Ellrovian Writers: Megan Abbott and David Peace
I first came across the term ‘Ellrovian‘ at the James Ellroy archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina. Ellroy himself used it in the outline to an Underworld USA novel. My PhD supervisor cautioned me against using the term, however. His concern was that such terms, like ‘Pythonesque‘ or ‘Pinteresque‘ or even ‘noir’ itself for that matter, become saturated and meaningless. I agree with that, but I think it’s partly a consequence of certain writing or genre styles becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Ellroy has become a very influential author, and the stylistic traits of his work can be found in the fiction of a younger generation of novelists, two of whom, Megan Abbott and David Peace, I’m going to discuss in this post. To call Abbott and Peace’s work Ellrovian is rather limiting. I don’t deny they’re brilliantly original talents in their own right, but I think it’s fair to say there is an Ellroy influence that is worth investigating, especially as, in many regards, they are very different writers.
Megan Abbott’s novels Die a Little (2005), The Song is You (2007), Queenpin (2007) and Bury Me Deep (2009) are renowned for taking a retrospective look at the classic noir era and giving a female perspective to a femme fatale role too often defined (and arguably created) by male authors. Her recent novels The End of Everything (2011) and Dare Me (2012) have moved away from a distinctly noir setting and explored different themes, but her early work displayed an Ellroy influence. Abbott mentions Ellroy’s work briefly in her study of the genre The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled fiction and Film Noir (2002), and she wrote a tribute to the author for The Rap Sheet. In an interview with Rebecca Godfrey, Abbott describes her first two novels as ‘lovesongs’ to Ellroy.
The Song is You in particular feels Ellrovian. The novels concerns the true-life disappearance of Hollywood starlet Jean Spangler in 1949. Hollywood publicist Gil “Hop” Hopkins becomes obsessed with the woman the press dubs ‘the Daughter of the Dahlia’ and launches a private investigation. Like many people passing through the movie industry, Hop is cynical, compromised and world weary:
When someone needed to pick up the big-shot buccaneer at the drunk tank and slip some green to the blue, he sent Mike or Freddy or reliable old Bix. They kicked needles down sewer grates, slipped suicide notes into pockets, gave screen tests to hustlers quid pro quo. Hop had it taken care of. He had it fixed. Mr. Blue Sky. All from his chrome and mahogany office, cool and magisterial and pumped full of his own surging blood.
The Spangler case awakens a deeper moral side to Hop which subtly and surprisingly emerges when he comes across song and dance duo Marv Sutton and Gene Merrel whom he believes are connected to the disappearance. Behind the Hollywood glamour, Sutton and Merrel’s repugnant attitudes towards women makes them too much too bear even for a hardened pro like Hop. The different facets of Hop’s personality remind me of Ellroy characters such as the homosexual fixer Lenny Sands and the motormouth journalist Danny Getchell. The novel ends with Hop meeting with perhaps his most desperate client: the doomed actress Barbara Payton. He knows he can do nothing for her, but she catches him in ‘rare sentimental mood’, and with these two tragic characters, Abbott merges the factual and fictional in her take on Hollywood lore. Through The Song is You and other novels, Megan Abbott’s revisionism of the classic femme fatale has been every bit as groundbreaking as Ellroy’s fictional history of 1940s and 50s Los Angeles in the LA Quartet, and between the two of them they have completely reinvented the noir genre as we know it.
David Peace’s writing career has some fascinating parallels and divergences with Ellroy’s. Peace’s debut novel, 1974, was the beginning of his Red Riding Quartet, a body of work heavily influenced by Ellroy’s Los Angeles Quartet. Oddly enough, when Ellroy began the LA Quartet with The Black Dahlia it was already his seventh novel and the first major success of his career. Ellroy’s first six novels, although they still read well today, were not major successes. Peace was able to develop Ellroy’s style right from the start of his first novel and give it his own unique touch. But just as Peace has replicated Ellroy’s success, he also seems to have experienced the same failures. Many critics felt that Ellroy’s trademark clipped prose style had become too lean and reductionist with The Cold Six Thousand (2001). Peace developed his own prose style in a similarly honed and sparse fashion with Red or Dead (2013) and met exactly the same lukewarm critical response. One of the most interesting parallels between Ellroy and Peace is how a similar portrayal of institutional corruption can lead to differing political outlooks. Ellroy is a self-styled Tory who believes that a corrupt system can evolve for the better through gradual reform, whereas Peace is an anti-Establishment socialist who would rebuild the system root and branch. I was at first sceptical that Peace’s work could successfully transpose Ellroy’s noir portrayal of political corruption and horrific Underworld violence in 1940s and 50s LA onto a 1970s Yorkshire setting. My feeling was that the British historical setting had less capacity for intrigue and violence, but Peace skilfully weaves together references of IRA violence, payoffs between construction companies and government officials, and even the Elton John and David Bowie singles that rocketed up the charts until you are won over by his subversive portrayal of 1970s Britain. If you’re new to Peace’s writing, start at the beginning of the Yorkshire Quartet with 1974, the year in which the Troubles were at their height and two inconclusive general elections left the country in a power vacuum (remind you of anything?). One character’s bigoted rant captures the essence of Peace’s portrayal of a country in terminal decline:
‘This country’s at war, Mr Dunford. The government and the unions, the Left and the Right, the rich and the poor. Then you got your Paddy’s, your wogs, your niggers, the puffs and the perverts, even the bloody women; they’re all out for what they can get. Soon there’ll be nowt left for the working white man.’
In the novel, put-upon crime reporter Edward Durford becomes an unlikely crusader-hero when he investigates a series of brutal murders of young girls. Ellroy fans will note that in 1974 the grisly detail of the swan wings being stitched onto the back of the ten year old murder victim Clare Kempley is almost certainly a reference to the murder of child star Wee Willie Wennerholm in L.A. Confidential (1990) who has bird feathers stitched into the back of his corpse. Be warned: the violence in 1974 is graphic, and I once saw David Peace at an event in Belfast express some regret at how lurid the story is. Peace has improved immeasurably as a writer since his debut novel, and his subsequent portrayals of violence have been toned down. Still, since the publication of 1974 the revelations that have come out about the Hillsborough disaster and Jimmy Savile have been more horrific than anything that could been rendered in fiction. As more disturbing details about the UK’s history come to light, perhaps the ingrained corruption and ultra-violence in Ellroy and Peace’s writing will not seem so hyperbolic after all.