Skip to content

Andrew Vachss (1942-2021)

January 11, 2022

I was saddened to learn Andrew Vachss died on December 27th. An attorney, author and activist, Vachss’s series of hardboiled novels featuring Burke (ex-con private investigator, survivalist and vigilante) became classics of the crime genre.

I interviewed Vachss in May of last year. It was for a book which I am currently writing on James Ellroy. Vachss and Ellroy were friends from the mid-80s to the early 90s. Setting up the interview was like a scenario out of one Vachss’s novels: I had to mail a letter to a PO Box address in Chicago to contact him, once I passed that hurdle, Vachss wouldn’t agree to the interview until Ellroy had given his permission. Ellroy kindly wrote to Vachss, initiating their first contact in thirty years, giving his blessing for the interview.

I finally spoke to Vachss by phone on a Sunday. He was in his law office in New York and explained to me that he could be called away at any moment if a legal issue arose that required his attention. I was floored by his hectic schedule considering this was a man in his late seventies. It’s hard to believe, only seven months later, he is not with us anymore.

Vachss died two days before Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted on five counts of sex offences. It was a shame Vachss didn’t live to see it. The more powerful the abuser, the more he seemed to relish in their downfall. Take for example, his analysis of the Roman Polanski/Samantha Gailey case, which is completely unencumbered by Polanski’s exalted reputation in the Arts. It was Vachss’s hard work and dedication that led to President Clinton signing the National Child Protection Act into law, otherwise known as the ‘Oprah Bill’. Photo below is courtesy of Mike Ripley.

Andrew Vachss (back row with an eye patch), Oprah Winfrey and President Clinton

Thank you Andrew Vachss for everything you did. It was an honour to talk to you.

Postscript: I’ve dug up a blurb Vachss wrote for the first edition of The Black Dahlia. It’s quintessential Vachss:

THE BLACK DAHLIA hits you like Chinatown directed by Caryl Chessman. With it, James Ellroy surges to the forefront of contemporary American mystery fiction—Krafft-Ebing in one hand, a chainsaw in the other.

James Ellroy and Steven Parent: A Tale of Two El Montes

January 2, 2022

Every bookworm should at one point undertake a literary pilgrimage. As a James Ellroy scholar I have retraced his steps in Los Angeles and El Monte, among other places. While visiting Arroyo High School in El Monte (where Jean Ellroy’s corpse was discovered) I got chatting to a member of the school staff. She informed me that in addition to all of the Ellroy readers who visited the school, they also received a lot of visits from people who studied the Manson Family murders. In her words, ‘the first victim of the Manson Family went to this school.’

His name was Steven Parent.

An El Monte Upbringing

Jean Ellroy
Jean Ellroy

The early lives of James Ellroy and Steven Parent have many parallels, intersections and strange coincidences. Ellroy was born Lee Earle Ellroy on March 4, 1948, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. As a child he moved to El Monte with his mother, Jean Ellroy in early 1958. Ellroy’s parents had been through an acrimonious divorce. Jean thought El Monte represented a clean break. Around twenty miles east of LA, it was far enough away from the City of Angels for Jean to live without the fear of constant harassment from her ex-husband Armand. Armand did not own a car and only got to see his son at weekends. Known as ‘Friendly El Monte’, the city was renowned for its low crime rate. Jean and Ellroy lived at 756 Maple Avenue. Jean enrolled Ellroy at Anne LeGore Elementary School. Life seemed to be looking up for Jean. She liked El Monte and the freedom it afforded her. Her son hated it. He wanted to live with his father in LA.

On June 22, 1958, the body of Jean Ellroy was discovered on a road adjacent to a playing field at Arroyo High School. She had been strangled to death. The previous night she had been on a date with a man at a restaurant called Stan’s Drive-In, and was seen with the same man and an unidentified blonde woman at the Desert Inn bar.

The murder of Jean Ellroy would go unsolved. Her ten-year-old son’s reaction to the murder was somewhat indifferent at the time, probably due to shock and the fact that he hated El Monte so much that he was secretly relieved he could now live in LA with his father. However, his life would slowly fall apart from that point on, and the ghosts of El Monte would haunt him for decades.

