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James Ellroy: A Life in Documentary

December 1, 2020

Few living writers have inspired as many documentaries as James Ellroy. For fans and researchers of the Demon Dog of Crime Fiction these films are invaluable source, offering both a good summation of his life and work, as well as morsels of information that you won’t find elsewhere. In the following post I’m going to provide an overview of the Ellroy documentaries. I won’t include segments and TV specials as they are so numerous it would be an exhausting exercise. Instead I will focus on the definitive documentaries and, while I have my preferences, I heartily recommend them all.

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction (1993)

It’s rather appropriate that all of the great Ellroy documentaries have been European productions, given that Ellroy’s popularity and critical reputation has always been slightly higher in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, for example, than it has been in his home country. This excellent documentary was made by the Austrian filmmakers Reinhard Judd and Wolfgang Lehner. Shot in the early 1990s, the film follows Ellroy while on a book tour for White Jazz. It captures LA’s film noir heritage and its sleazy contemporary identity. There’s also some great footage of Ellroy in his Eastchester office with his beloved Barko. Some sources state this film was released in 1998. That was a re-release. The film premiered at film festivals in 1993. Therefore, it is the first full-length Ellroy documentary.

White Jazz (1995)

Nicola Black’s compelling portrait of Ellroy was filmed while the author was investigating his mother’s murder with retired detective Bill Stoner. It features re-enactments by Ellroy and Stoner of the first time Ellroy read his mother’s homicide file. There is also a scene in which actors portray Ellroy’s mother and the Swarthy Man. It imagines Jean’s final moments and, while the scene could have easily backfired, it is handled sensitively and well. This British documentary is Ellroy’s favourite of the films made about him. The only drawback is it’s difficult to find a copy, but well worth the effort in tracking down.

James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (2001)

Vikram Jayanti made possibly the most ambitious film about Ellroy. There are scenes with Ellroy in his home in Mission Hills, talking to cousins in Wisconsin, discussing the Kennedy assassination with Rick Jackson at Dealey Plaza, and of course there is plenty of footage of Ellroy in LA. There are long scenes with Ellroy dining with LAPD and LASD detectives at the Pacific Dining Car. True Crime buffs should especially enjoy the restaurant scene where Larry Harnisch describes his research on the Black Dahlia case to a roomful of sceptical detectives.

James Ellroy: American Dog (2005)

The father and daughter filmmaking team of Robert and Clara Kuperberg captured Ellroy living back in LA in the mid-Noughties. It was the height of Ellroy’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter and, as you might expect from a French production, this documentary has an effortlessly beautiful film noir tone. There are revealing scenes of Ellroy lunching at the Pacific Dining Car with his Hollywood friends. The DVD special features includes more scenes of these legendary feasts at Ellroy’s favourite restaurant which has recently folded. Another business which has sadly fallen prey to the pandemic.

The four films listed above are, to me, the seminal works on Ellroy. But there are certainly other films that warrant discussion, such as the episode of Unsolved Mysteries which examines Jean Ellroy’s murder. Over to you dear readers. Which of these documentaries is your favourite, or is there other footage out there of Ellroy that is particularly important to you?

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester 2014

The Man in Black: Wales’ Worst Serial Killer by Dylan Rhys Jones

November 8, 2020

The first thing I should say about this terrific memoir is that it is not a book about a serial killer, and that’s one of its strongest features. Murderers get books written about them, their victims seldom do. Psychopaths are superficially charming, but they are never deep or interesting. The Man in Black is the fascinating story of the lawyer who had the dubious role of defending Peter Moore, a seemingly mild-mannered cinema chain owner accused of murdering four men and carrying out a string of violent sex attacks.

A phone call on December 21, 1995 changed Dylan Rhys Jones life forever. He was running a successful legal firm and was asked to report to Llandudno police station. The police had arrested Jones’ client Peter Moore, a well-known local entrepreneur, on suspicion of murder. Jones had always found Moore to be affable and polite. At the police station Moore was keeping up this pretence and seemed completely unfazed by the seriousness of the charge against him. At first Jones thinks he has a good case in defending Moore, but then the evidence starts to mount. The police can put Moore’s van at the crime scene. They are testing his knives for blood and find Nazi paraphernalia in his home. Soon Moore makes a confession which he quickly retracts, claiming the real murderer is a man named ‘Jason’ who he was trying to protect through a bogus admission of guilt. Moore’s case will go to trial and Jones has the impossible task of defending a suspect who has already confessed to the murders. As a lawyer, Jones displays a firm grasp of the legal procedures when telling the story. This might be too much for readers looking for gory details, but personally I found it to be exactly the right approach. The reader is left in no doubt that Moore received a fair trial, if anything his love of the limelight is over-indulged as he is gurning for the photographers every morning he is brought to court from jail. The verdict in the case will not come as a surprise, even if the reader has never heard of Peter Moore before this book. But although justice is done efficiently, the wounds do not heal so easily. Jones fulfilled his duty and did the best he could for his client, but he was left mentally scarred by the experience. Depression dogged him for several years resulting in a nervous breakdown for which he was hospitalised. Jones is brave and candid in writing about his struggles and its impossible not to be moved by these passages, wherever the reader happens to be on their mental health journey.

My father hailed from Mold and I remember visiting many of the north Wales locations described in this book a lot as a child. They can be peaceful and charming, but not a lot happens, and I guess they’re not well-suited to a restless child’s temperament. But after reading The Man in Black, I can understand the terror the local communities must have felt when the full horror of Moore’s crimes was revealed. Perhaps with DNA evidence the era of the serial killer is over, and that society may never sees the like of Peter Moore again. Then hopefully the peaceful, charming and slightly dull north Wales I remember can be protected from the monsters of the past.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: The Long Halloween

October 24, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the eighth 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 and Seven.

Milwaukee Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer’s greatest achievement was his innovative establishment of a police training school that would later become the model for police schools nationwide.

According to police historian George Kelling, Captain Cloyd McGuire was appointed principal of the school, and he remained there until Hubert Dax was put in command in February, 1935.  Dax had been assigned as a pistol instructor while still a sergeant. Later, as lieutenant, Dax was appointed assistant in charge of the school, and put in full command as captain of police. Under Dax’s leadership, the police training school attracted worldwide acclaim.

While some of the more senior MPD members viewed the school with sneering distrust, the curriculum was professional and practical. As Maralyn Wellauer-Lewis details in her brief history of the Milwaukee Police Department, classes included criminal law, city ordinance, department rules and regulations, department discipline, evidence and its proper presentation, and target practice.

For their first 30 days on the job, all new recruits were required to attend three hours of school each morning for theoretical training, and then shadow a senior officer for five hours in the evening for practical experience.  After the initial 30 days, all members were required to attend the school one day each week.

The training school was housed in the newly-built safety building, a vast improvement from the old police station on Broadway and Wells street. The school’s basement housed a shooting gallery where regular target practice was mandatory. Ear protection was non-existent at the time, and many officers—particularly the range masters, suffered permanent hearing loss.

The effectiveness of Jacob Laubenheimer’s police training school, and even the resolve of his own police department, would be severely tested when the Cream City fell victim to a horrendous nine-day bombing campaign in late October, 1935.

The bombers were Hugh “Idzy” Rutkowski and Paul “Shrimp” Chovanec, two shitbird lowlifes who each harbored a systemic distrust of the law. As Matthew Prigge recounts in a 2014 piece for the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Rutkowski was a talented but troubled young man.  Despite plans for a career in auto mechanics, Rutkowski instead racked up a string of arrests for a range of petty crimes (It’s hard not to be reminded of a young Lee Earle Ellroy here).

Unable to find work, Rutkowski quickly developed a reputation as a local thug, and soon dubbed himself leader of a small clan of auto thieves that Prigge refers to as “the Rutkowski Gang.” Idzi Rutkowski’s numerous run-ins with the Milwaukee Police naturally engendered an outright hatred for authority figures. As Rutkowski would tell his older sister Elaine, during one of his arrests, the arresting officer smashed Rutkowski’s head with a night stick simply because Rutkowski answered the officer’s questions too slowly.

According to Prigge, Rutkowski’s accomplice, Paul Chovanec, earned the moniker “Shrimp” because of his exceptionally small frame. In 1934, Chovanec was arrested for stealing cigarettes, and sentenced to six months in Milwaukee’s St. Charles Detention Home for Boys. While Chovanec completed his sentence, Rutkowski sought work with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who coldly rejected him.

Idzi Rutkwoski

Paul ‘Shrimp’ Chovanec

At some time during the evening of October 2nd, 1935, three 50-pound crates of explosives, two-hundred feet of fuse, and 300 blasting caps were stolen from a CCC camp in northeast Milwaukee’s Estabrook Park. As Prigge details it, police theorized that the thief clearly had extensive knowledge of how the typically well-patrolled park operated.

Rutkowski and Chovanec stored their stolen dynamite at the Mitchell Street garage where “The Rutkowski Gang” convened. Over the next three weeks, Rutkowski and Chovanec began stocking stolen cars with dynamite and weapons and storing the vehicles in several garages across Milwaukee’s south side.

In easily their most daring catch, Rutkowski and Chovanec even stole an unattended west Milwaukee police squad car, stripped it of its lights, sirens, and police radio, and then abandoned the vehicle on a deserted city street. On October 26, Milwaukee police opened an investigation of Rutkowski, suspecting him of a hit-and-run accident that left a 70-year-old man gravely injured.

Rutkowski’s suspicious neighbors quickly ratted him out, giving police at least two separate leads that exposed Rutkowski’s secret arsenal.  Although two Milwaukee police officers visited the building, they carried no search warrant, and Rutkowski wasn’t even there.

It was Saturday, October 26, 1935, and as Milwaukee Historian Carl Swanson put it, this was the last normal day the Cream City would experience for quite some time…

This Storm         

The Shorewood Village Hall on Murray Avenue was the first target.  Five sticks of dynamite wrapped in newspaper smashed a two-foot hole through the concrete veneer, and buckled the foundation. As Swanson tells it, the blast also shattered all the windows on two sides of the building, uprooted the landscaping around the foundation, and destroyed an antique chandelier.

Federal agents arrived on the scene and told reporters the explosion was an amateur job. The investigation into the Shorewood bombing wasn’t even complete before two more blasts at two branch offices of the First Wisconsin National Bank the very next night, October 27th, sent Milwaukee into panic.

The first bomb blasted a 20-square-foot hole through the branch at 3602 North Villard Ave and shattered the windows.  Thirty minutes later, a second blast on Milwaukee’s east side blew a massive hole in the ground and damaged at least eight cars parked along the street.  According to a 2012 blog by the Milwaukee Polonia Project, most of the explosion’s force shot outward, because the dynamite was planted near the ground.

As Prigge tells it, Rutkowski and Chovanec bolted from one scene to another in a stolen Sedan outfitted with the gear the pair lifted from the west Milwaukee squad car. The pair then stashed the gear in their hideout garage on south thirteenth street, donned masks and sawed-off shotguns, and rejoined the chaos they created on the city’s east side, robbing two pharmacies along the way.

By Monday morning, the Milwaukee police had connected the blasts to the stolen dynamite from Estabrook Park, and warned citizens to brace for more attacks. Rutkowski and Chovanec’s targeting a bank naturally drew some federal attention. The newspapers called them “G-men”, and they were ready to slap the still-unknown perps with federal charges.

That afternoon, according to Prigge, Rutkowski assembled yet another explosive device, and dropped the package at a fire alarm box at the corner of Farwell and Park. The package bore a handwritten note, demanding $100,000, and promising a spectacular explosion for Sunday night.

Later that night, Rutkowski broke into the Center Street School in the Riverwest neighborhood and wrote another note to police on the school principal’s typewriter. This second note, later read on-air by WTMJ Radio, now demanded $125,000 and threatened to “Bom up the Sity” (Rutkowski’s mis-spellings were apparently deliberate) if police, whom the note mocked as “fat pigs” and “sissy boys” refused.  Rutkowski’s deadline was Friday at 8 p.m.

For the next 48 hours, nothing happened. Extra patrols were dispatched to city banks. The police, who initially kept the contents of both notes secret, focused their investigation on established local radicals, shitbird lunatics, and those recently released from Wisconsin’s Central Hospital for the Insane at Waupun.

 

Widespread Panic

Halloween night arrived in the Cream City beneath a portentous, ochre sunset… it was an unheeded harbinger of hysteria the next morning’s paper would call “mass chaos”.

A single stick of dynamite tore a massive gash in the fifth precinct police station at Third and Locust, shattering  all the windows and the Cream City’s nervous quiet. As Prigge tells it, the third precinct station at 12th and Vine was similarly crippled just eleven minutes later. While three police cruisers and a roomful of expensive radio equipment were lost, the only reported human injury was an officer smashed headlong into a heavy door.

Rutkowski and Chovanec certainly knew how to run interference during such a melee. According to Prigge, the pair tripped several fire alarms surrounding the two targeted stations, creating a chaotic and panicked confusion for the responding officers on Milwaukee’s north and west sides.

November dawned with all active Milwaukee police officers summoned to duty, and small camps of armed citizens surrounding downtown buildings and theaters.

Several witnesses reported seeing a police vehicle near the blasts that did not match the department’s patrol records.  Such evidence fueled the suspicion that the bombers may be using gear stolen from the west Milwaukee squad car. Accordingly, traumatized Milwaukeeans regarded every passing squad car with suspicion and distrust.

That evening, Milwaukee police launched raids on taverns and pubs. As Prigge tells it, any man who failed to provide a “satisfactory account” of himself was arrested as a suspected accomplice of the bombers.  While the raids apprehended at least 50 men, most were released the next day, and/or charged with far lesser offences. Once again, Milwaukee’s finest were left empty handed, though the Milwaukee Sentinel advised citizens to expect even more raids in the future.

 

Police State

The raids were just the first wave of what became a makeshift marshall law: Men stood sentry outside municipal powerhouses and substations, while floodlights canvassed the grounds of public buildings and armed officers nearly out-numbered pedestrians.

By Saturday, November 2nd, an army of private security agents joined police officers to guard Milwaukee’s public buildings. Police issued special rules for accessing City Hall, and hundreds of plainclothes officers patrolled the streets, searching for something—anything—to restore tranquility.

Police headquarters was inundated with dozens of reported sightings of the stolen squad car. None of these leads proved credible. Anxiety and paranoia dominated Milwaukee as citizens and police alike all waited helplessly for the next explosion.

 

Hushabye

James Ellroy has often spoken of crime scenes exhibiting an essence that is both horrific and pathetic. The most unintended denouement of Rutkowski and Chovanec’s nine-day Milwaukee crime wave would certainly fit the Demon Dog’s assessment.

According to Prigge, a careless mistake would ensure that the next bomb’s only casualties were Rutkowski and Chovanec themselves. The bombers had assembled their most ambitious device to date, a gargantuan dynamite load detonated with a gunpowder charge and ignited with an electric timing device.  It was quite a sophisticated upgrade from their typical and amateur fuse-lit explosives.

Though Rutkowski and Chovanec had intended to detonate the bomb in the city, while wiring an alarm clock to the device, the electrical circuit connected to the gunpowder blasting caps somehow ignited. The ensuing explosion, encompassing both nitroglycerin and at least 40 pounds of dynamite, vaporized Rutkowski and Chovanec, who both stood just inches from the device.

A nearby pharmacy and several surrounding homes were decimated, and a young girl was killed when a falling wooden beam crushed her skull. The blast also catapulted the garage’s roof high into the air, and dropped it in the middle of Mitchell Street, hundreds of feet away. The noise of the explosion was heard for at least seven miles.

Two Milwaukee detectives interviewing area residents in the hit-and-run investigation against Rutkowski were the first on the scene. They were forced to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland of broken glass, twisted metal, smoke, dust, agonized sobs, and more than a few mutilated body parts from Rutkowski or Chovanec.

The unnerving calm of the immediate aftermath was quickly replaced with a shrieking symphony of sirens. An army of squad cars and ambulances descended on the scene, as police haphazardly collected the human remains and a torrential downpour began.

According to Carl Swanson, Rutkowski’s motives remained elusive and unknown. Some speculated that Rutkowski’s resentment over his chronic unemployment amid the Great Depression’s sixth excruciating year was a factor, while others saw him merely as a thuggish bully.

The Milwaukee Journal later reported that Rutkowski and Chovanec’s mutilated remains were so horribly indistinguishable, the terrible twosome were eventually buried in the same coffin.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

 

The Monorail Trilogy: When the James Bond Franchise Ruled the (Movie) World

October 11, 2020

I should have seen it coming. Our campuses are empty. The high street is a ghost town. Only the pubs are doing good business, when the pubs are allowed to stay open. So I guess it was inevitable that the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, has had its release date delayed again, this time until April 2021. Who knows what the world will look like then, and how relevant Bond 25 will seem but, rather than drown my sorrows in Vodka Martini’s, I decided to revisit some of the films.

The three Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert, You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) were dubbed by MI6 Confidential magazine as ‘the Monorail Trilogy’. Each film features a megalomaniac villain who, in addition to his plans to take over the world, appears to be a fan of installing one-way railway systems in his evil lair. The plots of the three films are remarkably similar and the epic, bombastic tone of the trilogy captures much of the best and worst of the Bond series. If you have never seen a Bond film (and there must be a few of you out there), then these three would be a good place to start to see where so many spy cliches originated and why the series is so often imitated and lampooned.

You Only Live Twice

Gilbert was a prolific director whose output veered more towards war films and comedy dramas. In that sense, he might have seemed an odd choice to helm You Only Live Twice but he embraced the spectacle of the Bond films and did much to increase it. A NASA spacecraft is swallowed whole by a larger, unidentified craft. Bond is sent to Japan to follow a lead that the hijacked vessel may have landed there. When the same fate befalls a Russian spacecraft, the world is pushed to the brink of World War Three, with both superpowers blaming each other. Bond discovers his old adversary SPECTRE is behind the plot. SPECTRE’s follicly challenged leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld dreams of world domination once the US and Soviet Union have annihilated each other.

Bond finally came face to face with Blofeld in You Only Live Twice

YOLT’s absurd plot caused Sean Connery to finally lose patience with the series. An uncharacteristically dull performance by Connery, exacerbated by his feud with the producers and the stress of filming in Japan where Bond was wildly popular, hampered the film. Yet, there is still much to admire here. John Barry’s lush score beautifully evokes the Asian setting. Gilbert brings an art house sensibility to some of the action scenes. The rooftop chase across the Kobe Docks is beautifully shot, as the camera pans back and captures the full scope of the scene. Gilbert, and screenwriter Roald Dahl, aren’t afraid to make Bond look small on this cinematic canvas. Ken Adam created a remarkable movie set for them to shoot on, with Blofeld’s volcano lair, complete with rocket launchpad, piranha pool and, of course, a monorail.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Four Bond films had been produced before Lewis Gilbert was invited back to do another film in the series. After the excesses of YOLT Bond had shifted into more of a detective character and the films had stronger plots. But The Man With The Golden Gun had suffered at the box office due to a lack of strong action sequences, and Gilbert was keen to reintroduce the fantasy elements. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore has settled into the character of Bond and the spectacular pre-credits sequence, in which Bond skis off a clifftop only to be saved by his Union Jack parachute, signals to the audience that we are in for something special. The plot is very similar to YOLT, only this time it is a submarine which is swallowed by a larger ship. Arch-Villain Stromberg is trying to provoke nuclear war as an excuse to build a new underwater civilisation. Silliness abounds, but Moore is totally comfortable with it, as is the beautiful Barbara Bach who plays his love interest, Russian spy Anya Amasova. Gilbert can still create sequences which are arty and beguiling. The scene where Jaws is stalking Fekkesh through the Pyramids against the backdrop of a tourist show is one of the most suspenseful and chilling moments in the entire series. Once again, Ken Adam’s production design does not disappoint. The Liparus supertanker set was one of the largest sets ever constructed at the time and is said to have inspired Norman Foster’s design of Canary Wharf Station. Naturally, Stromberg has a monorail and it seems to run more smoothly than most Tube services.

Stromberg’s Liparus Supertanker

Moonraker

Gilbert’s final film in the series was Moonraker. Often considered his weakest, the film is a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the Star Wars sci-fi craze. The plot is still very Bondian and similar to Gilbert’s previous films. A space shuttle is stolen and the trail leads Bond to Hugo Drax, the billionaire head of the manufacturing company that produces the shuttle. Drax’s dastardly plan is to poison all of humanity from space, and then repopulate the earth with his Aryan employees. For years, this was my least favourite Bond film and certainly there’s a lot wrong with it. The Amazon speedboat chase is a lifeless affair, with Bond just pushing buttons on gadgets to dispose of the bad guys. The slapstick humour in the first half is especially grating. However, upon rewatching the film recently, I found the second half to be much stronger. Ironically, the film gets more serious and convincing once Bond travels to space. An operatic score by John Barry coupled with the biblical parallels of the story, Drax’s ‘Noah’s Ark’ operation, make this one of the most unique Bond films. To be fair to the producers, the series had dabbled in science fiction before, and Bond was only moments away from being shot into space in YOLT, so it feels right that with Gilbert’s farewell to the series he finally managed to complete Bond’s journey. Moonraker also has one my favourite scenes of any movie. Bond being lured by a beautiful woman to an Edenic Amazonian pyramid, only to find a serpent is waiting for him. Gilbert excelled at imagery such as this.

Once Gilbert walked away from the series, he returned to the comedy dramas for which he was known best. The Bond films got serious again with For Your Eyes Only, and would go through several more changes in tone in the ensuing decades. The Monorail trilogy achieved several stylistic tropes for better or worse. They discarded much of Ian Fleming’s writing and forged original Bond stories. They pushed the Cold War setting into the background to tell fantastical stories of villains bent on global domination. And they made sure the action and settings were spectacular and breathtaking enough to help the audience forgive their flaws. In this, they were successful. Goldfinger and Casino Royale, for example, might be better Bond films, but the Monorail Trilogy stands out as what the audience expects from a Bond film.

Just don’t expect the next Bond film to be released any time soon…

Eureka – Flashback to a Forgotten Film

September 27, 2020

If you’re a film buff and you’ve watched your way through lists of the greatest films ever made, occasionally stopping to think how on earth did certain films get on the list (American Beauty?), then you may also be interested in films which can be deemed ‘interesting failures’.

One film that could fall under such a classification would be Eureka. It has many of the key ingredients of an ‘interesting failure’ – a director (Nicolas Roeg) who had gained the attention of Hollywood after a string of critical successes, a dynamite cast of newcomers and established stars, a big budget and epic story involving exotic locations, rich period detail and a real-life unsolved mystery. Oh, and there’s some twisted romance and kinky sex thrown in. Eureka could have been a smash hit but it was critically panned and widely considered a misfire in the career of everyone involved. Having watched the film a few times, there’s no doubt in my mind that the film fails as a mystery drama, and yet I’m drawn back to its compelling power.

The story begins in the Klondike in 1925. Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) has been searching for gold without success for fifteen years. Driven to the point of insanity by solitude and arctic conditions, he eventually finds a mountain of gold. Flush with success, he asks his dying lover Frieda, a whorehouse sibyl, what will happen next. She responds ‘A mystery. The end of the beginning. There’ll be another after you. After the war’. The action cuts to 1945. It’s the final days of World War Two and a now ageing McCann is living in regal splendour in a sprawling mansion named Eureka on a Caribbean Island. All is not well though. His daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) has married a French playboy, Claude Maillot Van Horn (Rutger Hauer). McCann detests his son-in-law who accuses him of stealing his wealth because he ‘took it from nature. You raped the earth.’ But McCann has a much more dangerous enemy to worry about. A Miami based financier/gangster Mayakofsky (played by Joe Pesci and the character is loosely based on Meyer Lansky) wants McCann to sell his land so he can build a luxury casino and hotel. Mayakofsky sends his smooth-talking lawyer Aurelio (Mickey Rourke) and a bunch of heavies to ‘convince’ McCann. McCann refuses to sell-up.

Eureka has a solid noir premise. But Roeg’s approach to the narrative is surrealistic and every scene is crammed with bizarre imagery. More than an hour into the movie, a murder occurs and things evolve into a more conventional courtroom drama as Van Horn is tried for murder. When Roeg ditches the arty portentousness the film becomes truly compelling. As with many great noirs, Eureka has a warped love triangle. McCann’s hatred for his son-in-law may stem from incestuous feelings for Tracy. Tracy and Van Horn’s sexual chemistry is sizzling. This couple are great in the sack. Quite literally in one scene. There was one sex scene I detested though. A drug-infused orgy in which two priggish Englishwomen are sexually humiliated. On the way home the traumatised women are coached into what to say to protect the men. Watch this today and ask yourself, how is this different from sexual assault?

Jack McCann is based on Sir Harry Oakes, an American businessman who moved to the Bahamas and ingrained himself with the British colonial society. Oakes’s murder was as shocking and brutal as the Black Dahlia killing and, as it is still unsolved to this day, has inspired many books and films about the case. Hackman is great as McCann. He’s much too grizzled to play the character as someone who aspires to be a British toff. His Jack McCann doesn’t want to be anyone but himself, but he does have an air of snobbery. He refers to himself in the third person more often than Bob Dole. The ensemble cast give superb performances. Jane Lapotaire is haunting as Harry’s lush wife, and Joe Spinell is oddly memorable as a smiling but silent hoodlum. Some of the visual sequences are stunning. McCann’s discovery of the gold is one of the best designed, shot and edited scenes you could find in any movie.

Mark Cousins has described Eureka as a masterpiece but its flaws are numerous. The film is overwrought, pretentious, even a tad silly. It earned a paltry $100,000 dollars at the box office following a rotten distribution and publicity campaign. That said, the original trailer is excellent and captures the essence of the film. Perhaps Eureka was just too weird to be a commercial hit no matter how it was marketed. But it remains a dazzling and beguiling film when viewed today that will linger in your mind long after.

And it’s sure aged better than American Beauty!

Eureka Movie Poster (1983)

Chip Kidd and James Ellroy: Art and Literature

September 14, 2020

The cover art of James Ellroy’s novels and anthologies has become synonymous with the work of one artist – Chip Kidd. The associate art director at Knopf has designed the covers of practically all of Ellroy’s books since the Demon Dog became a Knopf author in the early 1990s. As a graphic designer, Kidd beautifully captures the often delirious tone and disturbing themes of Ellroy’s writing.

I’m going to take a look at one of Kidd’s most striking covers for Ellroy.

First Edition Book Cover of White Jazz by Chip Kidd

White Jazz was the first Ellroy novel for which Kidd designed the cover. Much has been written about how Ellroy creates an alternative history of the US, and of Los Angeles in particular, in the LA Quartet. Therefore, it’s easy to overlook the apocalyptic tone of White Jazz which is ahistorical. By the novel’s coda, the violence has spun wildly out of control even for the perimeters of the historical crime genre. Ellroy uses a fictional Herald-Express article to add plausibility to this rampant crimewave ‘The City homicide rate for the past month soared 1600%’.

The bullet-ridden LAPD squad car perfectly captures the anarchic breakdown of law and order in the novel, which mirrors Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein slow mental breakdown as its narrator. In fact, Kidd used a photograph by Robert Morrow of a squad car door the LAPD used for target practice, so in reality the cover is just showing an aspect of police work. White Jazz was first published in 1992, the same year LA erupted in race riots following the acquittal of four police officers who had badly beaten Rodney King. Although this is nothing more than a coincidence it does make the cover more powerful in its evocation of law and order and violence. Another little irony is that Robert Morrow’s photography was used for the cover art of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, a book in which Davis does not hold back on his negative views of James Ellroy.

Check out this mini-documentary by Rachel Talbot about the artistic collaboration between Ellroy and Kidd.

The Spiked Lion by Brian Flynn: The Return on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

August 30, 2020

I am offered lots of review copies to read every year, more than I’ll ever find the time to properly assess and review. So I have to be choosy, and there was something about The Spiked Lion by Brian Flynn that caught my eye. The Spiked Lion is one of a series of Brian Flynn novels being reissued by Dean Street Press. Flynn was a popular author during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction who never quite made the front rank. As Steve Barge argues in an excellent introduction to the novel, works by Flynn are rare, expensive and hard to find. How did this happen to such a prolific author (Flynn wrote over fifty books)? Alas, while we now have a fairly comprehensive bibliography of Flynn’s works there still seems to be substantial gaps in his biography. 

The Spiked Lion features Flynn’s favourite sleuth Anthony Bathurst, who was the hero of nearly all of Flynn’s prodigious literary output. A trio of murders have left Scotland Yard baffled. There appears to be no apparent connection between the three dead men, except their murders were bizarre. The third death is a classic locked room mystery and, unusually, Flynn gives the reader a glimpse of it happening, but he does so in a way that does not give anything away: ‘The murderer turned swiftly from the dead body and departed by the way he had come. He had accomplished the task he had set himself.’ The plot is convoluted but enjoyable nonsense best summed up by this synopsis: ‘How do the events link to the recently returned-from-apparent-death heir to the title of Lord Trensham? And what exactly is the spiked lion?’ While it’s fairly easy to spot the wrong-uns, you’ll have a devil of a time working out their motivation. Fortunately, the reader has Anthony Bathurst to do that for us.

To be clear, The Spiked Lion is not a perfect mystery. It’s entertaining, witty and clever but the final reveal was rather hokey. Perhaps this is a common problem with Locked Room mysteries. The solution is never as ingenious as the set-up. That said, this is never less than a delightful puzzle which I loved tackling. And I have a feeling, now that I have discovered his work, that the mysterious life of Brian Flynn is something I will keep coming back to.

Hats off to Dean Street Press!

An Interview with Leah Konen: Author of One White Lie

August 11, 2020

One White Lie is the latest novel by Leah Konen. Lucy King is running away from an abusive relationship. To the outside world it might seem strange. She had a good-looking boyfriend who she adored. But little by little, as Lucy is holed up in Woodstock NY with only her dog and her thoughts for company, the reader learns of the abuse and controlling behaviour she has been put through. Things get seriously complicated when a couple she is staying with, seemingly kind and generous on the surface, reveal they have secrets of their own and Lucy gets drawn into a bizarre scheme to fake a man’s death.

Leah Konen has written an ingeniously-plotted, suspenseful thriller that will have you hooked until the last page. One White Lie was published as All The Broken People in the US. I was fortunate enough to interview Leah Konen about her new novel. The following interview took place by email.

Leah Konen

Interviewer: As this is your debut psychological thriller, how did your prior experience as a journalist and writer of Young Adult fiction inform your approach to the genre?

 
Konen: I believe that writing is writing, so while I have had a more wandering path to get to my first psychological thriller, I do think that my previous work, both as a journalist and as a YA novelist, informed my work for this book. Journalism teaches you the power of observation, as well as the importance of communicating clearly. Particularly when working out characters and writing dialogue, I lean on my skills as a journalist—and it’s also helpful when I know it’s time to “kill my darlings,” if you will. I favour more spare prose, and I think journalism absolutely has influenced that. As for YA, there is no way I could have plotted One White Lie without my knowledge from my previous books. The genre may be different, but so many of the foundations of the writing process are the same.
 
Interviewer: The story of One White Lie brings to mind both classic films (Sleeping with the Enemy), as well as acclaimed novels such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. But it also has elements which are completely original. What did you want to achieve with the narrative when you set out to write the novel?
 
Konen: When I began One White Lie, I set out to write a modern film noir with a decidedly feminist slant. Women authors like Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Ruth Ware were absolutely inspirations, but I think I drew the most influence from classic films like Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, and quintessential noirs. I’ve always been a Hitchcock fan, and I hoped to create something with a Hitchcockian feel, updated for today.
 
Interviewer: There was some worry at the beginning of lockdown that it might lead to a rise in domestic abuse cases. How did you research this subject? Did you look at case studies and speak to survivors?
 
Konen: I think that’s a huge concern with lockdown, and it is so important that those experiencing domestic abuse have adequate resources to get to safety. In the US, where I live, those resources are woefully lacking. For the book, I did a lot of reading, as well as anecdotal research from people in my networks. What I found was that abuse was very often portrayed a specific way in film, television and novels, but the way it played out was more varied and insidious in real life. I tried to capture the many facets of domestic abuse through Lucy’s story.
 
Interviewer: Lucy’s first-person narration skilfully takes the reader through the novel. Did you imbue the character with much of your personality and have you shared many of Lucy’s struggles?
 
Konen: Lucy, like all my characters, is fictional. I think there’s a tendency to assume first-person characters are a vessel for the author, but I hope we can move away from that assumption. I’ve actually written about this phenomenon for Marie Claire. I think it especially comes up for women writers.
 
Interviewer: What are your writing plans? Has lockdown inspired another novel?
 
Konen: I’ve actually just turned in revisions on my second novel, and I’m also at work on a third. My next novel follows a group of women who embark on a long girls’ weekend, only for one of them to disappear on their first night out. When the friends go to report her missing, they discover that there’s no record of her existence at all, leaving them scrambling to uncover her secrets while protecting their own. I think readers of One White Lie will find a lot to love in this next book.
 

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Civil Unrest—is this America?

July 26, 2020

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

While nothing about the Great Depression was easy, 1933 would prove to be especially painful for Milwaukee. Three years of economic downturn had lacerated the gross national product, and eliminated nearly 27,000 businesses. In 1933 alone, the Cream City weathered an eviscerating 51,000 job losses.

From the Depression’s inception, Milwaukee’s residents stretched every resource available to survive, often immolating savings accounts, insurance policies, and interpersonal relationships in the process. Mounting complaints over the city’s bureaucratically choked response to the crisis eventually transmogrified into violent protest. In February, 1930, a mob of 400 dirty and disheveled men paraded through Milwaukee’s streets to City Hall. According to historian Paul Glad’s extensive writing on the era, they carried with them a petition asking Mayor Daniel Hoan on behalf of unemployed workers to replenish bankrupt welfare services with funds from the city’s coffers. Such services ordinarily provided the destitute with free food, clothing, shelter, and medical services. Mayor Hoan ultimately rebuffed the demonstrators, telling them Milwaukee had no available money for relief. Outside, the demonstrators blocked traffic until the Milwaukee police dispersed them. Though several demonstrators were taken to the central police station a block away, only three of them were arrested and jailed. Later that day, Hoan asked Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer to release the three, observing that “there is a greater unemployment problem facing us now than in several years… men out of work are likely to make such demonstrations as this.”

Wisconsin’s trouble with demonstrators wasn’t just limited to Milwaukee. Just three weeks later, a small group of unemployed laborers and University of Madison students confronted Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman. Lottie Blumenthal, the leader of the group, interrogated Schmedeman about what the mayor intended to do about 3,000 jobless Madison workers. “What can I do?” Schmedeman retorted. “What power do you think I have to create work?”

Three weeks later, the Madison council of the National Trade Union Unity League staged a protest to voice their dissatisfaction with city officials’ dismissive responses to the unemployment crisis. The demonstrators soon clashed with an irate crowd of university students. In the ensuing melee, the students assaulted Lottie Blumenthal and other radical leaders, destroyed banners and signs demanding work, and scattered thousands of radical pamphlets all over the streets. Ultimately, Madison police arrested the five university athletes who had led the attack.

From 1929 to 1933, Wisconsin’s milk production declined precipitously. Farm prices were already in freefall, and the only way to maintain income was to increase production, something that required significantly larger quantities of hay and other feed. Unfortunately, weather during the 1930s was exceptionally dry, and these unfavorable growing conditions placed severe constraints on available feed. Consequently, many Wisconsin farmers lost substantial income. “Farmers have been agitated and unsettled as never before,” said Ernest L. Luther, Director of Wisconsin’s Farmer’s Institute. As protest movements began to take shape, Luther predicted social disruption if Wisconsin’s population learned just how buried in foreclosures and moratoriums the state really was.

National Guardsmen brought in Governor Albert G Schmedeman to combat striking farmers

In 1933, several Wisconsin dairy farms began withholding their milk from markets to secure higher prices. While the milk price index had been in decline for years before the stock market crash, the arrival of the Great Depression had sent the index into freefall. Dairy farmers were receiving less than a third of the price they once commanded just a decade earlier.

When a large group of farmers from the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool announced their plans to strike on May 13, 1933, newly elected Governor Schmedeman was ready for them, asking Adjutant General Ralph Immell of the Wisconsin National Guard to place 2,500 men under the command of local sheriffs. Crates of tear gas arrived from Washington, and according to Paul Glad, the extensive preparations brought back vivid memories of World War I for those involved. The nostalgia likely served them well, as the striking farmers abandoned their picketing for more guerrilla tactics like dumping the milk of an unprotected delivery truck, then scattering before guardsmen arrived.

Wisconsin Milk Strike

As one Waukesha County farmer reported, the striking farmers weren’t always so lucky: “Yesterday, they went through Richfield […] and there they ran into a bunch of National Guard and deputies [who] surrounded the truck while one man with a gun lined them up and the rest pounded the hell out of them, and I mean pounded. One man has a fractured skull.”

Waukesha County Sherriff Arthur J. Moran instigated an even more dramatic confrontation which came to be known as the “Battle of Durham Hill.” Moran even timed the affair to attract as many photographers and reporters as possible.

In confronting a small group of farmers, Moran’s forces first hit them with a torrent of gas bombs. Nearly 100 guardsmen then charged the farmers with fixed bayonets, driving the strikers over a hill. As Paul Glad recounts, a Wisconsin farm wife who witnessed the calamity asked “Is this America?”

The Battle of Durham Hill

Ultimately, the Milk Pool’s strike efforts were unsuccessful. The organization issued a statement after ending the strikes in May, 1933, still insisting on the farmers’ right to control the price of their product, yet lamenting that enforcement of said control required such violence and anarchy.

Back in Milwaukee, while the city’s police were relieved to have steady jobs during a time when most Americans were hopelessly unemployed, this exceptionally rare job security came at a steep price: The Cream City’s firemen and policemen bitterly accepted a voluntary 10% pay cut, intended to improve Milwaukee’s finances. As most residents were out of work, the city was having difficulty collecting taxes, and actually had to halt the distribution of salaries for an agonizing four months.

When salaries resumed, officers were paid with a city-sanctioned alternative currency known as “scrip”. As most Milwaukee merchants refused to accept the “scrip” at full value, the city paid its officers a ratio of one quarter U.S. dollars to three quarters “scrip”. Some years later, Milwaukee’s firemen received as compensation for their 10% pay cut five days of paid vacation. Milwaukee’s police force received nothing.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge – Review

July 5, 2020

A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge

Anthologies have a special hold over a reader. Pick up one of the Black Lizard collections and you’ll be transported back to the hardboiled world of Chandler and Hammett and the sexual obsessions of Cornell Woolrich. Picture the scene: It’s 1933. The Great Depression is ravaging America. Some hardbitten scribe is sat plugging away at his Remington typewriter. Nothing but half a bottle of bourbon and an ashtray of full of cigarette buds for company. He’s down on his luck and the rent is overdue, but with a little bit of wordsmith’s magic the story he’s working on will appear in Black Mask and Cap Shaw will be sending him a cheque to clear his debts.

Those days may be long gone but their spirit lives on. A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge is a new anthology of crime stories comprising the work of established writers and rising stars. It’s filled with noir tales by authors who, one might say, are unofficially honouring the legacy of Black Mask writers such as Raoul Whitfield and Paul Cain. In the introduction Andy Rausch writes:

The theme is violence, plain and simple. But why, you ask? Are we encouraging or promoting violence? Are we rejoicing and revelling in the physical harm of others? No, of course not. So, why violence then? Well, A Time for Violence was a cool title, which was where it began, but beyond that, it’s a simple theme that inspires edgy, transgressive material. And at the end of the day, that was the real theme – edginess and transgression.

Violence takes many forms, from the emotional to the physical, and these stories seemingly cover every possible manifestation of violent act and thought ever devised by man. Don’t let the title make you think this is just a compendium of gore-spattered horror, although one or two stories do lean that way. Most of the stories examine violence in its other day to day forms. The book gets off to a cracking start with ‘Blood Brothers’, a disturbing look at soured brotherly love by Richard Chizmar. Quarry fans will be well-served by ‘Guest-Service’, which sees the titular assassin running a hotel and running away from his past in the idyllic Sylvan Lake, Minnesota. There are also riveting tales by Chris Roy and Paul D. Brazill among others. I’ve still got a few stories to read, but that’s the beauty of a collection of this kind. A dog-eared copy will sit proudly on your bookshelves, just waiting to be revisited.

A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge is a pitch-black crime anthology, perfect for these cynical times.

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