Skip to content

Secrets of Cinema – Mark Kermode’s Take on the Heist Movie

July 27, 2018

I’ve been enjoying Mark Kermode’s new series Secrets of Cinema, but after watching his latest offering on the heist movie, I was surprised by how much material on the genre or sub-genre he seemed to leave out. I started to make a list of variations on the heist formula that had been omitted and, sure enough, the task soon consumed me.

Kermode focused on a fairly pure heist movie formula where the main protagonists are  criminals, the buildup and planning are essential to the narrative, and the police play a minimal role. With this type of movie, at least one of the criminal gang has to be sympathetic so the audience has someone they can root for. Some of the variations I’m going to talk about cast the thieves in an unambiguously villainous light, and readers might argue these aren’t truly heist films. But as Kermode lost so much time talking about films like The Big Short (2015), The French Connection (1971), Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed (2006) which are categorically NOT heist films, then I feel its worth mentioning some alternatives.

Kermode

Kermode discussed The League of Gentlemen (1960) and its wonderful opening scene where Jack Hawkins emerges from a sewer in a spotless dinner jacket. Note that this film was made four years before Sean Connery famously emerged from the water in Goldfinger and took off his wet-suit to reveal a flawless white tux underneath. Goldfinger is, of course, a heist movie. It has a high-profile target in Fort Knox and an elaborate break-in involving poison gas, dynamite, lasers and an atom bomb, and one fantastic twist. After murdering the Mafia figures who have financed the heist, Auric Goldfinger plans to destroy the gold rather than remove it to increase the value of his own stock. In Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Simon Gruber pretends to pull off this con as he wants the FBI to believe he has blown up the gold he has stolen from the Federal Reserve Bank, but in fact he has kept it.

Which brings me to another point: the original Die Hard is a heist movie. True, none of the heist-men are sympathetic, but they have taken over the Nakatomi building to steal millions in Bearer Bonds under the pretext of making terrorist demands. We don’t think of Die Hard as a heist film as it is an Action flick that created its own formula, recycled in films such as Cliffhanger (Die Hard on a mountain) and Under Siege (Die Hard on a battleship). But in the Die Hard formula, the heist sequence is crucial. Think of the spectacular mid-air heist that goes wrong in Cliffhanger, and the stealing of the nukes in Under Siege.

Stealing nuclear weapons is a recurring trope that links the spy-action genre to the heist movie, and again its genesis is in Bond. Take Spectre agent Largo’s underwater theft of the atom bombs from the Vulcan Avro jet in Thunderball (1965).

Kermode couldn’t cover everything, but I’m glad he spent considerable time on Sexy Beast (2000). But I was surprised that he didn’t mention how Ray Winstone’s retired thief Gal Dove is a perfect example of the retired criminal doing ‘one last job’, which is an integral device of the formula. Likewise, I didn’t agree with his classification of Ben Kingsley’s character Don Logan as the loose cannon of the gang. Logan lives for organised crime and is disgusted that Dove resists his demands to re-enter the gang. If anything, Dove is the loose cannon for killing Logan, and then covering it up from his criminal colleagues when he is forced to go back to London to do the job.

When news of the Hatton Garden heist broke in 2015 it was remarkable how much the story paralleled Sexy Beast. A book on the case was titled Sexy Beasts: The Inside Story of the Hatton Garden Heist and a film about the heist, the third made so far, even stars Ray Winstone. It’s one of the most remarkably surreal films to have had any inspiration on real events as it contains dream sequences, demonic rabbits and an underwater break-in through a Turkish bath. That said, heists by their nature are improbable and two of the most recent heist films have been based on real-life events. Rob the Mob (2014) and The Wannabe (2015) are based on the exploits of Thomas and Rosemarie Uva, a Bonnie and Clyde couple who robbed Mafia social clubs in the early 1990s. Kermode spent some time discussing the Mob’s role in the heist film, but he failed to mention one of the best deviations on the formula when small-time crooks net a massive haul when they rob a business which, unbeknownst to them, is a Mafia front. Charley Varrick (1973) and Drive (2011) are two of my favourite films which show the bloody, chaotic consequences of stealing from the Mafia.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire Mark Kermode as a critic and love his reviews, rants and documentaries. I was really chuffed when he did a Kermode Uncut vlog on the Ourscreen screenings of Sorcerer that were set up for the films fortieth anniversary last year as I had arranged and introduced the Liverpool screening of Sorcerer. There was much in this documentary that I admired, including the discussion of how the robbery gang usually includes an expert in every field: explosives, safecracker, wheelman etc.

As classic heist movies traditionally include some form of thieves’ Supergroup it is surprising, or perhaps not, that more cinematic heists don’t end happily whereas a ragtag group of misfits like The Dirty Dozen famously got the job done. No matter how well the heist is planned it is likely to come undone by the simplest, involuntary action. Think of the sneeze in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).

In crime, as in art, the best results come not through perfect planning and personnel but by chance and happenstance. After all, when was the last time you bought a Traveling Wilburys album?

Advertisements

Ellroy Contradictions

July 23, 2018

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

I recently asked James Ellroy “What role does contradiction play in the noir universe?”  On such matters, Ellroy is characteristically curt and vague—satisfying the question with a throwaway line, occasionally suffused with an even briefer anecdote that is often never completed, and instead rudely interrupted by one of the Demon Dog’s trademark guttural grunts.

Contradiction, as any longtime fan and student of Ellroy knows, is as emblematic and germane to the Demon Dog as his over-the-top egotism, profanity, and love of promotion, and no interaction with Ellroy would be complete without it.

To try to understand—or even map the terrain of—Ellroy’s contradictory nature, it helps to look deeply at the genre which gave the Demon Dog a career.

In film noir, the contradictions are abundant:  The cop who is often as corrupt—or even more corrupt—than the criminals he pursues…The politician who publicly chastises incompetence while privately struggling to contain his own staggering ineptitude…The young married couple who hide a seething mutual bitterness and boredom (with attendant infidelities) behind a fatuously felicitous front.