The Short, Eventful Life of Steven Parent

Steven Parent

Steven Earl Parent was born to Wilfred and Juanita Parent in Los Angeles on February 12, 1951. At some point in 1958, the family moved to 11214 E. Bryant Road, El Monte. Whether their move happened before or after Jean’s murder is a moot point. The murder of Jean Ellroy would have been discussed in the Parent household: murders were not common in El Monte, and Jean’s slaying had been front page news on the LA Times. Naturally, Parent’s parents would want to shield their eldest son Steven, as well as his siblings Janet, Greg and Dale from the disturbing details. One suspects though that the children would have found out about the murder soon enough. Jean had lived less than half a mile away.

Distance from the Parent Household to Jean Ellroy’s House

Steven began attending Arroyo High School in 1965. The following year he started getting into trouble. He was arrested for petty theft and, according to Lori Johnston, there is some evidence to suggest Steven committed several ‘burglaries at area schools’. His crimes were at least in some way spawned by his burning talent. Steven was stealing radios as he was quickly becoming an electronics whizz. He spent two years in juvenile detention where he ‘reportedly tested at near-genius level for electronics.’ Steven graduated from Arroyo High School in June 1969. Two months later he was murdered. Everything in Steven’s life seemed to be heading in the right direction. His run-ins with the law were behind him. He was planning to attend Citrus Azusa College. He was holding down two jobs to save up for the tuition fees, one of which was tied to his love of electronics. Steven worked as a salesman at Jonas Miller Studio in Beverly Hills. He was dating a girl. With life looking so good, what drove Steven to visit 10050 Cielo Drive on August 8, 1969? As Lori Johnston explains, it all happened through a seemingly innocent twist of fate:

In late July, Steven picked up a hitchhiker named William Garretson. This seemingly innocuous act would set the wheels in motion to alter the course of his life. Garretson, an Ohio native, was the summer caretaker for the property located at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. The home, owned by Rudi Altobelli, a manager and producer, was being rented out to director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Altobelli normally resided in the guesthouse but had hired Garretson on during the months he was in Europe. After dropping Garretson off at the property, the caretaker told Steven to feel free to drop by anytime he should be in the area.

Steven did drop by, on that fateful night in August with the intention of selling Garretson a clock radio. While he was leaving the property, Steven was accosted by Manson Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian. Watson slashed Steven with a bayonet before shooting him three times. The killers then proceeded to enter the property and murder Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski. Steven Parent has long been regarded as the first victim of the slaughter that happened that evening, although there is some evidence to suggest he may have been the last. In this scenario, Steven arrived at the property shortly after the murders occurred. Stumbling across the multiple murders, he panicked and ran to his car, being killed by Watson as he was trying to leave. However, Linda Kasabian, who served as a witness for the prosecution, testified that she saw Watson murder Steven Parent, and then enter the house with Atkins and Krenwinkel who then proceeded to kill the inhabitants. In any event, Steven was the least known of the five victims that night, which included a movie star (Tate), celebrity hairstylist (Sebring) and heiress (Folger). When the police were first briefing the press about the killings the following day, he was the only victim they had yet to identify.

An article by Morena Duwe argues that the LAPD came close to bungling the homicide investigation. A breakthrough occurred when ‘two Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office homicide detectives, Sergeants Paul Whiteley and Charles Guenther, told Sergeant Jess Buckles, an LAPD detective assigned to the Tate homicides, that they had discovered the body of 34-year-old music teacher Gary Hinman, who had been stabbed in his Malibu home. What was remarkable about this case was that the words “POLITICAL PIGGY” were written in his blood on the living room wall.’ This provided a solid connection between the murders as Susan Atkins had written pig on the front door at Cielo Drive with Tate’s blood.

