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The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World – Extract

August 3, 2018

The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World was published last month, and I thought I’d treat regular readers of this blog to a short extract from the book.

This is taken from the first chapter of the book in which I examine the influence of Raymond Chandler’s writing on Ellroy’s work:

James Ellroy has often reflected on other authors and on his own place within the literary canon. His opinion of crime writers and how they influenced him, however, has been changeful and, in some cases, caustically dismissive. His comments on Ross Macdonald, for example, show a re-evaluation of his own early tastes and influences: ‘I loved the Lew Archer books. I don’t know if I could stand them now’ (Hogan 1995: 58). Ellroy concedes that although the ‘lost child motif’ of Macdonald’s novels was formative in developing his early narrative structures, upon revisiting MacDonald’s novels, he found them to be ‘appallingly overwritten, full of metaphor’ (Hogan 1995: 58). This harsh re-evaluation comes just over ten years after he described Macdonald as ‘my greatest teacher’ (Tucker 1984: 7). Once Ellroy surpassed Macdonald’s influence by creating increasingly complex narratives and themes more expansive and interwoven than what he had learned from reading and studying the Lew Archer private detective novels, he subsequently played down the impact of MacDonald’s work. Through comparison with his own writing, he chastises the very thing that once inspired his novels. Macdonald’s novels, Ellroy later claimed, are ‘not really my bowl of rice’ (Hogan 1995: 58).

Although Ellroy has only fleetingly spoken of MacDonald, by contrast, other authors have gained a permanence in Ellroy’s writing and summation of his own work. Ellroy has consistently referred to the work of Raymond Chandler, in recent years with increasing scepticism. Ellroy acknowledges that Chandler’s writing was an significant influence on his first novel Brown’s Requiem (1981) but, as he put it, ‘I have less affection for (Chandler) by the day’ (Hogan 1995: 57). According to Ellroy, Chandler created a style which ‘is easy to adapt to the personal prejudices of the individual writers, which is why you now have the gay private eye, the black private eye, the woman private eye, and every other kind of private eye’ (Hogan 1995: 57). To an aspiring writer, Ellroy concedes this effect was beneficial; Brown’s Requiem melds Ellroy’s ‘personal prejudices’ onto the formula Chandler created in the Philip Marlowe novels. But rather than develop this Chandler-inspired narrative further, Ellroy claims that after the publication of his first novel, the influence came to an abrupt halt. Yet, unlike MacDonald, whom Ellroy does not go back to, Ellroy cannot help but refer to Chandler even if only to criticise. This inspiration, and subsequent recantation, focuses on Chandler’s work as a novelist. While Chandler made his name writing for pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Ellroy by contrast ‘didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories’ (Rich 181: 2008). This criticism is ironic given that Ellroy’s own education as a writer had been through reading pulp novels, and when, after developing a successful career as a novelist, Ellroy turned to composing his own short stories, he did not show much flair for them. Despite this, Ellroy has consistently stated that the private eye novel or anything else that could be considered Chandler-influenced were no longer present in his work. Arguably, Ellroy’s noir settings and old Hollywood narratives, would evoke, if not Chandler, then his contemporaries. The author Ellroy would credit with being an influence, more than anyone else, on the LA Quartet was Dashiell Hammett. As Lee Clark Mitchell has argued though, major thematic and stylistic differences which supposedly separate Chandler and Hammett’s work are less significant than has been assumed:

At first glance Chandler seems utterly different from Hammett, though it soon becomes clear that he embraces his predecessor’s techniques, extending and complicating them via both setting and syntax. Or rather, he takes Hammett’s concentration on quirky details and ups the ante by lowering the stakes, giving us less essential description, more frequent diversions and digressions, as a way of further impeding the plot. (Mitchell 2015: 10)

Ellroy has been guilty of simplifying Chandler’s legacy, limiting it to the creation of the easily imitated hardboiled private detective. Like Chandler’s revisionism of Hammett’s themes, Ellroy ‘ups the ante by lowering the stakes’. The paradox here is that the hardboiled PI is not Chandler’s creation alone, his legacy is both smaller, and in some ways, creatively bigger than Ellroy gives him credit for. Ellroy began shifting his vision of the genre to Hammett, while not acknowledging that Chandler ‘embraces his predecessor’s techniques’. Yet, in interviews, Ellroy would rarely bring up Chandler’s name without also mentioning Hammett and vice versa, indicating some innate understanding of their pairing.

Ellroy’s open acknowledgement then disavowal of Chandler has not had its similar counterpart in Hammett, partly because Hammett’s influence on Ellroy’s work was more subliminal. As late as 2008, Ellroy claimed that in retrospect the work of Hammett had been more influential than he realised when he was first writing the Quartet novels: ‘I had to reread a little Hammett, because I wrote the Everyman Library introduction to one of their volumes, and was amazed at how my sensibility of the goon and the political fixer and the bagman and the hatchet man strike-breaker came out of that’ (Powell 2008b: 170). Ellroy looks more kindly on these subconscious influences, as his debt during and after the writing process is indistinct. They are not fully formed fonts of inspiration, as MacDonald ‘my greatest teacher’ was, nor do they provide any tangible impediment to creativity, as Chandler’s PI in Brown’s Requiem did (Tucker 1984: 7).

By continually playing Hammett against Chandler, the overt and the subverted, the defined and the undefinable, Ellroy has purposefully created a paradox in his relationship with two of the most important practitioners of detective fiction. Ellroy’s definition of the two men is key: Chandler, in Ellroy’s view, was conservative, predictable and set the conventions of the genre, whereas Hammett’s writing was edgy and existed in a narrative world without conventions. It is not difficult to observe, given Ellroy’s somewhat unhinged Demon Dog persona, why he would prefer the latter influence. But the oppositional roles he designs for both authors, both oddly reliant on each other, are too simplistic and conveniently suited to the image Ellroy was trying to acquire. In this chapter, I will argue that Chandler’s influence on Ellroy’s work extended far further than the debut novel in which Ellroy has always attempted to contain it, and that, much like how he overlooked Hammett for lengthy periods of his career, the Chandler effect has been more complex, undefinable and subliminal.

Neither Hammett nor Chandler could have known the enormous influence their writing would have in the field of crime fiction over fifty years since their death. Both men died relatively young, unhappy, and past their best. Neither man produced as much as was expected of their peers, such as Erle Stanley Gardner who wrote hundreds of books and had to employ pseudonyms in order to effectively market the enormous output. Nor was there such an interest in crime fiction as an academic discipline. It fell on Chandler himself to codify some of the traits of the hardboiled school in The Simple Art of Murder (1944), a practice which was common among writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction which Chandler explicitly criticises.

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. (Chandler 1944: 987)

Years later, Ellroy parodied these words to elevate his work above Chandler’s, and bring his narrative to the same plateau as Hammett’s:

Down these mean streets the single man who can make a difference must go. There is an institutionalized rebelliousness to it that comes out of a cheap liberalism that I despise. It’s always the rebel. It’s always the private eye standing up to the system. That doesn’t interest me. What interest me are the toadies of the system. (Duncan 1996: 85)

By separating Chandler’s detective ‘man of honor’ from the ‘toadies of the system’ Ellroy brings the genre full circle.

You can find out more about the book here.

The Big Somewhere

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2018 1:31 pm

    This is a book I’ve been very interested in since reading about it on your blog (I picked up “Conversations with James Ellroy” as soon as I knew about its existence in 2013).

    Unfortunately this isn’t going to happen as the price for the book is just too steep. On Amazon.co.uk it’s currently being sold for £88 for a physical copy and £83.60 for a Kindle edition. For a 224-page book, even if every essay is gold, this is way too much.

    Can I ask about the reasons for this price? If Bloomsbury used an expensive print-on-demand service to print this book I could almost understand it, but since the digital edition is priced almost the same amount that doesn’t make any sense either.

    • August 9, 2018 2:21 pm

      Hi Glenn, the pricing is typical of academic books as they are pitched almost exclusively to academic libraries who will pay these prices. Conversations with James Ellroy was a wonderful exception and it sold well to a wide audience. I get asked this a lot and I always say order the book on inter-library loan which will only cost you a few dollars. As an author and editor I just want people to read and enjoy the work.
      Steve

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