Implicit within noir’s many contradictions (or perhaps the very backbone of such dissonance) is the disingenuous duplicity for which Ellroy has no tolerance…  This is an important matter to him—disingenuous people behaving disingenuously populate every single book he’s written, whether it’s demented Black Dahlia patriarch Emmet Sprague touting his bravery (when in fact, we learn Mr. Sprague is quite the usurious coward) or the willful parental dismissal embedded within the ambiguous paternity of the Herrick and Kafesjian children from White Jazz.

Noir depicts human existence as a disillusioned trek through corrupt, incompetent and decomposing societal systems.  Narratives are highly ironic, and as American philosopher Robert Pippin has noted, character focus is typically on that of a deftly deceptive, cunningly crafty anti-hero, who is also quite ruthless.  This anti-hero bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Lee Earle Ellroy, bombing around and making mischief—in between library book binges—in late 1960s L.A.

Noir also explores the constant theme of being trapped—either by a brutal bureaucracy, or even a self-bondage—trapping yourself within the confines of the public image you have constructed of yourself.  With Ellroy, that image is clearly his ubiquitous Demon Dog persona—an act so practiced and second nature to him, that it was (unfortunately and unnecessarily) a distracting, fourth-wall-shattering, and all-but-primary character in his last two novels Blood’s A Rover and Perfidia.

Ellroy has said in countless interviews that ever since he was a child, he’s craved attention.  As he mercilessly details in his autobiography My Dark Places, Ellroy went to great and often ridiculous lengths to make a spectacle of himself as a boy.  In a 2001 60 Minutes interview, Ellroy told Charlie Rose that his younger self was the “poster child for the ‘if-you-can’t-love-me-notice-me’ chapter in every child psychology text book.”  In the same interview, while discussing his tumultuous twenties, Ellroy describes his self-esteem then as “low, but obsessively optimistic.”  Rose notes the contradiction, and Ellroy affirms it, explaining away the deadlock with “I had this crazy notion at the height of my self-degradation that I was a pretty smart guy, and a capable guy underneath it all.”

To consider Ellroy’s behavior under a noir context, film noir often features characters with no conscious idea of why they act as they do.  And while these characters might protest otherwise, as Pippin has noted, the films often present evidence indicating that any rationalizations for their motives often run perpendicular to their actions.  In other words, a contradiction.

A common noir motif is a character’s quest to make the intentional look accidental.  This is a plot cornerstone for Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir Double Indemnity, which Ellroy has listed as one of his favorite noirs. Could Ellroy’s contradictory nature then simply be a low-key dimension of his Demon Dog persona?  An intentional gimmick dressed as spontaneity? Ellroy has defined his famous act as “a calculated character that’s about 7% of who I am.”

Heraclitus wrote that “Character is fate.” Ellroy parodied this notion once to filmmaker Reinhart Jud when the Demon Dog said “Character is fake.  And the ‘character’ of my characters influences what’s going to happen to them.”  Could this also include James Ellroy himself?

Ellroy has stated many times that he created the Demon Dog persona as a promotional tool to boost book sales and raise his media profile.  Looking at the persona from a noir perspective, it seems like Ellroy has become lost (or rather, submerged) in the act… A few manipulative actions have snowballed into a monstrous—and quite demonic force—that even Ellroy can no longer control.  Noir often shows us this same paradigm—an endlessly ricocheting collision between the stubborn stasis of the past, and an unstoppable and uncontainable future.

Ellroy’s contradictions may also be the Demon Dog’s mimicry of the alienation and tension noir leaves spectators with, when they see characters also struggling ambiguously and quite deliberately without any of the familiar psychological characteristics moviegoers are accustomed to.  As Pippin has noted, what so often happens in these moments of dissonance, is that your own self-ascribed character traits are unrecognizably different from how you interpreted and presented them as, and are thus not nearly as immovable and unchangeable as you thought.

Such dissonance has fueled the long-standing argument that film noir is in fact not a legitimate genre, and instead, an ever-evolving celluloid concept that incorporated retroactively the insight and wisdom of its critics and analysts.  Ellroy himself seemed to reference this very point when he told Ron Hogan in a 1995 interview, “every interview I give is an opportunity to puncture the myth I’ve created about my work and refine it.”

The anthropologist David Berliner has argued that contradictions are an integral component to the human experience.  In fact, Berliner believes the psychological dissonance created by contradictions just may be a necessary catalyst for kick-starting imagination and progress.  We have all seen this process at work in nature, when opposing fault lines collide, and only a violent earthquake can resolve the impasse, giving way to new, though tenuously unified ground.

Berliner goes on to argue that such progress is a product of the brain’s efforts to resolve such oppositions, or—phrased another way—to establish closure. Ellroy readers will recognise closure as the fatuously expeditious and dismissive concept that Ellroy has labored to destroy for nearly 40 years.

I don’t recall the first moment I encountered Ellroy’s direct contradictory nature—whether it was an interview, a videotaped book introduction, or one of the countless websites devoted to the Demon Dog—but when I met Ellroy for the first time in 2009 on his Blood’s A Rover tour, I was already well versed in Ellroy’s elliptical and contradictory public persona.  On that particular evening, October 22, 2009, after spending the better part of an hour absolutely excoriating the Internet and all things cyberspace, the Demon Dog incredulously invited all of us to be his Facebook friends. (This was, of course, before Ellroy’s memorable admonishment of and exit from the social media juggernaut.)

In a brief afterword to the recently disgraced Bill O’Reilly’s 2002 book The No Spin Zone, the Demon Dog explicitly stated that he tuned in nightly to O’Reilly’s Fox News program while holed up in Kansas writing The Cold Six Thousand. Personally, I’ve never cared for Mr. O’Reilly. But, up until then, I had seen and read enough Ellroy interviews to believe the Demon Dog proudly lives sans television. This is something that Ellroy has repeated ad nauseum in the years since (“I don’t own a fucking television!”).

