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Sorcerer at FACT Liverpool December 3rd

November 18, 2017

Excellent news! Sorcerer will now play at FACT cinema in Liverpool on December 3rd at 12 noon. We sold enough tickets via Ourscreen to make the screening happen, but there are still plenty of tickets available so if you able to attend book your tickets here. I’m going to say a few words before the film and will do a write-up on the blog here afterwards. Thanks to everyone who promoted this via Twitter, Facebook or good old-fashioned word -of- mouth. We’ve generated some great publicity, and there are now screenings of Sorcerer planned in Oxford, Derby, Norwich and York. These screenings won’t go ahead unless enough tickets are sold, so if you live close by book now via Ourscreen.

Incidentally, my good friend Dan Slattery has set up a Christmas screening of Die Hard at FACT cinema, Liverpool for December 23rd. It’s one of my favourite Christmas movies but I’ve never seen it on the big screen before, so I’ll be attending. Book here if you can come.

And here’s the nation’s favourite film critic, and William Friedkin expert, Mark Kermode discussing the audience’s response to the recent 40th anniversary re-release of Sorcerer:


William Friedkin’s Sorcerer at FACT Liverpool

October 26, 2017

It has been forty years since William Friedkin’s seminal thriller Sorcerer was released in cinemas. Overshadowed at the time of its release due, in part, to the tremendous success of Star Wars and the sci-fi craze it created Sorcerer is now regarded as a classic thriller, and has been cited by such figures as novelist Stephen King, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and critic Mark Kermode as one of the greatest films ever made. To mark the anniversary it is being shown in selected cinemas in the UK. There wasn’t a showing planned at my local cinema FACT in Liverpool so I contacted the team at OurScreen and arranged a showing. Sorcerer will be playing at FACT Liverpool on December 3rd at 12 noon providing enough people book ahead. The bookings need to have been made online by October 29th or the showing won’t go ahead. Hopefully we’ll get enough bookings and if you’re interested and live locally enough do please come. I’ll do a review of the film on the blog afterwards. Here’s the link where you make the booking on OurScreen.

And here’s the trailer to the film:

Hellraiser: 30 Years On

October 23, 2017

This weekend I made my way to the Fact cinema in Liverpool to watch the 30th anniversary screening of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, one of the most visceral and intense films I think has ever been made.

Sean Chapman as the sexually adventurous Frank

The story begins at a Moroccan souk where Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is haggling with a local trader to buy a mysterious puzzle box. Frank’s fingernails are dirty and he’s dressed in khakis and a vest, suggesting he’s deserted from the army and made his way to Morocco for a Joe Orton style getaway. The camera then cuts to Frank in a dimly lit attic, practically empty apart from the candles placed around him in a square. Frank solves the puzzle box and suddenly he is ripped apart, limb by limb with chains. A dark figure emerges, picks up the puzzle box and suddenly everything disappears and the blood-soaked room returns to its former state (minus Frank). It is later revealed the dark figure is a Cenobite from another dimension. Having exhausted all forms of sexual pleasure, Frank had bought the box with the hope it would unlock new forms of sensory experience. Once the Cenobites have their hooks in him he soon begins to regret this decision. After this gruelling opening, things slow down a little as the audience is introduced to Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), and his English wife Julia (Clare Higgins). They are moving into the house where Frank met his grisly fate although they have no idea what happened to him. Larry is hoping to rebuild his marriage to the cold-hearted Julia who, it turns out, once had an affair with Frank and still pines for him. When Larry is hauling a mattress upstairs, he cuts his hand badly on a nail, causing a deep gash and the blood drips on the attic floor. While Julia takes Larry to the hospital for stitches, the blood on the floor slowly reforms the skeleton of Frank (now played by the very skinny actor Oliver Smith). When Julia later sees the deformed Frank she is shocked, but the old monster has lost none of his charm and, still smitten, Julia agrees with Frank’s idea to lure men to the attic with the promise of casual sex. Once there, the men are bludgeoned to death with a hammer and Frank feeds on their blood which helps his body slowly regenerate. Larry is oblivious to all of the sex and murder happening in his own house, but his beautiful daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) from a previous marriage has her suspicions about her stepmother.

Clare Higgins as Julia and Oliver Smith as Frank the Monster

The genius of the film is that it takes old monster in the attic cliches and revitalises them (literally you might say) into what became one of the most seminal works in the Body Horror genre. The Cenobites torture methods are based on the most extreme forms of sadomasochism. Barker culled much of the Cenobites design from S&M magazines given to him by Coil, an experimental music group who he wanted to compose the film’s score. Coil were replaced by the experienced film composer Christopher Young who does a great job creating atmosphere out of rattling chains and music box tunes, but in interviews, Coil came off as angry with how they were sidelined. Coil’s front-men John Balance and Peter Christopherson claimed ‘we saw some original footage which we unfortunately didn’t keep but it was really heavy and good, like a sort of twisted English horror film. And then when the Americans saw this footage they thought it was too extreme […] and took out a lot of the explicit sex.’ It is hard to believe how a film more extreme than this would have ever been as successful. In a pre-CGI age this is an inventively gory film, dripping in blood and not for the fainthearted. That said, it’s full of mystery, suspense and a tight, disciplined sense of narrative. Don’t let the talk of S&M put you off. In its quieter moments, Hellraiser has great sexual chemistry. The flashback scenes to Frank and Julia’s affair are very hot, and at an otherwise boring dinner party, Kirsty and her love interest share a look which is loaded with sensual desire. Barker’s direction is solid and the cast is uniformly excellent. Andy Robinson (better known as Scorpio in Dirty Harry) is wonderful as the hapless Larry and (spoiler alert) clearly enjoys the opportunity to play a dual role for the finale. Claire Higgins is icily attractive as Julia, and in her film debut Ashley Laurence is a gorgeous and sympathetic heroine– such a shame she got typecast as a scream queen. But it’s Sean Chapman and Oliver Smith who steal the acting honours playing Frank before and after the Cenobites get their hands on him. In the screening I attended there were quite a lot of women in the audience, and it was interesting to see their delighted reaction to Frank, both in his handsome, natural state and as the protean, fleshy monster. Some of the women in the auditorium were practically cheering him on every time he campily exclaimed “Come to Daddy”, which is remarkable given he is the chief villain of the piece. Julia is evil through a misguided sense of love, the Cenobites are merely following their own rules, but Frank is a purely self-absorbed libertine. But if love is worth dying for, then Frank learns that sex is worth going to hell for.

Clive Barker is a Liverpudlian by birth and I’m surprised that, in a city which has never been afraid to show off its homegrown celebrities, more is not made of his work here. Certainly Hellraiser and the Books of Blood series made Barker a star back in the 1980s. Go on YouTube for evidence, he seems to have been almost constantly on television back then. He moved to Los Angeles, directed two more films but, ironically, in Hollywood I don’t think he ever quite recaptured that level of stardom, but how many novelists are interviewed by such big-name presenters like Bill Maher and David Letterman? I remember as a child seeing an exhibition of Barker’s artwork in Chester. I was struck by the vivid storytelling in his paintings, and I’ve taken an interest in his work ever since. I’ve never been a huge fan of Horror; it’s fair to say my tastes gravitate more naturally to thrillers, noir and historical crime fiction, but Hellraiser has always intrigued and fascinated me. Rather like Frank’s ill-fated possession of the puzzle box, I’ve just always been drawn to this movie. As for the sequels the less said the better. The first two were passable to good but after that it became a dreary, repetitive straight-to-video franchise. There’s talk of a reboot, but honestly you’d be better served just by revisiting the original. Hellraiser is not without its flaws. The actors were awkwardly dubbed in post-production to suggest an American setting, and the finale (save for one character’s spectacular demise) is a little lame, but it still packs a punch thirty years after its original release. It’s too well-made a movie to be described as a guilty pleasure, but guilt and pleasure are definitely on the menu.


Wartime James Bond

October 11, 2017

The James Bond film series has always tried to move with the times, not just by embracing new styles of film-making but also by updating the political context. As such, the films have long since abandoned the idea that Bond was a Cold-War warrior. The espionage conflict between East and West was, to varying degrees, the backdrop to every Bond film from Dr No (1962) to Licence to Kill (1989). The first film of the series I saw in the cinema, Goldeneye (1995), at least acknowledged Bond was a Cold War veteran adjusting to the new threats the world was facing. But since then, the Cold War has faded from the consciousness of the recent Bond films and their younger viewers.

It should be noted that the Cold War setting of the early films was a direct consequence of a much hotter conflict – the Second World War. It’s striking how many of the key players of the early Bond series were veterans of the conflict. Fleming, like his fictional counterpart, was a Commander in the Royal Navy during the war and Bond was a composite of several RN Commandos who were in his charge. Fleming formed his band of ‘Red Indians’, 30 Assault Unit who performed daredevil missions during the conflict, although the future author saw little, if any, combat himself. Terence Young, who directed three of the first four James Bond films, was a tank commander who saw action in Operation Market Garden. Legendary art director Ken Adam, who gave the Bond sets their unique and epic look, was a German-born RAF fighter pilot. In his memoirs, Roger Moore recalled witnessing a V1 Doodlebug land on the streets of London.

The Second World War was always a lurking presence in Fleming’s Cold War thrillers. In this post, I am going to connect some moments from the Bond film and literary series to events from the war. Let’s start with Fleming’s debut novel Casino Royale (1953). In it, Bond plays a high stakes baccaret game against the villainous Le Chiffe. Fleming claimed to have based the showdown on an incident from the war where Fleming played baccaret against German agents at a casino in Lisbon, although, in his biography of Fleming, Andrew Lycett claims it is more likely Fleming got the idea from a number of wartime incidents involving other allied agents:

Ian and (John) Godfrey took the usual roundabout air-route from Britain – KLM to Lisbon and then Pan Am to New York via the Azores and Bermuda. They stayed a couple of nights in the big Palacio Hotel on the Tagus estuary at Estoril, where one of the more heavily embellished incidents in Ian’s wartime career took place. After dinner the second night, Ian wanted to play at the casino, a favourite pre-war pursuit which he had recently been denied. It was a sombre and uneventful evening in a dim-lit building. His fellow gamblers were Portugese businessmen in suits. The stakes were not particularly high, and Ian lost. As he was leaving the gaming tables, he turned to Godfrey and, with a touch of imaginative genius, tried to invest the drab proceedings with some spurious glamour: “What if those men had been German secret service agents and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money; now that would have been exciting.” […] But others have also claimed responsibility for this incident, or something like it. One was Dusko Popov, the Yugoslav double agent who worked for the British while pretending to spy for the Germans. Popov gave the British secret service an opportunity to “play back” some of the false information it wanted the Nazis to hear. Another was Ralph Iard, a fellow member of NID, who played roulette with a group of expatriate Nazis in Lisbon while he was en route to South America on a wartime mission. Iard later recalled how Ian had been very interested in his story.

And here is the climax of the card game, brilliantly dramatised in the 2006 film adaptation of Casino Royale (Baccaret was switched to Texas Holdem in the film):

The Soviet spy agency Smersh features prominently in a number of Fleming’s novels. They are portrayed as Bond’s counterparts and nemesis in Russian Intelligence, leading the fight against the decadent West. In reality, Smersh was founded by the Russians during the Second World War. After Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive land invasion of the Soviet Union, the initial success of their campaign led to widespread desertion and surrender in the Russian military. Smersh was formed as an umbrella organisation of the existing Soviet Intelligence services to subvert German attempts to infiltrate the Red Army on the Eastern Front. In an article for the Journal of Contemporary History, the historian Robert Stephan suggests that the name Smersh came from Stalin himself:

According to a Soviet history of the Special Departments, there were several suggestions at a meeting with Stalin of names for the new organization. One of the suggestions was Smernesh, or Smert’ nemetskim shpionam (‘Death to German Spies’). Stalin replied: ‘And why as a matter of fact should we be speaking only of German spies? Aren’t other intelligence services working against our country? Let’s call it Smert’ Shpionam.’ Hence the name ‘Death to Spies’.

After Germany’s surrender in 1945, the duties of Smersh were transferred back to NKGB the following year and the organisation essentially ceased to exist, but Fleming found their brutal counter-intelligence methods memorable enough to make them a major Cold War presence in his fiction. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre is the paymaster of a Smersh controlled trade union, and a Smersh agent engraves a Cyrillic mark into Bond’s hand so that other Smersh agents will recognise him as a spy. Smersh would continue to feature in Fleming novels such as From Russia With Love (1957) and Goldfinger (1959), but in the film series they feature less prominently as the colourful SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), which featured in all but one of the Sean Connery Bond films, seemed more suited to the outlandishness of the Swinging Sixties. Smersh still plays a major role in the film adaptation of From Russia With Love (1963), and more elliptically in 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the strongest entries in the series and the last to be truly about the Cold War, where two MI6 agents are murdered with the message Smert’ Shpionam left by their corpse.

My final example is a bit more debatable in terms of the influence of World War Two. Author Jeremy Duns has claimed the pre-credits sequence of Goldfinger (1964) was inspired by an Allied Intelligence mission in which a Dutch spy was smuggled into Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The scene in the film is set in an unnamed South American country, Bond is first seen emerging from the water in a wet-suit wearing a fake duck on his head before covertly entering a drugs laboratory and planting some explosives set to a timer. He slips out of the wet-suit, revealing he’s wearing a perfect white tuxedo beneath and makes his way to a nearby tavern in which nearly all of the occupants clear out of in a panic when they hear the nearby laboratory erupting in flames. Bond stays to seduce a dancer, but they’re steamy encounter is interrupted by a local heavy who tries to knock out Bond with a cosh. After a fight between the two, Bond finishes the villain off by shoving him in a bath and throwing an electric light in the water. ‘Shocking’, Bond quips before leaving to catch his flight to Miami where the main plot of the film begins.

Stirring stuff, but what has it possibly got in common with the grim realities of a World War Two spy mission? Well Duns makes a convincing case that the scene was based on the ‘Scheveningen’ mission in which Peter Tazelaar was tasked by the Dutch Government-in-exile to covertly land ashore at Scheveningen in his then occupied home-country, and find and extract two Dutch agents and bring them back to safety in Britain:

Their plan was simple but audacious – approach Scheveningen in darkness by boat, and take Mr Tazelaar into the surf by dinghy, from where he could scramble ashore. Once there, he would strip off his wetsuit, to reveal his evening clothes underneath, to enable him to pose as a partygoer and slip past the sentries.

The operation began fairly well. Tazelaar disembarked from a British Motor Gun Boat into a small dinghy. Once ashore, he slipped out of a specially designed wet-suit under which he was wearing immaculate party clothes, and staggered, feigning drunkenness, past two unsuspecting German sentries nearby. On a later date though he was picked up on the same beach by the Gestapo and taken in for questioning but, cool under pressure, managed to bluff his way out by claiming to be a drunken reveller. The mission was ultimately blown, and while Tazelaar managed to escape he was unable to bring back the two agents.

Whether the opening scene of Goldfinger was based on the exploits of Tazelaar it is hard to say. The scene is a creative reworking of the first chapter of the novel which begins with Bond nursing a double bourbon at the departure lounge of Miami airport, and feeling somewhat grubby after being forced to kill a Capungo, Mexican bandit, who was a part of the opium smuggling ring Bond had been assigned to smash. The scene is a typically strong opening to a Bond novel, and incidentally was cited by Roger Moore as a major influence in his portrayal of the character, but it has more to do with Fleming’s lifelong fascination with the process of smuggling than his or anyone else’s experiences during wartime. There is no wet-suit hiding an impeccable tux in the book; however, Duns argues that so many of the key players in the production of Goldfinger had Intelligence experience during wartime that a knowledge of the Scheveningen mission could have easily slipped into the script. The screenplay to Goldfinger was co-written by Paul Dehn who had been a Special Operations Executive officer during the war, and the film was directed by Guy Hamilton who had served in the Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla and had been involved in missions landing MI6 agents on the coastlines of occupied Europe.

Whether or not it was directly based on the Scheveningen mission, the opening to Goldfinger is a great scene which did much to set the formula of the pre-credits sequence being a mini-movie in itself, and the influence of the Second World War on the Bond novel and film series should not be underestimated or ignored.

The North and Romantic Fatalism in the work of David Peace

September 26, 2017

The latest issue of the British Politics Review takes a look at the political and cultural landscape of the North of England. When I was asked to contribute an article I was a little hesitant. Despite being born in Chester, and working in Liverpool I’ve never felt particularly Northern. But then I decided I have as much right to call myself Northern as anyone else, so I put together a piece which examines the great crime novels of Yorkshireman David Peace, and throws in some of my observations about the North. The article is called ‘The North and Romantic Fatalism in the work of David Peace’, and you can read the entire issue here.

On re-watching all the 007 films on the big screen, in 4K

September 11, 2017

Today’s guest post is by Craig McDonald, author of the superlative Hector Lassiter series of novels. 

This summer, I’ve been privileged to savor what’s been billed as a revolutionary, world-exclusive Bonding experience.

The very cutting-edge Gateway Film Center located on The Ohio State University campus has been presenting, “For the first time ever, all 26 James Bond films in order of release, restored in crystal clear 4K!”

That’s right: starting back on July 1 with 1962’s Doctor NO, and every fourth day since, a subsequent “classic” Bond film has been screened at a level of visual and audio quality far eclipsing that of the ABC Sunday Night Movie versions I grew up on in the late-1960s and early-1970s, or even the films I saw upon first-release on the big screen starting with (here I date myself as cinema Bond and I came into the world together in 1962) You Only Live Twice, at the tender age of five.

Hell, the quality of this summer’s large-screen 007 versions are light years beyond that of any of the remastered VHS tapes or DVD’s I’ve bought in the many years since.

As a James Bond aficionado and a novelist who not so long ago published his own 007 pastiche (Death in the Face, Betimes Books, October 2015), this summer’s film series has proven impossible to pass up.

Confession here: I didn’t see all 26 films. To get to that count, Gateway incorporated two non-Eon productions, the rogue Connery comeback and Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again —a did-see re-watch, and quite stunning in restoration; a superior film in every retrospective respect to the then-competing Octopussy, which is a lukewarm mostly Goldfinger-remake—and the original Charles Feldman-version of Casino Royale, which after a one-time viewing about thirty years ago, I swore off forever.

(Sometimes we say never again, and we goddamn mean it.)

Scattered visceral impressions:

The early Bond films, particularly Doctor No, are exceptionally stunning in these big-screen, digitally remastered renditions. All should be so lucky to have this experience: Every crease of Bernard Lee’s suit jacket and forehead wrinkles in his icy first scenes as “M” are stunningly sharp in NO, as are the beads of sweat on Connery’s forehead during that tarantula scene.

The cinematography of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only of the non-Feldman Bond film I’d never seen on the big screen before, is strikingly edgy and beautiful, particularly in its opening, haunted pre-titles scenes set on a beach at sunset, and during the twilight ski chase down from Piz Gloria.

On that note, you also really have to see these films on the big screen in 4K to truly re-appreciate the framing of all of their exotic settings that surely enchanted and remained impossible fantasy destinations for the films’ then mostly middle-income fans across their 20th Century releases.

Last scattered impression: Despite its rogue status, Connery’s swan-song, NSNA, clearly shaped subsequent EON Bonds, from its black Felix Leiter, to Barbara Carrera’s obvious inspiration for Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp and its more grounded chief villain.

But seeing these films writ large and in tight compression this way also reminded me of many unhappy and aggravating earlier experiences and frustrations experienced during long-ago, first-run viewings throughout the 1970s and early-1980s.

For me, the Roger Moore films were nearly unendurable in real time, back-when.

Outside of his debut in Live and Let Die, and Sir Roger’s one, somewhat Conneryesque outing in For Your Eyes Only, I truly loathed nearly all of those films, then and now.

For me, Moore’s Bond also dates the most severely, not just in terms of all the wide lapels, fat ties and flared slacks, but far more for Bond’s exceedingly poor — and frequently contemptuous — treatment of women.

Connery’s swaggering machismo and interactions with females (even that crack about “man talk” and subsequent slap at Dink’s backside in Goldfinger) elicited wry and I assume-to-be ironic knowing laughs this summer, this from a mostly college-age and female-skewed audience. (As it happened, I was nearly the only male in the house for Goldfinger, this 4K-enhanced round.)

Connery could surely play the 1960s-era rake, but one gets the sense even half-a-century and more hence, Sean’s is a killer who at-base appreciates women, even if he isn’t always particularly polite to them, or above coldly using them to further aims on a mission as required.

Indeed, in several instances, Connery’s Bond seems truly engaged by and really affectionate toward his female leads, particularly in his first two outings, as well as in his last.

In my revisited take this round, Moore’s Bond once again never seemed honestly affectionate or even mildly kindly-disposed toward any of his leading ladies, not once.

From Roger Moore’s second outing as Bond, The Man With the Golden Gun

Fleming’s literary Bond often gets bad-rapped (at least in my estimation) for perceived misogyny.

But I’d argue Fleming’s original 007’s interactions with several of his female protagonists firmly contradicts that alleged defect.

In contrast to Moore, Dalton’s and Craig’s Bonds (certainly so in both actors’ first outings) are clearly smitten by — and even actually frequent and charming tools for — their cunning female foils.

I’ll state here that my most consistent companion throughout this summer’s “once-in-a-lifetime” viewing experience has been our now-17-year-old, youngest daughter.

Every generation has its Bond, and her 007 has been Daniel Craig (lucky kid). She appreciates and has real affection for Sean Connery.

Both our daughters came around on George Lazenby upon big-screen viewing of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service this summer.

The youngest also this time came to appreciate Timothy Dalton’s most Flemingesque Bond as a strong and honest foreshadowing of Craig’s current take on 007.

Despite much playing of Nintendo’s Goldeneye on a vintage video console we still have around, neither of our daughters is a Pierce Brosnan fan, not even a little.

And one soundly denounced Moore’s Bond for his manipulation of Solitaire in her summer’s critique of Live and Let Die, and consistently and correctly seized upon that version of Bond’s myriad other abuses of female characters in that film.

Most vintage 007 things hold up quite well, but some now offend.

(Many from the Moore era deeply offend, even eliciting some boos this summer).

Still, I’ll submit it’s impossible for anyone born after even, say, 1975, to grasp how revolutionary and influential the first few Bond films have proven.

Ernest Hemingway claimed all of American literature starts with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

I contend all of post 1962-action cinema — from Star Wars to you name it, springs from Doctor No.

Even now, with enhanced visuals and sound, the machine-gun editing speed and exaggerated sound effects of the Robert Shaw/Sean Connery brawl upon the Orient Express in From Russia With Love constitutes a revolutionary and exhilarating assault on the senses.

John Barry’s scores hold up wonderfully, even during the mostly undistinguished run of Moore era-soundtracks.

(And, please, EON, bring back David Arnold for Bond 25; much as I enjoyed Skyfall and Spectre, I’ve found the soundtracks for both films particularly un-engaging, and even more so, having heard them all again back-to-back these past weeks.)

Last night, we revisited Casino Royale: We’ve at last caught up to 21st-Century cinema James Bond.

The youngest McDonald first saw that film at nearly the same age I saw my first Bond film in 1967.

At seventeen, she got to see it better than she remembered it, in all that “crystal clear 4K.”

To watch it again in that pristine form was, for all of us, a renewed revelation and reminder how much we’ve savored Daniel Craig in the role.

And now EONs’ Bond “25” looms.

God willing, the four of us will see it together again sometime in the fall of 2018, and be enchanted anew.

My favorite Bond elements based squarely on this summer’s “enhanced” big-screen versions:

Bond Films:

  • From Russia With Love
  • Casino Royale
  • On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  • The Living Daylights

Best Soundtrack:

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Best Bonds:

  • Daniel Craig
  • Timothy Dalton
  • George Lazenby

And in class all his own:

  • Sean Connery

Youngest McDonald’s picks:

Best Bond films:

  • Casino Royale
  • From Russia With Love
  • Skyfall
  • License to Kill

Best Bonds:

  • Sean Connery
  • Daniel Craig
  • Timothy Dalton

Craig McDonald is the author of the Hector Lassiter series. A graphic novel of his Edgar Award-nominated novel HEAD GAMES will be published by First Second Books on Oct. 24.

Check out my interview with Craig from last year here.

James Ellroy Glossary

August 30, 2017

In this post our Guest Writer Jason Carter excavates and restores an early companion to the Demon Dog’s work:

James Ellroy has one of the strongest commands of language of anyone I’ve ever encountered, writer or otherwise.  I’ve often said that the Demon Dog has personally taught me more about the English language than anyone else.  This is partly why I refer to Ellroy unequivocally as my greatest teacher.

I met Ellroy for the very first time, during the Denver stop of his Blood’s A Rover tour in October, 2009, at the Tattered Cover, an iconic independent Denver bookstore.  Introducing Ellroy that night, the bookstore’s manager explicitly said that “there are many of us here at the store who believe [Mr. Ellroy] is one of the greatest writers of prose… ever.”  (You can listen to a podcast of this introduction, plus Ellroy’s wild presentation that night here)

In Reinhart Jud’s 1993 documentary Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, Ellroy acknowledges that his Lloyd Hopkins trilogy (Blood on the Moon, Because The Night, Suicide Hill) taught him the rudiments of writing, in spite of how emotionally unsatisfying those novels were for him.  With his L.A. Quartet novels and a personal challenge to make every successive novel “richer, darker, deeper, more sexed-out, weird and redemptive”, Ellroy would begin his transcendence of linguistic boundaries, and eventual vast expansion of the vocabularic capabilities of language.

Part of this complexity came about, as many discoveries do, as a byproduct of necessity.  When Ellroy submitted an 800 page manuscript for L.A. Confidential, his editor asked the Demon Dog to shorten it by 100 pages.  Most writers would accomplish this by eliminating a subplot, or even a character.  Ellroy instead focused on the book’s language and narration, cutting away unnecessary words, and stripping L.A. Confidential down to a hyper-kinetic shorthand that greatly accelerated the novel’s pace, and ultimately excised more than 200 pages from the original manuscript.

The first draft of White Jazz, written in a normal first person perspective, read flabby and excessive.  Ellroy applied his elimination technique to the L.A. Quartet’s concluding volume even more stringently than before, and thus created, in his estimation, “the perfect fever-dream voice for [White Jazz’s narrator] Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klien”.

The 2001 publication of The Cold Six Thousand would push Ellroy’s manic shorthand to its absolute apex, with each sentence stripped to its essence.  The effect is simplistic in its singularity, yet at nearly 700 pages in hardcover, pugilistic and densely baroque in its totality.  In Ellroy’s 2010 memoir, The Hilliker Curse, he says of The Cold Six Thousand, “I wanted to create a work of art both enormous and coldly perfect… I wanted readers to know that I was superior to all other writers,” while later acknowledging the severe “ass kicking” he and the book received from critics.

The Cold Six Thousand, like many of Ellroy’s latter works, is highly rhetorical, and demands to be read aloud.  When I worked in broadcasting several years ago, I would always read an Ellroy chapter or two aloud as a vocal warm-up before my radio show, or even for a long day of recording voice overs for commercials.  I wish I had recorded these Ellroy-fueled warm-up sessions; they were quite hilarious.

If you’ve ever seen Ellroy read his work for an audience, you know the Demon Dog practically bellows each sentence.  This is primarily because the books themselves are so graphic, in language and content, that to read them in anything but the most powerful tone possible would be a severe and disingenuous injustice.  The language is itself an indispensable main character.

A classical music fanatic, Ellroy has infused all his novels with more than a respectful hat tip to his icons, particularly Beethoven.  I would easily place Ellroy among a lineup of virtuosos—literary, musical and artistic alike—including Nicolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, Anthony Burgess, Hieronymus Bosch, James Joyce, Art Tatum, and more contemporarily, John Petrucci and Steve Vai.  In fact, I once described the Demon Dog to a friend as “crime fiction’s Beethoven painted by Hieronymous Bosch, as told to James Joyce, if all three were tossed into a blender and mixed on frappe.”

Chip Kidd, who has designed the cover art for all of Ellroy’s Alfred A. Knopf-published work, described the Demon Dog as “Mickey Spilane with a master’s degree…except I know that James doesn’t have a master’s degree.”

Introducing Ellroy at the Mystery Writers of America’s 2015 Grand Master ceremony, Mysterious Press owner and early Ellroy mentor Otto Penzler said the Demon Dog’s prose style “is so original, and so powerful, that I wouldn’t hesitate to call [Ellroy] the most influential American writer of the last quarter century.”

Ellroy himself has defined his distinctive style as a “heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular” with a specific employment of period-appropriate slang.  Ellroy elaborated on this in a 2010 interview with TIME Magazine:  “I love the hard-boiled school of language,” Ellroy said.  “I love scandal language, chiefly alliteration.  I love racial invective, I love Yiddish.  I love language that is vulgar, that lives on the page.”  Anyone who’s experienced an Ellroy novel can certainly confirm that the Demon Dog’s writing is as alive as a rabid pit bull.

The now-defunct fan site, accessible via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine includes a decent glossary of the countless abbreviations and colloquialisms that abound in the Demon Dog’s cannon.  I’d come across this list years ago when the site was still active.  Not long ago, I gave Ellroy a printed copy at one of his Denver film screenings.  The list is not comprehensive, but it is to date the only Ellroy glossary I’ve ever seen.  Also, it’s more beneficial to have it here than relegated to the infinite ash pile of forgotten web pages.

And, this list is arguably one of the first published companions to Ellroy’s work—predating the efforts of both Peter Wolfe and Jim Mancall.  Overall, a helpful component to understanding Ellroy’s complex and engrossing literary style.


Feel free to riff on—and possibly expand—this collection.

Here it is, hepcats:


ADW-Assault with a Deadly Weapon.
ASAC-Assistant Special Agent in Charge.
B&E-Breaking and Entering.
Bad Back Jack-John F. Kennedy.
bagman-a person who collects, carries or distributes illegal payoff money.
Beard, The-Fidel Castro.
beef-criminal charge.
Big H-heroin.
Big Q-San Quentin Prison.
(the)big nowhere-death.
blue-a uniformed cop.
bomb-to move quickly.
brace-to stop someone for questioning.
brass hat-high-ranking police officer.
bubbkis or bupkis-nothing.
bullet-one year of prison time.
buttonhole-to grab someone.
CO-Commanding Officer.
chickenhawk-child molester.
conk-head or hairdo.
DL-Driver’s License.
DT’s-symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (delerium tremens).
dagger-butch lesbian.
ding-mentally ill prisoner.
dink-drug dealer.
Dracula-Howard Hughes.

FI-Field interview. Police reports regarding the questioning of potential suspects.
finger-a witness prepared to testify against a suspect.
filch-to steal.
fish-dead body.
4F-draftee rejected for being physically unfit.
(the)fourth estate-the press.
from hunger-very bad or inept.
fur book-pornography.
ganef-theif (from the Yiddish)
gash-woman or women (in sexual context).
glom-pick up; perceive.
GTA-grand theft auto.
gunsel-armed criminal.
(the)Haircut-John F. Kennedy.
Hat Squad (the Hats)-Homicide Division.
harness bull-a uniformed cop.
heister-armed robber.
highball-v. to move quickly. n. a mixed drink; cocktail.
hink (to)-to become aware of.
hop-a narcotic drug; esp. opium
HUAC-House Un-American Activities Committee.
hype-Heroin addict.
IA or IAD-internal affairs department.
jacked-high on drugs.
jacket-reputation or police record.
jocker-male prostitute.
juke-insult or kill.
KA-known associate
kibosh-to put an end to.
knosh or nosh-eat.
lamster-fugitive from the law.
lox-low brow film.
ME-Medical Examiner.
Mickey Finn-a drink of liquor doctored with a purgative or a drug.
MO-Modus Operandi.
NMI-No Middle Initial.
PFC-Private First Class.
PO-probation officer.
qt-short for quiet.
quail-attractive woman.
quiff-gay man.
raisinjack-potent alcoholic brew made of fermented rasins.
R&I-;Records and Information department.
roundheels-a promiscuous woman.
SAC-Special Agent in Charge.
SID-Scientific Investigation Division.
SOP-Standard Operating Procedure.
SRO-Standing Room Only.
sawbuck-ten dollars.
schtup-have sex with.
scoot-a dollar.
scrape-an illegal abortion.
shakedown-to exort money from.
shill-a person who praises or publicize something or someone for reasons of self-interest.
shitbird-a contemptible person
snatch job-kidnapping.
sosh-rich kid.
statch-statutory rape.
strung-addicted to heroin.
sub rosa-secret.
swish-gay man.
trigger-a hired killer.
trotters-horse races.
twist-a woman.
wet arts-politically motivated murder.
YA-Youth Authority.

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