Chicago’s Unity Bank, as bandit Michael Kohlmeir had been a hunted suspect in that case for nearly four years.               

With hastily assembled contributions from firms and individuals, the Luick Dairy Company presented a $1,000 check to George Raabe’s widow, Meta and her six fatherless children just days after the robbery.

In December, a municipal court jury of five women and seven men deliberated for just two hours before finding Kohlmeir, Reardon, Coffey and Connolly guilty of first degree murder.

During the trial, the state charged that Kohlmeir fired the fatal shots that killed Officer Raabe. While the defense claimed the shooting was at worst third degree murder, Deputy District Attorney George Bowman, summarizing the prosecution’s case, declared “first degree murder is the only possible verdict, that can be returned against every one of them. Theirs was a cold-blooded business of organized lawlessness. To let them off on second or third degree murder convictions would be out of the question.”  The prosecution also called the four defendants “a modern Jesse James gang”.

Reardon’s attorney, Cornelius Hanley, said Reardon had surrendered without firing his gun, and was thus not guilty of first degree murder. Council for Coffey and Connolly argued that their clients merely held Luick cashier Fred Tegge and his wife hostage with no murderous intent. And Kohlmeir’s attorney contended that no one outside of Kohlmeir witnessed the shooting, so all evidence was entirely circumstantial.

Following the jury’s verdict, Circuit Judge Robert S. Cowie sentenced all four defendants to life terms in Wisconsin’s Waupun State Prison. 

Officer George Raabe was the 24th Milwaukee police officer to be slain in the line of duty in the 53 years of records kept at police headquarters.  

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…       

Officer George Raabe

NO TIME TO DIE Review – James Bond Has Returned

October 3, 2021

I thought that COVID and lockdown would make time drag, but it seems to have flown by. It feels like only yesterday that Danny Boyle was hired to direct the next Bond film before being promptly sacked when his vision clashed with Barbara Broccoli or Daniel Craig or Michael G Wilson or maybe it was all of them? We’ll save that mystery for another day. In the meantime a devastating virus may or may not have ‘escaped’ from a Wuhan laboratory, the entire globe was plunged into lockdown and safety precautions are so intense that going to work in the office is more hazardous than penetrating a Spectre villain’s secret lair.

Bond used to be about escapism. Now it plays like a Kitchen Sink drama.

But No Time To Die has finally arrived, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about the long-awaited return of James Bond. After such a lengthy gestation, it might seem impossible for the film to live up to expectations. I’m glad to report that it exceeds them. In fact, NTTD achieves cinematic highs that even lifelong fans of the series wouldn’t think was possible in a Bond film (albeit at a cost that is likely to upset those same hardened fans).

Plotwise things start pretty much where Spectre left off. Bond has retired and is living a life of apparent domestic bliss with Madeleine Swann in Matera, Italy, safe in the knowledge that his old nemesis Blofeld is eating a diet of porridge at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. A visit to his old love Vesper Lynd’s grave leads to an explosive surprise, and suddenly, Bond finds himself in Spectre’s crosshairs again. Did Madeleine betray him or has she been set up by Blofeld?

Meanwhile, at an MI6 laboratory in London, a Russian scientist named Valdo Obruchek has been snatched by a group of terrorists. Bond investigates his disappearance, but not for MI6, as he has hung up his Walther PPK and it’s been swiftly re-holstered by the younger, fitter and wokier agent Nomi. Bond hunts Obruchek at the behest of his CIA ally Felix Leiter. Soon Bond discovers that he, and in a little twist of fate Spectre, have a new nemesis in the guise of the ghoulishly disfigured and grudge-holding Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek).

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, for fear of letting slip spoilers. As my pal Dan said after the screening, ‘Bond’s life is built on secrets, when those secrets begin to unravel so does Bond’s world.’ It’s not my place to unravel any of those secrets here. This is a daring Bond film, and there were moments in NTTD that took me by surprise and made me marvel at the risks the filmmakers were taking. Some reviewers have grumbled that Bond is too woke, but I never felt that this was pushed too far. 007 hasn’t gone rogue on political correctness. Each set-piece, beautifully directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, outdoes the preceding one in terms of physical and emotional impact. There is no reliance on excessive pyrotechnics to make everything bigger and better. Blofeld’s macabre birthday party is one of the most horrific scenes in the series, and a later chase/shootout scene in misty woodland reminded me, oddly enough, of Jurassic Park.

The performances are excellent, with the possible exception of Malek who is monotonously dull. In terms of villains David Dencik walks away with the acting honours as the grouchy Obruchek, whose genius for science is matched only by his enthusiasm for complaint. Daniel Craig is so good he’s practically mastered the Bond role to its DNA strands, and has pretty much made it impossible for any actor to follow him. Although he is starting to look a little long in the tooth compared to the younger series regulars Q (Ben Whishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and the kick-arse new member of the team Nomi (Lashana Lynch). The injection of new blood enhances the extraordinary legacy of the Bond films. Anyone who has ever marvelled at Ken Adam’s set designs or Maurice Binder’s title sequences will love No Time To Die. Those elements of the film are stronger than ever, and they make the risks the film takes pay off.

No Time To Die will get Bond fans and sceptics alike talking. As it was filmed before the pandemic, it seems prescient now. With its secret laboratories and Safin’s ‘Poison Garden’, the film is preoccupied with toxicity, fortunately, none of it masculine. It’s a strangely unnerving film, released in an age when we are all germaphobes now. A Bond film has never been more topical, as while lockdown eases, COVID is still presenting massive challenges to huge swathes of the economy, from education to hospitality to cinema.

It’s his most challenging mission yet – Can Bond save your local multiplex?

Well, I’ve already bought a ticket to see it again.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Sweet Dreams

September 18, 2021

James Ellroy’s White Jazz is written as ‘a fever dream’ of Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein. The stark power of Ellroy’s prose style carries the reader through the nightmarish, barely lucid mind of Klein. The musical references in the novel reflect this confusion. Whether it be in the dizzying influence of black bebop jazz or in the folkloric tales that Ellroy adapts to a 1950s Los Angeles setting, White Jazz is awash with musical power.

Take a stroll through its Dreamworld:

Will o’ the Wisp

One of the most intriguing sub-plots of White Jazz concerns a serial killer who is preying on the homeless. Hush-Hush reports that ‘three wino bums were found strangled and mutilated in abandoned houses in the Hollywood area. Very Hush-Hush: we’ve heard the still-at-large killer snapped their windpipes postmortem, utilising great strength.’ Hush-Hush might be a disreputable rag, but it uses its tabloid clout to put pressure on the LAPD to solve the killings. While it shines a spotlight on murders which would otherwise go unreported due to the low profile of the victims, Hush-Hush salaciously gives the killer a sense of dubious celebrity as the magazine:

hereby names this fiend the ‘Wino Will-o-the-Wisp’ and petitions the LAPD to find him and set him up with a hot date in San Quentin’s green room. They cook with gas there, and this killer deserves a four-burner cookout.

Will-o’-the-wisp is an atmospheric light, similar to St Elmo’s Fire. It is a natural phenomenon which, in centuries past, inspired many ghost stories and folklore. In metaphorical terms, Will-o’-the-wisp can refer to a ray of hope that can lure someone but proves elusive or, when found, is finally revealed as sinister and destructive. It’s clear why Ellroy would find it a good name for a murderer who preys on winos who, in their malnourished state, would be easy to lure to a secluded spot where they would meet a grisly end.

White Jazz is set in 1958-9 and is crammed with jazz references of the era. Miles Davis began recording his Sketches of Spain album in November 1959 and it was released the following year. One of the tracks is ‘Will o’ the Wisp’, a reworking of the famous Manuel de Falla composition. Merging Spanish folklore with the lonely trumpet of the noir world, Davis’s version has a wonderfully seductive beginning that peters out with a tinge of melancholy as it goes on.

Just remember where that seductive ghost light leads you in Will-o’-the-wisp folklore…

Hushabye

White Jazz is divided into five sections which are named after classic jazz tracks. The concluding section is named ‘Hushabye’. ‘Hushabye’ is a jazz standard performed by a number of noted musicians, but it’s also the name of a hit song by The Mystics released in 1959. This song is, I feel, the piece Ellroy is most likely referring to in the novel’s denouement. As with many of the golden oldies tunes Ellroy references in his historical fiction, the song feels cloyingly sentimental by contemporary tastes. But that may well be the point. The ‘Hushabye’ section of the novel moves at a breakneck pace, consisting of six chapters and an epilogue spread over thirteen pages. Some of the chapters are less than half a page long, and the section contains two murders, a vicious beating and a summation of the fates of all the prominent characters.

You could probably finish reading Ellroy’s ‘Hushabye’ in about the same time it takes to listen to the song, and its sickly sweet nature provide sharp contrast to the violence in the text. Ellroy is aware of how the songs of the era used sentimentality as a mask for darker themes. The lyrics refer to the ‘Sandman will be coming soon / Singing you a slumber tune’. The Sandman has his genesis in Scandinavian folklore. He sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to bring on sleep and dreams, and has been portrayed as both a benevolent and a sinister figure. As with his use of Will-o’-the-wisp, Ellroy understands the frightening power of this folklore and much of the novel is obsessed with eyes and voyeurism. The two murders which occur in the ‘Hushabye’ section feature the victims being shot ‘faceless blind’. Klein undergoes plastic surgery which leaves him ‘one eye squinty, one eye normal’.

By the end of the novel, Klein’s delirious nightmare is concluding. Yet rather than transition into a peaceful state, he is revving up for more confrontation: ‘I’m going back. I’m going to make Exley confess every monstrous deal he ever cut with the same candour I have. I’m going to kill Carlisle, and make Dudley fill in every moment of his life – to eclipse my guilt with the sheer weight of his evil

Sleep tight:

Pervdog Panic – New Ellroy Boys Episode

September 12, 2021

It was my pleasure to appear with the Ellroy Boys in their latest podcast exploring James Ellroy’s Freddy Otash novel Widespread Panic.

We discuss the novel, Otash’s personality and life of misdeeds, Film Noir, the Hollywood Left, Rebel Without a Cause and so much more. You can listen to the entire episode here.

Write From Wrong by Craig McDonald

September 1, 2021

Hector Lassiter returns in dazzling form in Craig McDonald’s latest book Write From Wrong. In case you are unfamiliar with old Hec, allow me to introduce you. Lassiter is a novelist, adventurer and warrior who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor William Holden. As befitting someone with movie-star looks and an inexhaustible supply of courage, Lassiter is catnip to the many beautiful women he meets on his travels through the past century. Being Lassiter’s female companion often proves dangerous, though, as the author is stalked by tragedy.

Lassiter was born on January 1, 1900, and is imbued with longevity. He witnesses the seminal events of the twentieth century: the Punitive Expedition, the Great War, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two and its many after-effects. This rich history influences his writing as he drifts through the literary movements of one era to the next. Hector can be found hanging out with the Lost Generation in Paris in One True Sentence, or coming to blows with a cabal of murderous artists in Toros & Torsos. The latest volume in the Lassiter saga, Write From Wrong, is a collection of short stories in which McDonald deftly moves the setting from one country and time period to another. We see Lassiter plying his trade with the Black Mask boys in LA and New York in the 1930s, scribes whose hardboiled prose is still influencing crime writers ninety years later. In ‘F For Fake’ Lassiter meets his aging pal Orson Welles in Paris at the tail-end of Welles’s more than two-decade long exile in Europe where he went in search of artistic freedom. As Lassiter observes, there is ‘something almost majestic about the big, bearded actor – a kind of air of a noble ruin or grand half-collapsed abbey.’

The novella that ties this collection together is set in and around Put-in-Bay, a tiny village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie in 1927. As remote as it seems, these waters were the sight of a decisive naval battle during the War of 1812. By the 1920s they had become a major bootlegging route during Prohibition. Lassiter arrives to find that people have been turning up dead with alarming regularity and in mysterious circumstances, including an old army buddy of his. He suspects the loathsome Usher Krutch. Supposedly an associate of Al Capone, Krutch is a villain so evil he may well be the devil incarnate. Lassiter’s weakness is women, and his private investigation into Krutch is almost derailed by the appearance of the alluring Verity Chisholm. Beautiful and intelligent, Verity appears to be the perfect woman, but in vino veritas (even in the age of Prohibition) soon shows his new squeeze isn’t everything she appears to be.

A Lassiter tale is a mixture of Chekhov’s gun and the Butterfly Effect. A firearm introduced in chapter one must go off by chapter two, but the full ripples of that discharge might not be felt till seventy years later. Case in point, doesn’t that crime writer named James who Lassiter meets at a Baltimore Convention in 1986 bear an uncanny resemblance to Armand Ellroy, his old comrade in arms from the Punitive Expedition? There are many great crime writers referenced in Write From Wrong, and with the Hector Lassiter series, Craig McDonald has carved his own unique place in the genre. Treat yourself to a copy of Write From Wrong, and delve into the world of Hector Lassiter – the world’s greatest fictional crime writer.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Sentimental Education

August 15, 2021

For my latest piece on music in the work of James Ellroy, I have decided to focus on a single novel – White Jazz. Ellroy has described the novel as the story of ‘a white racist cop in 1958 LA whose life is burning down and who gets hooked, inexplicably, on black bebop jazz’. Ellroy uses jazz to parallel Klein’s confusion and disorientation. But what I will explore in this post is how Ellroy references sentimental love songs to shield either twisted or forbidden love.

Tennessee Waltz

LAPD Lieutenant Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein has long harboured incestuous feelings towards his sister Meg. In their youth these feelings manifested themselves physically: ‘It was always there scary wrong – and we touched each other too long to say it.’ Now an adult, working for both the police and the Mafia, Klein is driven to extreme acts of physical violence at the thought that men could be abusing Meg. LA Mob Boss Jack Dragna takes full advantage of this when Kansas City goombah’s Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino move out west and try to muscle in on the lucrative LA rackets. Dragna wants ‘the Two Tony’s’ dead and he makes it happen by showing Klein a photo of ‘Meg – bruises, hickeys – Trombino/Brancato verified.’ Klein is enraged and murders both men. The real-life Two Tonys were shot to death on August 6, 1951. Several years after the double murder, Klein’s dubious brotherly feelings for Meg come coursing back when he hears a certain song on the radio, ‘Skim the dial, ballads – ‘Tennessee Waltz’ – Meg ’51, that song, the Two Tony’s’.

Red Stewart and Pee Wee King wrote ‘Tennessee Waltz’ in 1946, but it didn’t become a major hit until it was recorded by Patti Page in 1950. It’s easy to see why Klein finds the imagery in the song so powerful and painful. A man and a woman are dancing together happily in love. An old friend of the woman comes over and the singer laments, ‘I introduced her to my loved one and while they were dancin’ my friend stole my sweetheart from me’. Klein and Meg’s love for each other was forged through the shielding role he assumed for her in the abusive household they both grew up in. He doesn’t lose her to an old friend, but rather time itself as she grows into womanhood and wants a new life independent of her former protector.

Later in the novel, Klein braces Tilly Hopewell, the hophead consort of hoodlum Tommy Kafesjian. When approaching Tilly’s apartment door he peeps through the keyhole and sees a stoned Tilly flipping channels on the TV, ‘Flip – Perry Como, boxing, Patti Page’. The sight of the beautiful Ms Page does not inspire Klein to show any kindness towards Tilly. In fact, the memory seems to provoke more violence in him, as he is very rough with Tilly, grabbing and dragging her to the bathroom to sober her up with a blast of cold water.

Perhaps this is the broadcast of Patti Page that Klein caught a glimpse of through’s Tilly’s keyhole:

Harbor Lights

One of the most memorable characters in White Jazz is the black singer Lester Lake. Lake seduces the girlfriend of movie mogul Harry Cohn. Cohn puts a ten grand contract on Lake’s head. Klein uses his mob clout to get Lake’s sentence ‘reduced’, but he still faces the grisly punishment of having his vocal chords sliced. After this punishment is carried out, Klein arranges for Lake to have immediate medical treatment by a disbarred doctor who moonlights as an abortionist. Lake’s singing career is saved but ‘his voice went baritone to tenor’, and he is now obligated to be a police informer for Klein.

When Klein visits Lester Lake at the Tiger Room he walks in on him singing ‘Blue Moon’. His signature song however is ‘Harbor Lights’. The Tiger Room is operated by two Mob brothers who took part in Lake’s macabre punishment. They feel some sort of karmic responsibility to the old crooner, ‘Long as they run the Southside slots and vending shit for Mr. Cohen, Lester Lake’s rendition of ‘Harbor Lights’ will be on that jukebox’. Klein regards the song as ‘pure schmaltz’ and when Lake plays the tune on the jukebox during another visit Klein tetchily asks ‘why you played that goddamned song’. Dudley Smith’s minions Breuning and Carlisle try to pin a murder on Lake and knock his teeth out during a brutal interrogation, taunting him to ‘try to sing ‘Harbor Lights’ now’.

‘Harbor Lights’ was first recorded in London in 1937. The first American recording was by Frances Langford later that year in Los Angeles. The song became a massive hit in 1950 when it was recorded by the Sammy Kaye orchestra, and since then it has been covered countless times. As with ‘Tennessee Waltz’, the song is rich in story and character. The singer looks on at harbour lights in the darkness, as a ship carries his/her sweetheart away. A Hawaiian melody gives the song an island flavour, and alludes to where the voyage will end.

Why does Lester like the song so much? After he is attacked Lake appears not to be sentimental about love, telling Klein that ‘my ladyfriends. I make them think I gots queer tendencies, then they works that much harder to set me straight’. However, one suspects that Lake’s rendition of ‘Harbor Lights’ reminds him of the love for which he paid a horrific price. Klein, in turn, feels a fraternal affection for Lake, providing him with an alibi for the murder rap he was facing and meting out some physical punishment to Breuning and Carlisle for the way they treated him. Klein’s forbidden love was for Meg. Lake’s mistake was falling for a white woman. They have both paid for their transgressions, and share this odd bond over a cloyingly sentimental song.

The version of ‘Harbor Lights’ below was recorded by The Platters:

James Ellroy: From Author to Character

August 1, 2021

James Ellroy’s Demon Dog persona has certainly helped to make the author’s presence felt in both media and literary circles. Even if you have never read Ellroy, you are probably somewhat familiar with that lanky, bald author in the Reyn Spooner shirt with a penchant for barking like a dog. With a literary personality as distinct as Hemingway, Mailer or Vidal, it was only a matter of time before Ellroy became a character in the work of other authors.

Several novelists have been able to draw upon distinct chapters of Ellroy’s life, and create radically different characters as a consequence. If you were to read these novels and didn’t know that Ellroy was the inspiration for a certain character, you’d probably never guess they were all based on the same person. Let’s take a look:

Days of Smoke

Woody Haut’s Days of Smoke is an intimate portrait of Sixties rebellion, which works both as a noir thriller and a drama about intersecting lives. The novel begins with its lead character Mike Howard walking into the office of the regional US Draft Board to declare himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Mike’s friend Jonathan attends the predominantly Jewish Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, where he gets himself in constant trouble for his nutty behaviour and Far-Right political views. Sound familiar? Jonathan is a thinly-veiled portrait of Lee Ellroy – the troubled teenager who would become the adult James Ellroy.

Haut understands Ellroy well after interviewing him for his book Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, and also being my keynote speaker when I arranged an academic conference which examined Ellroy’s work. Jonathan goes by Juan, as he reasons being a Cuban right-winger will make him even more detested, and he craves the attention that comes with being hated. Mike says of Jonathan ‘(he) had more than his share of misfortunes, which had turned him into the person he now was, that this right-wing thing was just a guise, a way of separating himself from others, allowing him to become someone different, that the death of his mother was the beginning of a process that simply allowed him to shed one skin for another, though what he was today might not necessarily be who he would become tomorrow.’

Which leads us to our next portrayal.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is the sixth novel in Andrew Vachss’ Burke series. Vachss and Ellroy were friends for several years, and Vachss discussed their friendship in interviews with Craig McDonald and John Williams. In the novel, the vigilante Burke drives from NYC way out to the sticks of Dutchess County to see his friend, an ex-con counterfeiter named Elroy (note the spelling). The scene is largely comical. Burke brings his dog Pansy and Elroy suggests she should breed with his white pitbull Barko. When Burke first glimpses Elroy he describes him as ‘a tall, rawboned, slope-shouldered man with a doofus moustache. Hair cropped short, wearing tiny round sunglasses.’ Elroy demonstrates Barko’s latest trick, fitting him with a harness and urging him to pull forward ‘a low-slung four-wheeled cart […] piled high with solid-concrete blocks.’ Barko succeeds in his task, to the delight of Elroy.

This is one of the strangest portrayals of James Ellroy, as in a sense it is not Ellroy at all. This ‘Elroy’ is a backwoodsman who lives off the land. He ‘blows ducks off the water with his shotgun. Anything that had fur, feathers, or scales. He wasn’t a hunter, he was an armed consumer.’ That said, we can detect elements of Ellroy here, particularly his wild-man Demon Dog persona. This Elroy is far from being the distinguished author we know today, but he does make an offhand comment to Burke that “All I been through, man, I’m gonna write a book.”

Bandbox

In Thomas Mallon’s delightfully witty novel Bandbox, the titular magazine is a monthly publication run by the bombastic Joe Harris. The setting is 1920s New York, and the decade of Prohibition led to boom times for bootleggers and ample work for crime reporters. Working the crime beat for Bandbox is Max Stanwick, who is described as:

a successful writer of hard-boiled mystery novels, now also wrote features for Bandbox on the nation’s ever-burgeoning crime wave. The fact-checkers sometimes muttered that he had made no discernible shift from the methods of his old genre to those of non-fiction, but Stanwick’s pieces were immensely popular and the occasion of some of Harris’s more memorable cover lines: LEND ME YOUR EARS had announced Max’s recent report on a spate of loansharking mutilations in Detroit.

Mallon and Ellroy first met when they were both working for GQ magazine in the 90s. Joe Harris was based on GQ’s then editor-in-chief Art Cooper. Ellroy, like Stanwick, employed a similar prose style as a journalist as the one he had developed in his novels. If anything, the short fiction pieces Ellroy published in GQ pushed that Ellrovian style to the limits. An article Stanwick writes on the hoodlum Arnold Rothstein has the copy chief, Nan O’Grady, all of a flutter. At first Harris thinks Nan is complaining about Stanwick’s urban grammar again “some people in his piece saying ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ they’re gangsters.’ But it transpires that Nan is displeased about Stanwick making a reference to Rothstein’s ‘schvantz‘, a term she pronounces with ‘the lilting precision of a lieder singer’.

Ellroy, the Man and his (Demon) Dog

Ellroy would have never have made it into the pages of these novels were he not such a larger than life character in person, and all of that raw energy can be found in the pages, first and foremost, of his own classic works. However, whether you’re an Ellroy devotee or more of a casual reader, I can highly recommend these three wonderful novels – Days of Smoke, Sacrifice and Bandbox. Set in different eras – the 20s, 60s and 90s – and featuring three very different characters all based on the Ellroy each individual author knew, they present humorous and fascinating caricatures of the self-styled Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. And if you struggle to find much similarity between the three characters, remember that Ellroy has always believed in standing out. No matter how much his personality may change one thing remains constant – he won’t let you forget him.

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