Religion is yet another matter in which Ellroy is a chaotic mass of contradictions:  Ellroy is a devout Christian who has made his zero-tolerance abhorrence of atheists and antitheists clear on countless occasions.  And yet—if you spend any length of time with Ellroy, you will invariably hear him quote from legendary antitheist (and fellow Vanity Fair scribe) Christopher Hitchens—who authored an exceptional 2007 book baring the bluntly Ellrovian title God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens, who died in 2011, was famous for absolutely demolishing his opponents in a debate (a signature move that came to be known as the Hitch Slap). It really would’ve been something to see Ellroy spar with Hitchens, as each man was as relentless as the other, neither willing to give an inch.

Blood’s A Rover was partially inspired by Ellroy’s torrid affair with a Jewish Marxist atheist named Joan—a woman who did such a number on the Demon Dog, that she (and her fictional counterpart) would inspire the apostatic shifts which dominate Rover’s latter half—when Ellroy’s tough guy right wingers get swept up in radical left-leaning causes and improbable inter-racial relationships—jarring contradictions to their former racist and right-wing selves. Though, as with so many of Ellroy’s characters, their misdeeds of the past will ultimately return to violently claim them, drowning out and expunging any new-found progress.

I asked Ellroy about the Joan juncture recently.  “How did you reconcile [Joan’s atheism]?  Because you’ve always had a legendary intolerance for atheists.”  Ellroy laughed, “I wanted it, man!” he said. “I wanted it!”  There’s certainly no denying that intense romantic desire will make even the staunchest men break their own rules, which in noir is a move that often precipitates their total destruction. The fragility of character is on display here, as this ultimate temptation (Joan) eventually reveals how unstable and unreliable those rules were all along.

Ellroy also told me that the pastor at his L.A. church advised him that “If you’re going to call someone a ‘cocksucker’, or ‘motherfucker’, at least follow it up with ‘God bless him,’ and you’ll be absolved.” I’ve seen the Demon Dog put this perverse reverse blessing into practice many times… “He’s a cocksucker, but God bless him.”  

Ellroy’s longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, even poked fun at and implicitly referenced their famous client’s contradictory ways with their introduction to an advanced reader’s copy of Blood’s A Rover, calling the book an “incendiary stand-alone sequel.”

The Demon Dog’s contradictory nature finds its way into social settings too.  I had dinner with Ellroy at a swank Denver steakhouse in August, 2016, and as we each sawed our way through 26-ounce Cajun Delmonico, I couldn’t resist asking Ellroy about his brief stint as a vegetarian.  “Weren’t you a vegetarian for a while?”  “I was,” he replied.  “I love all animals…”  Extolling the virtues of vegetarianism while wolfing a monstrous cut of steak—as Ellroy’s GAY Edgar Hoover might say “I will not comment on the attendant irony.”

After experiencing Ellroy’s signature brand of literary virtuosity, particularly his compulsive focus on inexorable violence and bleak outcomes, an easy criticism of Ellroy is to call him a pessimist—plenty of people already have—and the Demon Dog counters such labeling with a stern rebuke (“I am not pessimistic, I am optimistic! I ignore the world to stay optimistic.”)  Interviewer Nicolas Alvarado recently suggested that Ellroy read relentlessly pessimistic philosopher Emil Cioran. Ellroy was so offended by the suggestion and Alvarado’s aggressive tone that he terminated the interview abruptly and stomped out of the room. I asked Ellroy about this interview recently, and reminded him how he walked out. Ellroy claimed not to remember, but looked somewhat embarrassed when I told him the interview was available on YouTube. “Great!” he said, with an almost exhausted dissatisfaction.  “That’s just what I need!”

When you sit at the right hand of the Demon Dog, it’s a shotgun seat to a wiillld ride through the sordid back alleyways of history… It’s also a prime perch to witness Ellroy’s contradictory nature in full force. I see Ellroy at least once every month, and all too often, half our conversations are about books he’s currently reading or re-reading.  And yet, Ellroy has endlessly told interviewers that he doesn’t read the works of others, despite also being a generous blurber. While promoting The Hilliker Curse, he told TIME magazine’s Rebecca Keegan that “you have to read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and read, and as you read for enjoyment and edification, unconsciously, you assimilate the rudiments of style and technique… it’s an informal education that is oddly formal,” when she asked him if people are born good writers, echoing Stephen King’s oft-repeated point that “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.” Keegan, seeing a contradiction, then astutely asks Ellroy what exactly he reads, citing how the Demon Dog’s office contains just multiple copies of his own novels.  Ellroy admits that he “hasn’t read in a very, very long time… I fear and dislike intrusions… I live in a world of my own cultural creation.”

In an examination of Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out of the Past, Robert Pippin offers an analysis of the film’s ill-fated protagonist, Jeff Bailey, that applies so unmistakably well to Ellroy, it’s difficult to remember these words were written about a fictional character:  “Jeff is a victim of his own actions, and his own actions are so both multiply and obscurely motivated, that they are barely ‘his own’, but they still remain his, attributable to him.  In all these senses, he is trapped by himself, by what he does, and who he happens to be.”

Jason Carter

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

July 11, 2018

I have written a ‘Story Behind the Story’ piece for The Rap Sheet about my new book on James Ellroy. Here’s an extract:

When I began my Ph.D. on the work of James Ellroy in 2006, there was relatively little critical material on this author who called himself “the demon dog of American crime fiction.” There were a number of good articles by critics such as Lee Horsley and Lee Spinks, and the first book about Ellroy, Peter Wolfe’s Like Hot Knives to the Brain: James Ellroy’s Search for Himself, had been released the previous year. On the whole, I was surprised that such a fascinating and controversial figure, who has arguably done more than any other author to reinvent and redefine crime fiction over the past half century (and has always had the knack for generating publicity), had not received more scholarly attention. In the past few years, this has changed. More and more journal articles about Ellroy have appeared, as well as books by Jim Mancall and Anna Flügge. I have contributed to this growing body of scholarship by editing Conversations with James Ellroy, writing several articles, and finally composing a book titled James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction. After the last book, I could have perhaps moved on to other projects. But I had this nagging feeling that there was unfinished business between the Demon Dog and me, and once an idea for a book lodges in your brain—sometimes it’s just impossible to walk away.