Crosscurrents

Lee Earle Ellroy Mug Shot

By the late sixties, Lee Earle Ellroy was in the midst of his own burglary spree, targeting Hancock Park houses belonging to the families of young women he knew socially. Ellroy found burglary to be relatively easy at first. He would telephone the house in advance. If no one answered the call, he was reasonably confident the property was empty and he would look for access through a cat flap or an unlocked window. It was the public’s reaction to the Manson Family murders which persuaded Ellroy to stop committing burglaries: ‘I started to see more and more alarm tape on windows, people were getting dogs, there were stickers for the Bel Air Patrol and Hollywood Patrol, private companies that patrolled the swankier areas’.

Ellroy stopped burglarising houses but his life remained turbulent over the next few years as he endured such horrors as drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and jail-time. Like Steven Parent, Ellroy also did time in Juvenile Detention. His description of Georgia Street Juvenile Facility is far more graphic and terrifying than any of his later experiences in jail: ‘Darkness jump-started my imagination. I put myself through a string of jail horrors and cried myself to sleep.’ Fortunately for Ellroy, the father of a friend was a cop and he managed to wangle Ellroy six months’ probation as an ’emancipated juvenile’. Ellroy joined AA in 1977 and began to turn his life around, embracing sobriety and beginning what would become a spectacular writing career. Ellroy became renowned for incorporating the key events in LA’s criminal history, such as the Black Dahlia murder and the Bloody Christmas police brutality scandal, into his novels. Of the Manson Family, he has written relatively little, although Manson and his acolytes do appear in Ellroy’s novel Killer on the Road (also published as Silent Terror).

Killer on the Road is one of Ellroy’s least well-known novels, despite being one of his most autobiographical works of fiction. The story follows the first-person reminiscences of serial killer Martin Plunkett. Ellroy borrowed heavily from his own life-story to flesh out Plunkett’s back-story. Plunkett has an alcoholic mother and languid, uncaring father, heavily modelled on Ellroy’s parents. Early in his criminal career he is somewhat enamoured by the reputation of the Manson Family, meeting two of Manson’s female followers – Flower and Season.

Later though, Plunkett is serving time at the LA County Jail where he meets Manson. He is so disgusted by Manson’s shambolic appearance and incoherent ramblings that he verbally humiliates him in full view of prison staff.

In a rather unsavoury novel in which Plunkett murders dozens of people, his haranguing of Manson, forever destroying his mystique, is probably the most morally courageous act Plunkett commits. Ellroy and Manson both served time in LA County Jail, although they never met. Ellroy did meet Charlie Guenther and describes him as ‘the man who really broke the Charles Manson case’. Ellroy met Guenther when he launched his own private investigation into his mother’s murder, which lasted from September 1994 to December 1995, and which he documented in his memoir My Dark Places. Ellroy teamed up with retired LASD detective Bill Stoner to assist him in the investigation. Stoner and Guenther had been partners on the Cotton Club murder case. Ellroy interviewed Guenther over a tip he received in 1970 from Shirley Miller. Shirley claimed her husband, Will Lenard Miller, had murdered Jean after dating her when they worked together at Airtek Dynamics. Miller was apparently enraged when Jean rejected a medical claim he had submitted. Guenther interviewed Miller at Orange County Jail. Miller agreed to take a polygraph test about the murder and passed it. Guenther informed Ellroy that Miller had not been a plausible suspect.

Generations

When Jean Ellroy was murdered in 1958, the homicide investigation was handled by the LA Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, known today as ‘the Bulldogs’. In his 1995 GQ article ‘The Tooth of Crime’, Ellroy noted how the Bulldogs now ‘investigate about 500 snuffs a year’. He adds ‘There were 14 Bulldogs in 1958. There are 140 today’. A quarter of century on from when that article was published, LA finds itself in the grip of another crimewave.

The murders of Jean Ellroy and Steven Parent occurred a little over ten years apart, and both in their way symbolised the end of their respective decades. In the 50s, LA had gone through an economic boom and the middle-classes were rapidly expanding. In the 60s, riots broke out in US cities and the younger generation was clamouring for progressive change. The murders of Jean and Parent both served as brutal reminders of how tragedy can strike at the heart of the American ideal. El Monte was never quite the same ideal suburb after Jean’s murder, and the bizarre beliefs of the Manson Family brought a lot of the prevailing hippy and new age beliefs into disrepute. Steven Parent and James Ellroy had several things in common, aside from sharing the middle name Earl(e). They were both highly talented teens who ran into trouble with the law. Ellroy was lucky to survive his vices and the traumas that were inflicted on him. Perhaps his extraordinary writing career is his acknowledgement of this, as he is both making up for lost time and grateful that he is still alive. Today, in his mid-seventies, Ellroy shows no sign of slowing down.

Steven Parent was not so lucky, and his brutal murder robbed him of what would have been, given his drive and determination, an extremely bright future. At least the Parent family received justice. Two of the killers from that night are still in prison today. The murderer of Jean Ellroy was never found, alive or dead, but perhaps one day El Monte’s oldest mystery will finally be solved.

Sixty-four years after Jean’s murder, the Ellroy family is still waiting for justice.

The Women of Woolrich

December 14, 2021

Since the height of his career, the stories of Cornell Woolrich have never received so much attention. For decades after the famed crime and suspense writer’s death, much of his work had been unfairly gathering dust in out-of-print books and magazines. But the team at Renaissance Literary & Talent, including president Alan Nevins and agent Jacklyn Saferstein-Hansen, have worked tirelessly to sort out rights issues to the hundreds of stories and dozens of novels Woolrich wrote during his lifetime. Renaissance is the agency that represents the various parties that control the Woolrich estate, and they also partly serve as publisher: their robust ebook and paperback library, which boasts many of their clients’ backlist titles, also includes a vast selection of Woolrich’s work. Between their own publications and titles they’ve licensed, a wide array of Woolrich fiction is now available to readers, from the six books of the excellent Black Series to the short story “It Had to be Murder,” upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 hit Rear Window is based.

Cover Design by Abigail Larson

Renaissance has gone beyond just publishing his novels and short stories individually. With rights to his many stories and early collections retrieved from previous publishers, they’ve been able to pore through the Woolrich canon and curate brand new themed short story collections for crime, suspense and noir fiction fans old and new. In the last few years, they’ve published two hugely popular multi-volume collections: Literary Noir: A Series of Suspense and An Obsession with Death and Dying.

Just in time for the holidays, they’ve released yet another fantastic collection, this one with a special flare: Women in Noir.

Women in Noir is significant not only because it showcases some of Woolrich’s most intriguing female narrators and protagonists, but because the writer was ahead of his time in his portrayal of women. While contemporaries like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler put their man’s man heroes front and centre, with women relegated to passive support, if featured at all, Woolrich found revolutionary ways to make his heroines the driving force of his stories. Three of his most famous characters, let alone female characters, are the titular Phantom Lady, The Black Angel and The Bride Wore Black from his blockbuster novels of the 1940s.

Renaissance’s new collection, 22 stories across three volumes, seeks to introduce readers to Woolrich’s lesser-known ladies. In Dangerous Dames, you meet a group of Woolrich’s baddest broads. From demure wives with hidden lives to overt femme fatales, the women in these stories are smooth, cunning, and most of all, dangerous. Sleuths & Sages features some of the savviest gals in the Woolrich catalogue. Regular women, brave and bold, take it upon themselves to solve crimes and bring justice to those less fortunate. The women of Lover’s Lament are tangled up with their lovers for better or worse. Each story explores a complex relationship and the position women are put in when their male counterpart’s crimes, or the treacherous hand of fate, are involved.

Cover Design by Abigail Larson

Aside from bringing new life to the few females of the genre, Women in Noir is also an opportunity for readers to wrestle with the mystery of Woolrich himself. While his contemporaries were focused on tales of the alpha male, why did Woolrich dedicate so many pages in his novels and short stories to compelling, powerful female characters? He was such a deeply tormented figure, so we might never have an answer, but in that fact lies a clue.

Since childhood, he led a tortured life and experienced near constant anguish, starting with his parent’s divorce. He was an alcoholic recluse leading a hidden life as a gay man. He had few romantic affairs with women, all of them meeting miserable ends, including a particularly disastrous marriage. And always looming over him, forever defining his connection to the female, was his lifelong love-hate relationship with his mother, with whom he lived most of his adult years. After her death, he deteriorated both physically and mentally, dying not long after.

Perhaps all of this made him more human, more able to relate to those marginalised and maligned by society. Whatever the case, there is no question that Woolrich’s treatment of women in his writing was as layered as the man himself. Women in Noir seeks to shed light on those layers, and introduce a new generation of crime, suspense and noir readers to the brilliance of what many critics have deemed one of the best writers of the 20th century.

Women in Noir is available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback.

Cover Design by Abigail Larson

A James Ellroy Playlist: Straight Life

December 7, 2021

Regular readers of this blog will know that this year I started a series on the use of music in the work of James Ellroy. Here’s the latest episode on White Jazz, perhaps the most musically consistent Ellroy novel.

Straight Life

Part I of the novel is titled ‘Straight Life’. The title is rather ironic as, in this world, everything from sexuality to the line between criminality and law and order is twisted. Take, for example, LAPD Lieutenant Dave Klein’s incestuous love for his sister, or the fact that he accepts contracts from the Mob to murder a witness he is supposed to be protecting.

White Jazz contains multiple references to saxophonist Art Pepper. Pepper’s memoir Straight Life makes for extraordinary reading. His life bears many parallels with Ellroy’s. They both struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and spent time in the LA County Jail. As a candid tale of substance abuse, self-destruction and recovery, Straight Life is matched only by Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places. Moreover, the whole text reads like a research template to Ellroy’s LA Quartet. Pepper gives great insight to the criminal/narcotics subculture of the jazz scene of 1950s Los Angeles.

Straight Life is also the name of an album Pepper released in 1979, the same year his autobiography was published. The title track is a contrafact of the song ‘After You’ve Gone’, which Pepper had previously recorded on the 1957 album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. As the ’57 version is closer to the setting of White Jazz, this is the track I’ve posted below:

Money Jungle

Money Jungle is the title of Part IV of White Jazz. The novel, like all of Ellroy’s works, is so preoccupied with sexual obsessions that it is to easy to overlook how important a factor money is to most crime stories. White Jazz is no exception. The LAPD uses the Kafesjian Crime Family as ‘authorised’ drug dealers. Dudley Smith employs his Mobster Squad to crush the criminal competition. Even the legal deals reek of corruption. Klein is a slum landlord of properties in Chavez Ravine, where Hispanic families are being turfed out of their homes to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium. In the pre-digital age, the sight, sound and smell of money was an ever present temptation. The allure of filthy lucre has proven influential to many forms of music, and 50s jazz musicians would have felt it strongly, especially if they had addictions to feed and found themselves at the mercy of incompetent or exploitative managers.

Money Jungle is the title of a 1962 jazz album by Duke Ellington which he recorded with double bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. The title track below could hardly be described as easy listening. The opening and closing strings sound like shredded nerves, and the overall tension of the album has been attributed to conflict in the studio between Ellington, Mingus and Roach. Creative friction has often led to great art, and in this case Money Jungle is the perfect artistic backdrop to Dave Klein’s inner torment.

Mr Campion’s Wings – Review

November 17, 2021

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

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

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

Five Decembers by James Kestrel – Review

November 5, 2021

Hawaii, December 1941.

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

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

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

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

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

No Time To Die – Revisited

October 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

And now the negatives:

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

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

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

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

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

October 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…       

Officer George Raabe

NO TIME TO DIE Review – James Bond Has Returned

October 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A James Ellroy Playlist: Sweet Dreams

September 18, 2021

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

Take a stroll through its Dreamworld:

Will o’ the Wisp

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

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

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

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

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

Hushabye

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

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

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

Sleep tight:

%d bloggers like this: