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America was Never Innocent: James Ellroy as Historian

October 15, 2018

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

“Our most uncompromising historian…”  This is how I described James Ellroy in my introduction to the Demon Dog’s brief 9/11 meditation “The Power of Witness” (originally published in the November, 2001 edition of GQ magazine), which I posted on the Facebook Ellroy Discussion page on the seventeenth anniversary of that fateful Tuesday.  Ellroy’s 9/11 piece is still today, as I put it in the introduction, a sobering gut punch to anyone hopped up on the fatuous fantasies of mass market nostalgia.

Any reader of the Demon Dog’s 2001 GQ feature will be instantly reminded of Ellroy’s searing one page introduction to American Tabloid (a history lesson in itself that I believe should be required reading for every American citizen), particularly that introduction’s timeless warning: “America was never innocent.”  Such a blunt and fearless proclamation is certainly echoed in “The Power of Witness”:  “We work well with blinders on.  We’re doing that now,” Ellroy wrote in one particularly jabbing paragraph in his GQ piece.  “We’re overlooking the U.S. bombs that have killed kids and women.  We’re eschewing the knowledge of how we’ve plundered for oil.  We’re denying that our misdeeds have served to make hatred cohere.”  Ellroy’s terse 9/11 meditation, delivered while the fires and molten steel at Ground Zero still burned, is thus a lone solid red flag frantically waving amid a sea of red white and blue that was conspicuously absent on September 10th.

So is James Ellroy an historian?

A classic definition of an historian is someone who researches, analyzes, records and interprets the past as recorded in a broad range of sources including government and institutional records, newspapers, photographs, interviews, films and even unpublished material like personal diaries, letters or other internal memorandum. This exhaustive list should easily remind any devoted Ellroy reader of a common feature in the Demon Dog’s novels: the often similarly amassed obsessive hoards, privately maintained, and hidden from public scrutiny by detectives driven mad by an investigation-turned-obsession spiralling out of control.

dark ellroy america 4

Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race. The Demon Dog spoke about this process in a 2014 interview with Evan Smith.  “I’m a yearner,” Ellroy said.  “…Why do people do what they do? … What is America’s destiny?…”

Ellroy is particularly concerned—obsessed even—with tracing the origin of misdeeds, convinced that the forerunners of a ghastly crime can be glimpsed by examining someone’s shattered upbringing. Ellroy mentions this obsession in his 9/11 meditation:  “Track the lives of the […] perpetrators.  You’ll find the traumatic childhoods that spawn hatred.  You’ll find a range of incident and circumstance that explicates but never justifies.”  Even with his mother’s killer, Ellroy has publicly said he would like to trace the roots of the killer back to infancy to learn why the man murdered his mother…  This is without question the action of an historian.

Ellroy actually personifies an historian in Blood’s A Rover’s window-peeping narrator Don Crutchfield, who amasses a range of historical sources like those mentioned earlier.  Crutchfield calls himself “a literary executor and an agent provocatuer,” but stops just short of the H word, all while Crutch’s actions more than spell it out.  This is a demonstration of integrity both on the part of Crutch (who is based on the real life celebrity private investigator Don Crutchfield) and even Ellroy himself:  After giving us endless fictional examples of disingenuous duplicity in his books, it’s refreshing to see Ellroy produce a character who embodies his occupation so completely and consciously, that he’s too busy to tell you he’s an historian.  The same could be said for James Ellroy.

In chapter 69 of Perfidia, Kay Lake delivers a speech that serves unwittingly as a primer for the chaotic thirty-one-year storyline to come…  No spoilers here, but Kay’s speech outlines Ellroy’s philosophy of history, and even includes a line that should make any reader of Blood’s A Rover sit up in their chair.  On a deeper level, you could even call Kay’s speech a companion to Ellroy’s American Tabloid introduction, describing even more deeply an America sculpted by violence, and yet rising to a momentous occasion as it steps into its greatness.  This is Ellroy’s morality on clear display, and could even be called Ellrovian Social Activism.  Kay’s speech foreshadows the lessons of Blood’s A Rover, most notably that the future—no matter how bleak it may seem—is uncertain, and the choice is entirely yours.

Ellroy would spell out his unique philosophy of history more completely in the essay, appropriately titled “Ellroy’s History—Then and Now” which concluded the limited edition hardcover Waterstones edition of Perfidia.

The essay begins with a quote from Ross Macdonald, whom Ellroy has called one of his greatest teachers.  “In the end, I possess my birthplace, and am possessed by its language.”  Readers of the L.A. Quartet will recall that Ellroy began that body of work’s concluding volume, White Jazz, with this same Macdonald quote.  It foreshadows a piece of wisdom Ellroy would make his own many years later:  “Geography is destiny.”

Across a succinct 4,000 words, Ellroy unfurls a layered narrative of his ascension as an historical novelist, ultimately giving us—in panoramic technicolor—the grand sweep of history… at least the past 72 years of history.   This is something many novelists spend entire careers trying to achieve (most fail).  If you think 4,000 words is hardly succinct, then I urge you to juxtapose Ellroy’s Waterstones history lesson against the bloated, tediously over-descripted historical fiction of James Michener, among others.

Here’s a sample passage:

“Hitler murdered Jews in Germany while American demagogues raged that Jews engineered the war.  Anti-communist Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with anti-fascist Joe Stalin and invaded Russia anyway.  American Leftists hated Hitler and forgave Uncle Joe for his temporary lapse in good taste.  They dutifully ignored Stalin’s agrarian purges that left millions dead.  The Left hates the Right.  The Chinese hate the Japanese.  The Irish hate the English and vice versa.  The German Lutheran-Catholic rift dates back to the Reformation and the Thirty Years War.  Right wing nuts hold that the Jews invented Communism and Wall Street.  Fascist Spaniards hate Loyalist Spaniards.  Left wing eugenicists want to build strong human beings to fight the fascist beast.  Fascist eugenicists want to build a master race.  The Nazi Health Ministry offers breeding bonuses to good looking Aryan Women. 

Welcome to the world wide web, 1941.  That’s the way it was Then.  Don’t tell me that we’ve got it bad Now.”

As a forerunner to this grand sweep, I was reminded of several chapters from the second volume of Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand.  These chapters are often consumed by vertical lists of newspaper headlines from all over the U.S., illuminating portions of the story the characters cannot in a literary technique known as false document, with some lists continuing for nearly five pages.

“History was my birthright,” Ellroy writes in the Waterstones essay.  “I […] lived in books and films depicting the swirl of time before my time.”  As Ellroy goes on to explain, the future Demon Dog learned about ubiquitous duplicity and expedience early in life: “Adults lied to kids and engaged assignations.  Lies mean that something else really happened.  What really happened? I’ll never know.  I’ll have to concoct a story to make it all plausible and sexy.”

… Or, in the case of mass market consumption, uncomplicated, and compressed into a threadbare (and fatuously expedient) narrative.

From the second paragraph of Ellroy’s second novel Clandestine, the book’s narrator and protagonist, Fred Underhill cautions us against the implicit dangers of such willfully blind indifference in a warning that foreshadows his creator’s incendiary introduction to American Tabloid some 13 years later:  “nostalgia vicitimizes the unknowing by instilling in them a desire for simplicity and innocence they can never achieve.”

Such disingenuous re-writing of history is also something recently referenced by Ellroy scholar Nathan Ashman, who astutely observed that the plastic surgery motif in Ellroy’s novels is an obvious nod toward concealing the ugly scars of past abuse; just as fatuously grand ideologies like “liberty” and “democracy” and an overall false historical narrative hide the actual bloodshed, misery, abuse, exploitation, and conspiracy that fueled progress.

“Someone always survives to tell you the story and what it all means.  That’s my job.”  Ellroy concludes a few paragraphs in his Waterstones essay about the Underworld USA’s concluding volume Blood’s A Rover here with this hallowed assignation.  I said something similar to Ellroy last year during one of our many conversations at his Denver film series.  I remarked to Ellroy how readers should think of Don Crutchfield as an Ellrovian Ishmael. Like Herman Melville’s sole survivor, the traumatized Crutchfield is saddled with the burden of having to tell the tale, and, as Grant Nebel has observed, accept and condone history’s legacy, a permanent bloodstain that steals your innocence…This is the “dear and savage price to live history” Crutch mentions at Rover’s end.

Stephen King once wrote that “fiction is the truth inside the lie,” implying that fiction is not bound by the obligatory strictures of non-fiction, and can thus, ironically, expose the brutal truth of the matter with built-in impunity.  I witnessed this very process earlier this year during Noir City Denver, when Ellroy and Eddie Muller were discussing the salacious lives of 1950s Hollywood stars.  In deference to his journalistic roots, Eddie told us he always sought multiple sources of verification for every bit of tattle he ever learned, in rather sharp contrast to Ellroy.  “James is a novelist; he can say whatever he wants.”

 

Jason Carter

 

** I formally call upon William Heinemann, Alfred A Knopf, and/or the Waterstones bookstore to launch a mass-market reprint of the Waterstones Edition of Perfidia, and/or include Ellroy’s Then & Now essay in a future printing of Perfidia.  The essay is one of Ellroy’s finest works, and deserves an unlimited worldwide release.

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Gallows Court: An Interview with Martin Edwards

September 25, 2018

Gallows Court is the new novel by Martin Edwards. The setting is London, 1930. A series of violent murders, the details as gruesome as the Ripper case, has horrified the capital. Rachel Savernake is the enigmatic heiress at the heart of the mystery. Brilliant, beautiful and cruel, Savernake solved the Chorus Girl Murder and is on the hunt of another killer. Yet, she is equally adept at using violence for her own ends.

Jacob Flint is the cub reporter temporarily working the crime beat at The Clarion. He instinctively feels there is more to Savernake than meets the eye and starts tracking her ruthless misadventures across foggy London town. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation at an ancient place of execution – Gallows Court.

Edwards previous work includes the Harry Devlin novels and the Lake District Mysteries. He is also the author of the acclaimed critical study, The Golden Age of Murder and editor of the hugely popular British Library Crime Classics series. Gallows Court is a change of direction for the author, being a blood-drenched thriller with a 1930s setting immersed in Gothic atmosphere. I was floored by the novel’s riveting blend of action and intrigue, terrific pacing and compelling characters, particularly the unforgettable Rachel Savernake.

I first met Martin when he was a guest at the Visions of Noir conference I organised in Liverpool in 2015. He’s always been enthusiastic and generous, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed by me about his new novel. The following exchange was conducted by email.

Interviewer: What was the genesis of the idea for Gallows Court? Is it something that you had been toying with for a while, or did it come to you on impulse?

Edwards: After writing seven Lake District Mysteries, I was keen to try to write something very different. I’m always looking to stretch myself as a novelist, and two ideas competed for attention. One was a present day novel of psychological suspense, the other was a story set in the 1930s, a decade which I’d researched extensively and which fascinated me. When the idea of the character of Rachel Savernake came to me, that made up my mind- she belonged to the 1930s, without question. I wrote a short story about her first, just to make sure that she was someone I was comfortable to write a whole novel about, since that would mean a commitment of a couple of years (or three, as it turned out!) I’ve not tried to sell or publish the story, but it was a worthwhile writing exercise, a sort of limbering up for the long haul of writing a fairly unorthodox novel.

Interviewer: The narrative deals with doubling and switching of identities, often in terms of the morality of the characters and their motivations. It made me wonder were there any real-life inspirations for the characters of Rachel Savernake and Jacob Flint?

Edwards: No. I’ve written one book which was inspired by a real life character – my only other historical novel, Dancing for the Hangman, which is about the life and misadventures of Dr Crippen. This time I wanted to work entirely with characters from my own imagination.

Interviewer: You’re well-known as a historian of Golden Age detective fiction with an encyclopedic knowledge of writers of that period. Can you indicate which Golden Age writers, if any, were an influence on the novel.

Edwards: The influences were indirect rather than direct. I have long been interested in the fact that the Detection Club, set up in 1930, did not allow thriller writers to join for more than 20 years. This was because the likes of Sapper were not deemed to be good enough writers. Dorothy L Sayers, who reviewed crime fiction for the Sunday Times for two and a half years, was scathing in her assessment of the literary merits of most thrillers. So I was tempted by the idea of trying to write a thriller set in the 1930s which might have been literate and thought-provoking enough to pass muster even with Sayers. What I was not trying to do was to write a pastiche Golden Age whodunit. Plenty of those are being written nowadays, very capably. I set myself the task of trying to write a book that was avowedly and unashamedly commercial yet very different from other books set in the period (whether written then or now).

Interviewer: Some of the murder scenes have a Grand Guignol Hammer Horror feel to them. How did you approach the writing of these scenes, and were you worried that they would go too far?

Edwards: There is indeed a Grand Guignol element in some of the crimes, and again this reflects my attempt to write a thriller that was dramatic, and in some passages melodramatic, while fusing a 1930s ambience with a modern psychological sensibility. I was attempting to write a book that was packed with classic Golden Age elements – a killing in a locked room, a cipher, a secret underground passage, conjuror’s illusions, and so on – and which wove together several intricate puzzles, yet was by no means purely cerebral. A thriller has to thrill, and I wanted the story to be entertaining, first and foremost. That excellent crime writer Michael Gilbert used to argue that thrillers were harder to write than whodunits, and he may have had a point; I’ve written plenty of whodunits, but it seems to me that the best thriller writers (like Lee Child and John Buchan) have a flair for keeping readers on the edge of their chairs, and that’s what I was trying to do. So in writing the most dramatic scenes (especially in the theatre, the Hannaways’ house, and in Gallows Court at the end) I was consciously testing the boundaries of credibility while trying to make sure the reader wanted to keep turning the pages. All of this was, of course, inevitably a high risk strategy. I was writing without a contract of any kind, and could not be sure that I’d be able to write a book which satisfied me, or would be accepted for publication. But I persuaded myself that it was a risk worth taking. I’ve always been a fairly ambitious writer, and if I stand back and look at my output over the years, I feel that it is certainly very varied. I also like to believe that I continue to improve as a writer.

Interviewer: There are lots of twists and turns in Gallows Court, so I was surprised when I read you started writing without a plot outline. Did this require a lot of revisions to make all of the plot contortions fit seamlessly?

Author Martin Edwards

Edwards:  I decided from the outset that because this book was to be very different from my previous work, I’d write it in a different way. I was fascinated by the idea of Rachel, this mysterious, very rich, and very ruthless young woman who appears from nowhere and involves herself with bizarre murder mysteries, and she was the starting point. Jacob came later, since I realised I needed an ‘ordinary person’ viewpoint character with whom readers could identify to some extent. With my whodunits, I’ve always known who the murderer is, who the victim is, and what is the motive. The test I set myself here was to figure out how to make sense of a complex and mysterious scenario. Many of the major twists (including the crime at the theatre, and the events at the bungalow Jacob visits) occurred to me during the course of writing, rather than forming part of an initial plan. I did a great deal of rewriting to fit it all together in a way that was (I hoped) seamless. What I try to do as a writer is to create characters who (even if described in a fairly straightforward way) have some depth to them, some potential. This is the case with certain characters who meet an unfortunate end in the novel; their misfortune was to interest me so much that I created in my mind backstories for them which meant that someone had a reason to kill them!

Interviewer: The narrative jumps between the remote Gaunt island and a menacing London, and a 1919 and 1930 setting. How did you approach historical research and period details?

Edwards: While working on The Golden Age of Murder in particular I did a great deal of research into life in Britain in the 1930s, reading many books written during that decade, and also many histories of the period. Of course, I did need to research some points specific to the story – for instance, the tea room in Oxford, the restaurant where Rachel goes to lunch, the nature of newspapers in the 30s, and the conjuring illusion which plays a part in the storyline.

Interviewer: Finally, and without giving away any spoilers, could Gallows Court be the start of a new series with the same longevity as the Harry Devlin novels and the Lake District mysteries?

Edwards: There is going to be a sequel to Gallows Court, for sure, and I wrote the story with that possibility very much in mind. Beyond that, who knows?

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.

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

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