You can read the full piece here.

The Big Somewhere

The Chosen Ones by Howard Linsky

June 23, 2018

Eva Dunbar wakes in a large metal box. She has no idea who has taken her. She has no way out. She isn’t the first young woman to disappear. And with no leads Detective Ian Bradshaw has precious little time. When at last a body is found, the police hope the tragic discovery might at least provide a clue that will help them finally find the kidnapper. But then they identify the body – and realise the case is more twisted than they ever imagined . . .

Howard Linskey’s The Chosen Ones is the fourth novel in the Detective Ian Bradshaw series. Bradshaw is a compelling creation; an honest, dogged policeman often tasked with the most disturbing cases which have lead him to grapple with anxiety and depression. Bradshaw is assisted in his investigations by the journalists Tom Carney and Helen Norton. I enjoyed this novel as gripping thriller, with an interesting take on the Buddy-Buddy narrative, and full of twists and turns. Perhaps the final twist was just a bit too much for me but, more than a week after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it and that’s the sign of engaging writing.

Howard Linskey kindly agreed to answer some questions about his novel and writing:

Interviewer: The Chosen Ones is the fourth novel in your series featuring characters DS Ian Bradshaw and journalists Helen Norton and Tom Carney. What inspired you to create these characters, and why did you choose a detective/journalist team?

Linskey: With No Name Lane, the first book in the series, I had the idea for a story about a journalist who is suspended from his newspaper in London, so he returns home to investigate the case of a missing girl from his old village. Tom Carney then clashes with the police investigating the crime and the young woman who has taken his old job at the local paper. Then I thought it would be interesting if they eventually agreed to cooperate, with each one bringing the solution to a different piece of the puzzle. They also have contrasting skills and pursue leads in very different ways. Ian Bradshaw is restricted by police procedure and the law, whereas the journalists are free to use other methods to extract information and this brings ethical dilemmas. It gives me more options when I am writing about a case from the perspective of three contrasting people, from two very different worlds, who all want the same thing; answers.

Interviewer: Following on from this, how do you feel about the way these characters change over the course of a series. Do you map out how their personal and professional lives will change?

Linskey: They do change and develop along the way, as we all do. They get a little older and possibly wiser and are affected by what happens to them. We are all shaped by our experiences. When those experiences involve investigations into murder and the disturbing reasons behind those killings then it is bound to have an effect. I explore this in the books; with Detective Ian Bradshaw in particular, carrying scars from previous cases, which results in spells of depression, stress and anxiety, including panic attacks. Tom and Helen both have personal lives that affect them in other ways too. Tom was abandoned by his mother when he was a small child and tends to be commitment phobic as a result. Helen had issues surrounding her relationship with a controlling partner that she finally breaks free from. Helen and Tom are also attracted to one another and care for each other but their timing is always a little off, with one or the other in a relationship at any one time. I only tend to plan their personal lives one book at a time, so I’m not restricted by a long-term plan.

Interviewer: How do you feel the series is different from your David Blake novels?

Linskey: Aside from the north east setting and some of the humour that is sprinkled in with all the serious stuff, these books are very different. My first trilogy followed Blake, who starts off as a white-collar criminal slowly dragged into a very murky world of organised crime. He has to adapt in order to survive and protect his loved ones. The four books in the Bradshaw/Norton/Carney series are all about unravelling mysteries that surround cold or seemingly unsolvable cases. There is peril and danger in these stories too but my main characters are mostly trying to work out what has happened to someone who has been murdered or has gone missing, so they can bring closure and justice to a difficult case.

Interviewer: The Chosen Ones jumps around a little chronologically, from the 1970s to the present day. How do you get accuracy in your period setting? Do you do a lot of research to achieve this?

Linskey: The short answer is I lived through it all, so that certainly helps. ‘The Search’ for example is partly set in 1976 and I can remember that long hot summer, as I was nine years old back then. I was also a journalist in the nineties, like Tom and Helen. I do research though, because you can’t entirely rely on your memory and there are always specific topics to look into as well. ‘The Chosen Ones’ needed research on the Cold War, underground bunkers, bible quotations and the development of technology, to ensure I didn’t write something that wasn’t accurate for its time. The trickiest part of the research is when you are enjoying the reading too much and lose an entire morning without writing a word. That leads to panic and intense catch-up sessions to get the word count back on track.

Interviewer: In the Author’s Note you describe how the plot was inspired by the discovery of ‘Scotland’s Secret Bunker’ in St Andrews. Do you have any vivid memories of the Cold War? Are there any films or novels dealing with the threat of Nuclear War which inspired you?

Linskey: I remember growing up in an era where we all thought the world could abruptly end if there was a misunderstanding between super powers or our technology let us down but it is only recently that we have learned how close we came to Armageddon back then. I’ve been re-watching the Terminator films with my daughter and they hit on a stark and simple fact that makes them compelling; we rely on computers and technology so much but what if they go wrong? If they malfunction, nuclear warheads could conceivably be launched in error and it nearly happened. If you think this seems far-fetched, check out a couple of times when the world came to the brink of nuclear war, which astonishingly occurred within a month of each other back in 1983. ‘Able Archer’ was a war game played out by NATO, which the Soviet union mistakenly thought was an actual attempt to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against them. It seems incredible now but they almost fired on us first, because they feared they were about to be wiped out. Then there is the case of Stanislav Petrov, who died last year. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian armed forces, who should in theory have responded to a report from their early warning system that nuclear missiles had been fired from the United States. He doubted its veracity and didn’t urge retaliation but, if he had obeyed orders, none of us would be here. It turned out that the early warning system had malfunctioned. It’s incredible when you think how high the stakes were and how close we have come to total annihilation.

Interviewer: Central to the novel is a kidnapping plot and there are some disturbing themes of sexual abuse, religious paranoia and mental breakdown. How do you navigate this territory as a writer?

Linskey: In a word, carefully. If you are writing crime novels then you have to tackle themes that are disturbing. What I desperately want to avoid is exploiting them in a gratuitous way. You won’t get torture-porn in my books and I hope that is quite clear from reading them. The religious element in The Chosen Ones is to show how biblical phrases, written two thousand years ago, can be selectively chosen to justify more or less anything. If you have an evil or twisted mind it is amazing how you can locate verses that give you carte blanche to beat or kill someone. The bible also repeatedly states that women must be obedient and subservient to men, particularly fathers and husbands, which is obviously something I am very strongly against. I suppose I am saying that, even if you believe in God (and I emphatically do not believe in the biblical God), then don’t just unquestioningly use the ancient, primitive words of the bible as your moral code.

Interviewer: One of the sub-plots deals with how ethical lines are crossed when senior police officers are racing for promotion. Is this something you felt passionately about, and wanted to condemn in the text?

Linskey: I do feel passionately about corruption of any kind and this behaviour is a form of it. Anyone who has worked for private companies, witnesses a level of arse-covering, selfishness and duplicity in senior management that can make you feel quite sickly at times. When this is transplanted into the world of the police, where things really do matter, because they are dealing with criminals, victims and justice it can cause actual, lasting harm to real people. There is a lot of this kind of behaviour, in all walks of life, published in the newspapers every day and it never fails to anger me. South Yorkshire police, for example, behaved disgracefully over Hillsborough, Orgreave and Rotherham and that is just one police force. Having said that I am at pains to make the point that there are a lot of very fine police officers out there, including DS Ian Bradshaw. I certainly don’t condemn them all and try to present a balanced view of the police, with the good appearing alongside the bad.

Interviewer: You’ve indicated Bradshaw, Norton and Carney will return in a new novel in 2019. Can you give us any hints as what this novel will be about?

Linskey: A young girl called Alice Teale is last seen leaving school one evening, after taking part in out-of-hours activities. She’s only seventeen and never reaches her home. As Ian Bradshaw starts to uncover the truth about the case, he realises Alice is from a small town that is riddled with secrets but which one of them is responsible for her disappearance? Facing police budget cuts and manpower shortages, he asks Tom and Helen to help him out again but there is a catch this time. There is no money to pay them. They become involved in the search for Alice anyway and finally learn that in a town full of secrets, hers is the biggest.

Love Me Fierce in Danger – James Ellroy and Sexuality

May 30, 2018

James Ellroy has always been obsessed with women. He claims the LA Quartet could be subtitled ‘Bad Men in Love with Strong Women’. His second memoir The Hilliker Curse chronicles his lifelong sexual fascination with women, from his mother to a litany of ‘Girlfriends, wives, one-night stands, paid companions’ and voyeuristic fantasies. Ellroy once told me, ‘my books are all about one thing and one thing only, a man needs a woman. This is the Romantic’s code.’

However, critics would be wrong to dismiss Ellroy’s fiction as consumed with macho, heterosexual stereotypes. Ellroy has written about queer relationships in fiction and biography with the same obsessed fervour that drives his portrayal of male/female relationships. In his memoir My Dark Places (1996), Ellroy claims his first sexual contact as a teenager was with another boy, ‘a neighbourhood kid’. Their physical relationship began with acts of mutual masturbation. Ellroy ‘loved it and hated it’. He worried his father might find out if he talked in his sleep through what he described as dreams ‘scarier than my worst Black Dahlia nightmares’. The friendship with the boy eventually became strained to the point where the boy challenged Ellroy to a fight. The bout became an excuse for both lads to reassert their heterosexuality: ‘We heaved, lurched, thrashed, flailed and powder-puff-punched the shit out of each other’ until ‘we ended up dehydrated and falling-down dizzy and unable to lift our arms.’ Ellroy lost the fight, but boxing would prove the perfect metaphor for the sexual obsessions which permeate through his narrative worlds.

The first significant portrayal of gay characters in Ellroy’s work appears in his novel Blood on the Moon (1984). The novel is ‘contrapunctually-structured’, alternating between the lead detective Lloyd Hopkins and the serial killer he is hunting, Theodore Verplanck. Verplanck has become a serial killer, as the rage imbued in him after being raped as a teenager manifests itself in his desire to murder women. The novel opens with the teenage Verplanck being ambushed at his school, Marshall High, by two class bullies. Larry ‘Birdman’ Craigie and Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines despise Verplanck’s effeminacy and how Verplanck had mocked their swaggering machismo in his poetry. The carefully planned assault becomes chaotic when Whitey discovers the violence has made him sexually aroused:

Now Whitey knew what his hardness meant, and he knelt beside the poet and pulled off his Levi cords and boxer shorts and spread his legs and blunderingly plunged himself into him. The poet screamed once he entered; then his breathing settled into something strangely like ironic laughter.

As Jim Mancall has argued, Ellroy’s early portrayals of gay characters tend to restrict it to being a psycho-sexual motive for murder. Is the reader to believe that Verplanck enjoys being raped, as evidenced in his ironic laughter during the attack? If so, the text hasn’t aged well, and it is possible to see how Ellroy has drawn the wrath of such critics as Mike Davis. That is not to say that Verplanck isn’t sympathetic, despite the murderous acts he embarks on as a consequence of this trauma. Whitey and Birdman become lovers, held together by a mutual loathing.  When Verplanck is stalking one of his female victims, he is overcome with fear when he sees her in an intimate embrace with another woman. Lesbianism further confuses his sexuality and enrages his psychopathic desires. Verplanck kills women before they can be tainted by sexual union. As his only experience of sex was horrific, he assumes it will be the same for all women. Murder is a form of female salvation in his eyes. 

Ellroy would return to the sexually motivated serial killer in greater depth in Killer on the Road (originally published as Silent Terror). The novel is structured as the memoir of mass murderer Martin Plunkett, written at Sing Sing where Plunkett is serving four consecutive life sentences. Ellroy imbues Plunkett with many autobiographical traits the reader will recognise, and makes the later revelation of the killer’s sexuality quite revealing. Plunkett is not a sympathetic character but Ellroy is open about identifying with him anyway. Plunkett is from a broken home in LA. His father is charismatic, workshy and sex-obsessed. Plunkett lives with his disturbed mother, who essentially becomes his first victim when he starts replacing her medication with benzedrine. Her behaviour becomes increasingly uncontrollable until she slits open her wrists in the bathtub. Plunkett drinks the bloody bathwater while waiting for the Emergency services to arrive. This is the beginning of Plunkett’s killing spree. His favourite victims are blonde women. While on his murderous road trip across the US, Plunkett is detained in Wisconsin by State Troopers. One of the Troopers, Ross Anderson, has witnessed him commit a murder. Thinking that the game is up, Plunkett is relieved and surprised to discover that Anderson is also a serial killer. Furthermore, the smooth-talking lawman recognises the sexual orientation which Plunkett has been repressing and seduces him. The unlikely pillow talk of the two lovebird serial killers gives a barbed insight into the sexual motivations that drives them: ‘Apples and oranges. You like blonds, I like brunettes; that guy they caught last year, the Pittsburgh Pistolwhipper, he liked redheads. Like they used to say back in the ’60’s, ‘Do you own thing.” Plunkett is both drawn to and repelled by Anderson. He resists the urge to ‘maim his beauty’, casting Anderson in the role of the sexually attractive female that had been his typical victim. If it is love that stops Plunkett from killing Anderson, then it is also his undoing. When Anderson is captured he quickly betrays Plunkett to the authorities.

With The Big Nowhere, Ellroy began approaching sexuality with more sensitivity and maturity. Although, ironically, the novel was inspired by a film which had been widely denounced as homophobic. Ellroy took inspiration from William Friedkin’s Cruising about ‘a young cop, presumably heterosexual, played by Al Pacino, and there’s gay killings in Greenwich Village circa 1980’. Ellroy freely admitted the film was ‘bad, it’s elliptical, it’s just full of shit’.  At the time, the film was met with protests by gay activists. However, Ellroy took the premise of a detective going undercover and finding himself drawn to the underground LGBT culture for The Big Nowhere. Danny Upshaw is the Sheriff’s Deputy who is tasked with infiltrating a group of Hollywood communist sympathisers, the leader of which is Claire ‘the Red Queen’ DeHaven. Upshaw is gleefully instructed by his superiors that he might ‘have to fuck the pants off of her’ in the line of duty. While he responds in the affirmative, it is clear Upshaw’s heart isn’t really in it, whereas many an Ellroy protagonist would have become sexually-obsessed with DeHaven (as Dudley Smith does in Perfidia). When Upshaw flirts with an attractive secretary to win favours he is ‘disgusted’ when she ‘tried to return the wink, but her false eyelash stuck to the ridge below her eye, and she had to fumble her cigarette into an ashtray and pull it free.’ These hints as to his sexual orientation are later revealed more forcefully when Upshaw encounters the ‘talent agent’ pimp Felix Gordean who taunts him over his failure to hide his sexuality behind a hyper-masculine cop role. With both Upshaw, and Plunkett in Killer on the Road, the repression of sexual desire is so strong that both men are surprised at their sexuality, and it falls on other gay men to reveal it to them. However, even in death, Upshaw conjures up a form of denial. When Upshaw commits suicide he decides to slit his throat open rather than the less painful method of putting a gun in his mouth because of the phallic symbolism of the latter, and the thought that cops might use it for lewd humour. It is his final act of sexual repression, and yet it also acknowledges that a sexual motivation can be found in every act.

Ellroy would offer a radically different portrayal of sexuality with the character of Lenny Sands in American Tabloid. Sands is a Jewish lounge entertainer and Mob associate. He is in no doubt as to his sexuality, but he is still in the closet, as it could lead to a death sentence from his Mob employers. He gets a taste of Mob hypocrisy when, during a visit to the gay haunt Perry’s Little Log Cabin, he sees Outfit hitman ‘Icepick’ Tony Iannone snogging another man. Iannone and Sands lock eyes, knowing they have discovered a secret about each other that could lead to either man’s death. Immediately, a chase and fight ensues which ends with Sands stabbing Iannone to death in a back alley. Sands is coerced by FBI agent Ward Littell into becoming an informer after the murder. Littell is a devout Catholic who had tailed Sands to the gay bar. Upon seeing both the gangster and the lounge entertainer in a gay hotspot a morally confused Littell thinks ‘Tony/Lenny/Lenny/Tony – who knows who’s QUEER?’ Outfit Boss Sam Giancana uses his press connections to suppress reports Iannone’s corpse was found near a Queer bar as he refuses to believe he was gay.

Sands, like Upshaw, also decides to end his life. Yet, his death reads like a proud embracing of his sexuality as he opens his wrists and writes ‘I am a homosexual’ on the wall in his own blood. ‘Who would have believed it?’ Giancana is caught on FBI wiretap discussing Sands sexuality and suicide. Lenny Sands is proof that Ellroy had matured in his portrayal of queer characters. Unlike the dubious pseudo-science of his early serial killers, there was a historical basis in his creation of Sands. The Mafia did extort money out of gay bars (Friedkin needed permission from Genovese mobster Matty ‘the Horse’ Ianniello before he could film in the gay bars for Cruising), and then there was the case of mobster John D’Amato who was murdered by his gangster buddies after being outed.

Gay men would continue to appear in Ellroy’s work. Marshall Bowen, the black LAPD cop in Blood’s a Rover is a reconstituted form of the Upshaw character. Bowen resembles Upshaw in that his undercover status– FBI informant assigned to infiltrate Black militant groups– is also hiding his sexuality. Mancall identifies Bowen as Ellroy’s most mature fictional queer character to date. When the actor Sal Mineo is employed to seduce Bowen in a honeytrap, Bowen intuits and foils the scheme by simply resisting Mineo’s charms. Mancall dubs this as ‘a nearly singular moment in Ellroy’s fiction – a gay man who is mature enough to have some control over his sexuality’. Perhaps Ellroy took inspiration from his fictional portrayal of a real-life gay figure. The scene is a reworking of a plot device in The Cold Six Thousand wherein Mineo is hired to seduce Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. The snare fails and J. Edgar Hoover is disappointed he will never get to see the secret recording of the tryst. ‘O bird thou never wert’ he laments, quoting a Romantic poet to an underling.

In Perfidia, Ellroy once again created a character who is visibly marginalised because of race or ethnicity, and is also hiding his sexuality to avoid other forms of discrimination. Hideo Ashida is a brilliant chemist and the only Japanese American who is permitted to work for the LAPD in the early 1940s. While his Japanese compatriots are being interred at Manzanar and Heart Mountain in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Ashida has to deal with daily distrust and loathing from his police colleagues while trying to contain his feelings for Bucky Bleichert. Bleichert, unaware that both Ashida and Kay Lake are falling for him, has also managed to forge a wartime career at the LAPD despite his German heritage.

Bleichert, as readers of The Black Dahlia will know, becomes a star boxer (Mr Ice) for the LAPD. Ellroy is a lifelong boxing enthusiast and has never shirked from its homoerotic aspects. In an interview I conducted with the author, he describes an incident when he was locked up in the LA County Jail. Ellroy got into a fight with a Mexican drag queen by the name of Peaches. Peaches had been teasing him, so Ellroy thought, ‘I know I gotta pop Peaches or people’ll think I’m a sissy and I’ll be subject to some unwanted scrutiny’. Ellroy knocked down Peaches with one punch to the approval of the inmates present. ‘But then Peaches gets up, and Peaches has hands like Muhammed Ali, and Peaches kicked my fucking ass.’ Peaches ‘never got a sex change, he couldn’t afford it, but he kicked my ass!’ Peaches was a strong figure who left a major impression on Ellroy. Ellroy may never be a gay icon, but through Danny Upshaw, Lenny Sands, Marshall Bowen and Hideo Ashida, to name a few, he created queer characters who are all strong and distinct in their different ways. It’s true they struggle to control their sexuality, as Mancall puts it, but this is also a defining characteristic of Ellroy’s ‘Bad Men’ Dave Klein, Pete Bondurant and Wayne Tedrow Jnr who have to reconcile ‘the Life’ with the ‘Strong Women’ they love.

As Ellroy told Rodney Taveira, his obsession with strong, beautiful and often unobtainable women, as well as with sexuality dates back to his first sexual experience and the fight that followed it:

89% of males in 1948 admit to some homosexuality, but it didn’t mean they were a homo. I knew that when I was doing it with my buddy that I wasn’t a homo. But I was afraid people would think I was a homo. I’m an American man who’s straight so that kind of shit scares me. But you want to know why there’s all this gay shit in my books? It’s because in ‘62 this neighbourhood kid and I pulled each other off. It ain’t hard to figure that one out.

For Ellroy, and all of his characters that follow the Romantic’s code, the struggle goes on.

Days of Smoke by Woody Haut – Review

May 18, 2018

Woody Haut has long traversed the mean streets of noir, first as a distinguished critic and scholar of the subject, and latterly with the publication of his debut novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime in 2015.  As a storyteller, Haut offers a rich sense of atmosphere, period and narrative. His latest novel, Days of Smoke, is a semi-autobiographical tale. Days of Smoke, in many ways maps out how Haut was introduced to the great noir theme of alienation through his personal experiences as a young man in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Cry For a Nickel was set in LA in 1960: a year the noir reader will recognise as classic territory, with the Hat Squad at war with the local Underworld, crime reporters negotiating the blurred lines that separated the LAPD from the Mob, and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood disguising an extremely sordid underbelly. With the quasi-sequel Days of Smoke, the setting is still LA but the time is June 1968. In critical terms, this time-shift marks the transition from film noir to neo-noir where both crime films and hardboiled fiction evolved stylistically to parallel societal changes. Much of the hidden tensions of the 1950s had come boiling over the surface by this point. Hollywood’s power has been denuded. Radical groups are running amok. Civil society is in freefall with race riots at home and an unpopular war abroad.

Connie Myles is a twenty-one-year-old woman working at the draft board. It’s ironic employment for someone who, as the opening line candidly states, ‘hated the fucking war’. One day, accompanied by his father Abe (the main protagonist of Cry For a Nickel), Mike Howard walks in to declare himself a conscientious objector. Mike doesn’t stand a chance against the swaggering chauvinists who are Connie’s colleagues. Men who, upon rejecting Mike’s pacifism, ‘were ebullient, like they were high on something, like they had just done their bit to defeat the enemy, like one more dope-smoking, draft-dodging loser had been beaten down and the country was, for the time being, in safe hands.’ Disgusted by the system, and determined to help Mike through one small act of defiance, Connie steals his file. This sparks a chain reaction of bizarre, gripping and violent events, loosely tied together in the best tradition of Elmore Leonard, which includes the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and a brutal double homicide reminiscent of the Manson Family murders. For much of the novel, Mike can only stand back and watch, such as when Kennedy is shot dead in the Ambassador hotel with a gun that, ironically for a peacenik, had once been in Mike’s possession:

Bobby lay on his back, a pool of blood forming behind his head.

Mike could hear people screaming.

They killed him.

Not again.

They killed him.

Who killed him?

Others had been shot as well.

Who?

How many?

No one knew.

‘They’ seems quite revealing in this instance, suggesting both the chaos in the immediacy of the moment and the paranoia of characters caught in webs of conspiracies. Who killed him? ‘They’ killed Bobby just as They killed Jack. Are ‘They’ the CIA, the Mafia, lone gunmen or is just everyone pitted against each in this world as Nixon cultivates his Silent Majority.

Having recently worked with Woody Haut on a book about James Ellroy I was informed by the author to expect an Ellrovian influence in Days of Smoke, and it’s visible when Mike meets right-wing nut, or agent provocateur if you prefer, Jonathan, who goes by the name of Juan as he thinks masquerading as a Cuban right-winger would be the fastest way to make people hate him. Juan developed anti-social tendencies after his mother was murdered. He describes dressing up as a Nazi to agitate Jewish students at the school he attends, Fairfax High, which readers might recognise as being based on Ellroy’s own deranged behaviour when he attended Fairfax. Ellroy’s actions led to the future Demon Dog of American Literature being expelled, and it must be a notorious chapter of the school’s history as Fairfax do not list Ellroy as one of their alumni, even though they do list other notable students who dropped out such as Demi Moore. But while Haut is covering similar territory to Ellroy, both thematically and from memory and experience, Haut views conspiracies as less coordinated than the crimes committed by Ellroy’s unholy trinity of Mob/Intelligence Services/Cuban exiles. Ellroy created a secret history in which everything connects, partly through J. Edgar Hoover’s massive archive of classified files. Haut’s approach is less structuralist, not as grandiose and perhaps less contrived than Ellroy’s. There are some very satisfying plot twists in Days of Smoke, but the characters are caught as much in noir fatalism as they are in the military-industrial complex. This to me was the biggest achievement of the novel, to merge Ellroy’s institutional corruption with the individual despair of David Goodis. As Ron Slate identifies in his review of the novel, the central premise of Days of Smoke is rooted in autobiography: ‘In 1968, Woody Haut appeared at the office of the Pasadena draft board to reestablish his status as a conscientious objector.’ In comparing Haut’s experiences of the Sixties with Ellroy’s it is possible to read them as opposite poles of thought – one left-wing the other right-leaning – and yet more drawn to each other in their critique of authoritarianism than at first apparent. Ellroy had his first brush with the military in 1965. He volunteered for the US Army, his father having forbidden him to join the Marine Corps as Ellroy ‘might have gone to Vietnam and got my ass shot’. After taking an instant dislike to army life, Ellroy faked a nervous breakdown in order to be discharged, thus permanently avoiding the Vietnam War. By the time Haut was registering as a conscientious objector, a path that would take him to London which would become his home from where he would write his seminal studies of the genre, Ellroy was drifting between homelessness, crime and several stints in the LA County Jail. Both authors’ different paths would lead them into becoming expert noir practitioners, as Mike says of Juan, ‘(he) had more than his share of misfortunes, which had turned him into the person he now was, that this right-wing thing was just a guise, a way of separating himself from others, allowing him to become someone different, that the death of his mother was the beginning of a process that simply allowed him to shed one skin for another, though what he was today might not necessarily be who he would become tomorrow.’

Days of Smoke is a crime novel set in a decade teetering on the brink of revolution. The reader knows how the history will play out, but there are still plenty of surprises in the narrative and, not to mention, some insightful parallels with the current fractious political climate. In forging a new noir style out of political history, personal experience and his encyclopedic knowledge of noir, Woody Haut has crafted a modern classic in the genre. Not to be missed.

The Great Bravura by Jill Dearman – Review

May 9, 2018

The Great Bravura is a novel which weaves together illusion and film noir, philosophy and art and sexuality and a missing woman case. It is a mystery whodunnit that asks ‘Is the central event a crime or an illusion?’

Bravura and Susie have a magic act in 1940s New York, plus a friendship and on/off romance which has served them well. But when the seductive Lena joins their act, like the uninvited guest in a Harold Pinter play, she begins to tear them apart with her belief in real magic. When Susie vanishes during their ‘Disappearing Box’ act, Bravura is at a loss. Has Lena used the dark arts to get rid of Susie, making it a case of murder by illusion?

Dearman presents a noir world where people are drawn to the colour of magic, but the real magic act of this novel is how the post-war period setting is an alternative history where gay marriage and lesbian parents are as commonplace and accepted as they are in liberal societies today. Any noir aficionado is drawn to the romanticism of the 1940s/50s era with its mean streets, smoky bars and hardboiled attitude, but looking back at this time, readers of traditional noirs will recognise homophobic attitudes that rankle today. Dearman could have made this a narrative about prejudice. Instead, it reads as a celebration of sexuality and noir, with musings on surrealism and metaphysics woven into the text as effortlessly as the references to classic film noirs: ‘Build My Gallows High’, ‘Leave Her to Heaven’, ‘Nightmare Alley’ and more seminal noir titles are all used as chapter headings. The story alternates between the three first-person viewpoints: Bravura’s, Lena’s and Susie’s. This gives the reader insight into the minds of Dearman’s three illusionists and heightens the sense of difficulty Bravura increasingly faces in separating reality from fiction. Is the titular character controlling these illusory images or is she subservient to a dream-like reality?:

The moment before you awaken is usually the most glorious. You are awash in the world of dreams. When you open your eyes, that’s when reality starts to sink in. You’re not a rich gentleman farmer living the quiet life. You’re not a household name, worshipped by millions of adoring fans. But for me, that morning, whatever I was dreaming about – dancing with Dietrich? Playing poker with Orson? – none of it could compare to what I had right beside me in real life.

Where was she?

The moment between sleep and waking, between the missing and the deceptively apparent, infuses Dearman’s vision of noir. In an interview for The Brooklyn Railshe compares noir to the ‘missing letter’ of the Hebrew alphabet:

It’s impossible-to-name sound that fills the void in the universe. The breath of life in other cultures. I think of it as the pause that we “hear” yet don’t hear in music. Noir contains a lot of that silent invisible presence. Noir is impossible to define in an absolute way, yet oftentimes it is the musicality of it—the jazzy American riffing, mixed with the wild id-driven and idiosyncratic exploration of the irrationality of human nature that the French existentialists wrote about so eloquently—that makes us recognize a work of fiction or film as truly “noir.”

While critical arguments persist about which works classify as noir and which do not, this reader is left in no doubt that with this novel Dearman has captured the musicality of the genre, and with it she has crafted a darkly romantic and thrilling noir tale. But even if you’re not a fan of the genre, like a sceptic at a magic show, you’ll find yourself surprised, deceived and won-over by The Great Bravura.

%d bloggers like this: