I must admit I’ve been feeling some withdrawal symptons after the excellent TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager finished. le Carré’s novel of former hotel manager turned undercover spy Jonathan Pine’s mission to infiltrate an arms dealers’ entourage and bring Richard ‘the worst man in the world’ Roper to justice gripped me from beginning to end, and it made riveting viewing onscreen. In the US The Night Manager can currently be seen on AMC.
The Night Manager got me thinking about which other of le Carrè novels deserve to be adapted to film or television. Fourteen of le Carrè’s novels have so far been adapted for the small and silver screen, ranging from the Good (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), the Bad (A Perfect Spy), and the Ugly (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — film, not TV, version).
Hugh Laurie recently claimed that The Night Manager’s strength lay in the fact that it was the first novel le Carré published after the end of the Cold War, and as such it still managed to retain the hauntingly powerful resonance of his previous novels which had all been set in the ideological conflict between East and West: the longest and most complicated espionage duel the world had ever seen.
Alas, I don’t think the same power could be attributed to all of le Carré’s post- Cold War novels. Single and Single (1999) is dour and uninvolving. Absolute Friends (2003) veers dangerously close to anti-American bigotry. Both would make dull films. Of the Cold War novels yet to be adapted, I would love to see The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) onscreen, partly because it is a gripping, action-packed tale in which le Carré sketches some vivid portrayals of South East Asia and also because it features his most famous character — George Smiley. However, there are some obstacles to overcome from page to screen. The plot is fiendishly complex and would be difficult for a screenwriter to render concisely, and The Honourable Schoolboy is also the middle book of the Smiley Versus Karla trilogy, making the back-story an issue for the uninitiated viewer.
The 1995 novel Our Game, I believe, is a stronger candidate for adaptation. The plot develops from a relatively simple premise. Retired spy Tim Cranmer is visited by two police detectives one evening who grill him about the disappearance of his friend Larry Pettifer. Pettifer was Cranmer’s protégé in British intelligence, but they both seemingly left the world of espionage to pursue a more peaceful life. Recalled to London by his former spymasters, Cranmer learns that Pettifer has swindled the Russian government out of a small fortune. Pettifer’s motive is the conduit through which le Carré explores themes such as the nature of belief. Cranmer has typically British views: a dislike for ideology, a predilection to compromise and a belief in his country that is tempered by an understanding of its corruption. Despite the Christian symbolism of his name, Cranmer has no firm religious views:
I am not a God man, though I believe society is better for Him than without Him. I do not reject Him as Larry does, and then go scurrying after Him to apologise. But I do not accept Him either.
But if Cranmer can appreciate the status of the Church of England while never believing in its dogma, as Roger Scruton put it, ‘my tribal religion, the religion of the English who don’t believe a word of it’, then Pettifer, by contrast, is dashing idealism all the way. His undercover work put him in touch with the oppressed Ingush people of the Caucasus. Moved by their historical plight at the hands of the Tsarists, communists and finally the Russian Federation, Pettifer’s fraud was initiated to help the Ingush in their struggle for independence. The relationship between Cranmer and Pettifer is complicated further as Cranmer’s young mistress Emma has run off with his former friend. Should Cranmer try to rescue Pettifer from his folly or leave him to be hunted down by vengeful Russians? While le Carré never works up nailbiting suspense in Our Game he nevertheless crafted a compelling and absorbing novel. The title refers to both the tradecraft of espionage and also ‘the annual festival of Winchester Football, a game so arcane that even experienced players may not know all the rules.’ Cranmer and Pettifer both attended an elitist private school as children, and after the titular football game, Cranmer has to thrash New Boy Pettifer who found himself on the losing side. Pettifer refuses to comply with any of Cranmer’s demands that would allow him to give a softer beating:
‘Why didn’t you sing?’ I ask him, later that night as he bends over the same table.
‘It’s against my religion. I’m a Jew.’
‘No, you’re not. You’re father’s in the Church.’
‘I’ll give you one chance,’ I say expansively. ‘What is the Notion for Winchester Football?’ It is the easiest test I can think of in the entire school vernacular, a gift.
‘Jew-baiting,’ he replies.
So I have no alternative but to beat him, when all he needed to say was Our Game.
In his recent writing le Carré seems to be at his best when he is imitating other writers. The Tailor of Panama (1996) is a tribute to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958) with its Foreign Office Englishman abroad theme. The Night Manager has a Bondian romantic adventure feel to it (le Carré would be loathe to admit it but the TV adaptation only confirmed the Fleming undertones of the story in my mind). Our Game has a Kiplingesque fascination and reverence for Ingushetia and its people, and this is what makes the narrative so powerful. Through imitation, le Carré has demonstrated that he is at his best when his authorial voice doesn’t swamp the text. Our Game’s complex, non-chronological structure would certainly be a challenge for the screen, but with two fine actors, the duel between Cranmer and Pettifer would be electrifying. Cranmer and Pettifer are, in effect, two sides of le Carré’s character. Cranmer is the Smiley-figure resigned to his fallen world and Pettifer is the young radical le Carré seems to regret he never became. In this tension between them, one voice never drowns out the other.
The shortlist for Crimefest awards has been announced:
Audible Sounds of Crime Award:
– Lee Child for Make Me, read by Jeff Harding (Random House Audiobooks)
– Harlan Coben for The Stranger, read by Eric Meyers (Orion Publishing Group)
– Robert Galbraith for Career of Evil, read by Robert Glenister (Hachette Audio UK)
– Paula Hawkins for The Girl on the Train, read by Clare Corbett, India Fisher & Louise Brealey (Random House Audiobooks)
– Stephen King for Finders Keepers, read by Will Patton (Hodder & Stoughton)
– David Lagercrantz for The Girl in the Spider’s Web, translated by George Goulding and read by Saul Reichlin (Quercus)
– Clare Mackintosh for I Let You Go, read by David Thorpe & Julia Barrie (Hachette Audio)
– Ian Rankin for Even Dogs in the Wild, read by James Macpherson (Orion Publishing Group)
KOBO eDUNNIT Award
– Linwood Barclay for Broken Promise (Orion Publishing Group)
– Michael Connelly for The Crossing (Orion Publishing Group)
– Judith Flanders for A Bed of Scorpions (Allison & Busby)
– Suzette A. Hill for A Southwold Mystery (Allison & Busby)
– Laurie R. King for Dreaming Spies (Allison & Busby)
– Jax Miller for Freedom’s Child (HarperCollins)
– Denise Mina for Blood, Salt, Water (Orion Publishing Group)
– Andrew Taylor for The Silent Boy (HarperCollins)
Last Laugh Award:
– Sascha Arango for The Truth and Other Lies (Simon & Schuster)
– Alan Bradley for As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Orion Publishing Group)
– Simon Brett for Mrs Pargeter’s Principle (Severn House Publishing)
– Christopher Fowler for Bryant & May and the Burning Man (Transworld)
– Elly Griffiths for Smoke and Mirrors (Quercus)
– Malcolm Pryce for The Case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste (Bloomsbury)
– Mike Ripley for Mr Campion’s Fox (Severn House Publishing)
– Jason Starr for Savage Lane (No Exit Press)
HRF Keating Award:
– David Stuart Davies & Barry Forshaw for The Sherlock Holmes Book (Dorling Kindersley)
– Martin Edwards for The Golden Age of Murder (HarperCollins)
– Fergus Fleming for The Man With the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters (Bloomsbury)
– Barry Forshaw for Crime Uncovered: Detective (Intellect)
– Julius Green for Curtains Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in Theatre (HarperCollins)
– Maysam Hasam Jaber for Criminal Femmes Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan)
– Fiona Peters & Rebecca Stewart for Crime Uncovered: Anti-hero (Intellect)
– Adam Sisman for John le Carré: The Biography (Bloomsbury)
– Karin Fossum for The Drowned Boy, translated by Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)
– Kati Hiekkapelto for The Defenceless, translated by David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)
– Jørn Lier Horst for The Caveman, translated by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)
– David Lagercrantz for The Girl in the Spider’s Web, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)
– Hans Olav Lahlum for Satellite People, translated by Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway)
– Antti Tuomainen for Dark As My Heart, translated by Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)
My book, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, was on the longlist for the HRF Keating award. Alas, it never made the transition from longlist to shortlist but I was nevertheless thrilled to see it listed alongside works by distinguished authors such as Martin Edwards, Adam Sisman and Barry Forshaw. Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More, edited by Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti, to which I contributed a chapter, was also up for the Keating award but, again, never made it to the shortlist. Still, as Orson Welles use to say “Sour grapes are not my dish.”
Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees.
The 1978 publication of The Last Good Kiss was a turning point not only in the career of its author James Crumley but also in the crime genre itself. I first read about the exploits of Crumley’s endearingly amoral private detective C.W. Sughrue about five years ago, and it was wonderful to revisit the character to review the novel for Shotsmag. Funnily enough, I was reading the novel around the same time I interviewed the novelist Craig McDonald, and he discussed at length the influence Crumley had on his writing. Here’s a snippet from my review:
Anyone who has ever attempted to write fiction will know how important– and agonisingly difficult—your opening line is to write. You can rewrite and rephrase the same sentence again and again in the elusive hope it will read well enough to grab the attention of agents and editors. James Crumley claimed the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss (1978) took him two months to write compared to the relatively short twelve months for the rest of the novel.
Like many a classic opening line, it seems as effortlessly pleasurable as the first whiskey of the evening, or at least that’s how Crumley might have put it:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out a fine spring afternoon.
You can read the full review here.
My copy of The Last Good Kiss arrived with a much welcome gift. If only all review copies came with such goodies…
The Crime Museum is a museum within a museum. Established in the mid-1870s by serving police officers to train recruits, the Crime Museum has been opened to the public for the first time at an exhibition hosted by the Museum of London. With its Brutalist architecture, the Museum of London looks like the perfect setting for many a crime, no wonder Ian Fleming named a Bond villain after one of the key proponents of Brutalism. Putting the building’s lack of aesthetic appeal aside, as a museum it’s always worth a visit and this latest exhibition has proved a real draw with the opening hours having been extended till midnight in order to cope with demand. This says a great deal about the public’s fascination with crime. I waded through a sizeable crowd to see guns, knives and poisons that had actually been used as murder weapons. Death masks of executed murderers lined the shelves and the nooses that had broken their neck hung from the ceiling. I doubt anyone who attended would have found this a pleasurable experience in the traditional sense, and this poses a dilemma for the curators. A lot of visible work had been put into the ethical dimension of the exhibition. None of the murder cases that are documented took place after 1975 in order to minimise the possibility of causing distress to the surviving family members of the victims. Although there were briefer references to more recent terrorist attacks by the IRA and radical Islamist cells. Aside from the occasional references to espionage, terrorism and organised crime, the key focus of this exhibition was murder. Reading about the grisly crimes of John Christie or John George Haigh (the Acid Bath Murderer), I was left certain that these monsters deserved their appointment with the hangman. But the curators take an even-handed approach. Other displays, which highlighted the miscarriages of justice, or simply how the law was applied in less enlightened times, which led to the executions of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Edith Thompson brought back my more liberal, anti-death penalty instincts.
Police ingenuity is a recurrent and welcome theme here. Visitors get a glimpse of how of fingerprinting aided investigators in murder cases, how wireless telegraphy played a role in the capture of Dr Crippen, and more recently, how the Flying Squad foiled the Millennium Dome diamond heist. However, documents relating to the Jack the Ripper murders are a grim reminder that the police cannot solve every case.
Browsing through the museum shop afterwards, I came across many books and DVD’s that were either factual or fictional accounts of the crimes that were documented in the exhibition. Dance with a Stranger (1985), The Krays (1990), 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Let Him Have It (1991) were among a number of titles that featured prominently. I also spotted multiple copies of PD James’ wonderful novel The Murder Room (2003). In the novel, a murder takes place at the fictional Dupayne museum located on Hampstead Heath. The title refers to a room dedicated to real-life murders. How typically ghoulish of James to have her fictional murder committed there. In the novel, world weary policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh surveys the artefacts of the murder room and, upon being reminded of the Thompson-Bywaters case, is overcome with the same gloomy resignation about the nature of man that I felt after leaving the Crime Museum:
Dalgliesh was silent. Ever since, as an eleven-year-old, he had read of that distraught and drugged woman being half-dragged to her execution, the case had lain at the back of memory, heavy as a coiled snake. Poor dull Percy Thompson had not deserved to die, but did anyone deserve what his widow had suffered during those last days in the condemned cell when she finally realised that there was a real world outside even more dangerous than her fantasies and that there were men in it who, on a precise day at a precise hour, would take her out and judicially break her neck? Even as a boy the case had confirmed him as an abolitionist; had it, he wondered, exerted a subtler and more persuasive influence, the conviction, never spoken but increasingly rooted in his comprehension, that strong passions had to be subject to the will, that a completely self-absorbed love could be dangerous and the price too high to pay? Wasn’t that what he had been taught as a young recruit to the CID by the older experienced sergeant now long retired? ‘All the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. They’ll tell you, laddie, that the most dangerous is loathing. Don’t you believe it. The most dangerous is love.’
Fans of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction will recognise the Thompson-Bywaters case as the inspiration for A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934), and any fan of crime fiction will witness in this exhibition real-life cases that are more disturbing than anything that can be rendered in fiction.
If you’re planning to visit the Crime Museum you must hurry. The exhibition closes on April 1o.
Unlike most people, Sunset Boulevard existed first for me as a musical. Long before I watched the blackly comic classic film noir, I experienced what I felt was a raw human tragedy as a musical obsessed seventeen year old on her first big international adventure. Having taken the train from Detroit to Toronto for an ‘alternative spring break’ with my two friends, I sat three rows from the front watching Diahann Carroll’s interpretation of Norma Desmond, the tragically faded star grasping for the lost admiration she once commanded. Twenty years ago, the production was stunning– a full cast, an opulent set with a grand staircase and a surprise twist (it wasn’t clear from the staging that Joe Gillis was in fact the body in the pool which made it all the more exciting).
I’ve always thought the musical twisted the knife deeper, connected with the magic of Hollywood through the sweeping numbers more powerfully, made Joe’s and Betty’s doomed relationship more convincing and had you buy into Norma Desmond’s fantasy just that little bit extra.
My expectations were justifiably high at the opening night of Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum on 1 April 2016, with Glenn Close reprising her 1995 Tony-award- winning role. However, what I experienced was more akin to Charles Ryder revisiting the wreck of Brideshead after the war: the shell was there but the magic was almost entirely gone.
No doubt because of its short run and ENO’s financial difficulties, the set was stark and minimalist. Although they tried to compensate for this by casting pictures onto a screen of old Hollywood, the stage which tipped its hat toward the industrialist interior design trend did nothing to evoke Hollywood luxury. This is a story of materialism: Norma’s house, cars and things define her and draw Joe to her for his Faustian pact.
One important, and I thought well-deserved improvement, was putting the orchestra centre stage: the action happened around them and every sweep of emotion was stirred by them (this seemed to be taken almost too far at times with lines traditionally spoken put to song unnecessarily so that the audience felt no pause from the score.) Yet, the music’s sweeping, mesmerizing crescendos told the story more than any performer that evening.
The first act was shaky at best, Glenn Close cracked notes, Joe Gillis, played by Michael Xavier, seemed languid and the pacing all together dull. Only the butler Max’s (Fred Johanson’s) stunning vocals in ‘The Greatest Star of All’ and Siobhan Dillon’s pitch-perfect performance as Betty Schaefer were engaging. Overall, the core cast seemed to be singing in a ‘Musical selection of Sunset Boulevard‘, stepping on to sing their next part, rather than acting in a musical.
As it went on, it got decidedly better, with an excellent comical rendition of ‘The Lady’s Paying’, and a bid for BBC casting as the next shirtless male from Xavier, who not only came out of the pool with much smaller trunks than Holden in the film version, but also shamelessly shimmied out of them once Max covered him in a robe. A rousing ‘This Time Next Year’ and a very sobering Cecil B. Demille’s ‘New Ways to Dream‘ brought the musical back alive, culminating in a very moving ‘Too Much in Love to Care‘ the closest the musical comes to freeing Joe from his fate, through the ‘innocent’ future Betty can offer him (if you can ignore the fact she’s engaged to his friend). Joe’s death and Norma’s release into a mad nostalgia was by comparison slow and disappointing.
What this musical needs is new life, and although the embers are there as shown through the few rousing numbers, to quote Norma Desmond, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small’. Sunset Boulevard deserves a real revival, not a half-hearted attempt, as this cannot communicate the passion of the musical or the darkness of the original picture. The tragedy of the production is Close’s Norma Desmond is eminently forgettable, which is almost a contradiction in terms for this iconic movie star raging against the light.
Here’s Close doing a much better job in 1996 at the Royal Albert Hall.
Sunset Boulevard is at the London Coliseum 4 April – 7 May.
(Spoiler alert: The following review contains major plot discussion and is intended mostly for people who have viewed the entire series, but for all those who haven’t yet seen The Night Manager I’d definitely recommend it)
I read John le Carré’s The Night Manager (1993) five or six years ago, and it immediately shot up the list of my favourite le Carré novels and became one of my favourite spy novels full stop. Le Carre’s tale of one man’s mission to bring an illegal arms dealer to justice by going undercover and infiltrating the underworld of those who profit in death and destruction had me hooked from first page to last. So, when I discovered at the beginning of this year that it had finally been adapted for the screen in the form of a six part miniseries, I was naturally excited but also apprehensive. Adaptations of le Carré’s novels for the small and silver screen have been a decidedly mixed bag. How does The Night Manager fare?
Episode one introduces the hero of the story, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), the night manager at a luxury hotel in Cairo. Pine first appears calmly walking through the streets of Cairo as tear gas explodes and riots break out all around him. It is 2011 and the fall of Egypt’s modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, marks the beginning of the Arab Spring. Pine is ex-army, an Iraq War veteran and ‘one cool cucumber’. His job is to keep the hotel visitors safe and happy in the midst of a revolution which kickstarted a wave of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. Into this strange setting of luxury and violence walks the enigmatic and beautiful Sophie (aka Samara) played by the beguiling Aure Atika. Pine is instantly attracted to her: she penetrates his professional exterior and sets him on a course of action which will place both of them in mortal peril. Sophie is the mistress of playboy billionaire and regime stooge Freddie Hamid. She discloses to Pine that Hamid is planning to buy illegal arms, including napalm and sarin, from British businessman Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie). But when Pine passes this information onto British Intelligence, he finds himself unable to protect Sophie from either Hamid’s thugs or the corrupt British officials who are in the pocket of Roper. Sophie’s grisly fate affects Pine profoundly. Unable to avenge her or receive justice from the Egyptian police, he seeks total obscurity, taking a job at an isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps. Four years later, he comes face to face with the man who was chiefly responsible for Sophie’s death. Richard Roper and his entourage check into Pine’s Swiss hotel one night and this reinvigorates his desire for vengeance. Roper is unaware of Pine’s relationship with Sophie, and Pine dutifully carries out his responsibilities while secretly observing the arms dealer Sophie once described as ‘the worst man in the world’. Roper is funny and charming, albeit in an arrogant way; ‘so pleasing to wake up the fucking Germans’ he says as his helicopter lands outside the hotel. He can slipstream from being an adoring father one minute to selling weapons to Middle East gangsters and tinpot dictators the next. Pine plans a righteous revenge on the man who cheerfully admits to extracting pleasure and profit from the chaos of the world.
By episode two, the story was moving along at a cracking pace. With the help of Intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), seemingly the only spook in London who isn’t on Roper’s payroll, Pine develops an intricate ‘legend’ (cover-story) in which he steals 40,000 Euros from his Swiss hotel, reemerges as a drug pusher in Devon, and ‘murders’ a fellow dealer. He next meets Roper after saving his son from a stage-managed kidnapping attempt near the arms dealer’s villa in Mallorca. Now he has Roper’s trust, he has to find a place in the villain’s entourage. He is immediately drawn to Roper’s sexy American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), a gangster’s moll who grows ever more disgusted by her world of luxury built on blood money, and he finds an instant enemy in Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran (Tom Hollander), an acid-tongued henchman who finds his position threatened by Pine.
Shortly before her demise, Sophie’s describes Pine’s inability to protect her as the ‘Changing of the Guard‘. Sophie casts a long shadow over this series, and I never quite felt the remaining episodes lived up to the spell she puts on Pine and, if I’m honest, me. There was an all-too-brief, and beautifully realised romantic scene when Sophie and Pine looked like they might have a happy future together, and I just wanted the series to end right there, but viewers familiar with the novel would know that Pine’s first love has a grim fate which is the catalyst for this tale of revenge. Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as Pine; an Englishman ‘to the core’, his sense of honour compels him to assume the role of the ‘second worst man in the world’ in order to win Roper’s trust. Hugh Laurie is a revelation as Roper, perhaps not so much to American viewers who know him chiefly as the arch-cynic Dr Gregory House. But British audiences who remember him as the bumbling George in Blackadder Goes Forth, or Bertie Wooster, or even Peter, the co-owner of a ‘health club that will put the town of Uttoxeter on the goddamned map once and for all’ in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, will marvel at how he has transitioned from lovable comic actor to malevolent rogue with apparent ease. I was not entirely sold on Colman’s performance as Burr. The decision to make Burr a female character (it’s Leonard Burr in the book) seemed a bit too right-on and she had a tendency to preach. That being said, her independent streak did contrast nicely with the MI6 agents who were all rotten to the core.
Performances aside, the biggest talking point this ratings smash raised was the ending which, as an article tantalisingly published the day before the last episode was aired revealed, is very different to the ending in the book. Broadly speaking, this has been a faithful adaptation, which captured the essence of le Carré’s narrative while changing locations and cleverly updating the plot to take in the, still topical, Arab Spring. However, I felt way the series ended was too comic book, OTT and, again, preachy. There were tense moments, but I was disappointed that the creative team did not have the courage to stay true to le Carré’s bleak and ambiguous denouement. The Night Manager was the first novel le Carré published after the end of the Cold War. It represents his own changing of the guard as he was no longer writing about the conflict between East and West but instead started going after enemies closer to home. Stylistically, it also marked a departure as le Carré had defined himself as a spy writer whose novels were the complete antithesis to the fantasy world of Ian Fleming. But with its globe-hopping locations and glamorous veneer, The Night Manager is as seductive as the Bond series at its best (and a pretty good audition for Tom Hiddleston as 007 everyone seems to agree). As adaptations of le Carré’s work go, this doesn’t quite reach the seminal heights of the 1979 mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I confess that, despite its flaws, I loved every minute of it.
I’ve been fortunate to meet and correspond with a lot of avid readers of James Ellroy over the years. Some of these readers may only be familiar with one or two of his novels, others might be full-blown obsessives like me. I’m frequently amazed at how many of these Ellroy fans have met the Demon Dog himself either at a book reading, film showing or literary festival. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times and how authors need to do more and more publicity work to sell their books, but I like to think it also demonstrates James Ellroy’s kind, enthusiastic and appreciative manner. A consequence of Ellroy’s generosity of spirit is that many of his readers have their own unique Ellrovian journey: a treasure trove of anecdotes about personal experiences with the author and their own, often powerful, emotional reaction to reading his work. So today’s guest post comes from Jason Carter, a Denver resident who is also a keen reader of James Ellroy. Here’s Jason’s bio in his own words:
Jason Carter is an unofficial Ellroy scholar with 20-years of Ellrovian tutelage under his belt. A devoted follower of Ellroy since the age of 14, Jason now has the enviable honor of calling Mr. Ellroy his friend. Although, don’t think of asking Jason for any personal details about Ellroy, as Jason is ferociously protective of Mr. Ellroy’s privacy. Jason, like Ellroy, lives in Denver, Colorado.
Jason kindly agreed to write a post about his lifelong Ellrovian journey and Ellroy’s recent move to Denver, Colorado. Here it is:
I never expected an episode of television to change my life. Though today I don’t watch TV at all, twenty years ago, I did, particularly one show called Unsolved Mysteries.
On an otherwise nondescript evening in March, 1996, the show’s opening segment concerned the re-opening of a cold case that lay dormant and largely forgotten for many years: “Crime novelist James Ellroy investigates his mother’s brutal murder.” Despite being a lifelong voracious reader, I had never heard of Ellroy before this night. I was 14 years old.
As I listened to Ellroy speak about his life, career, and the still-unsolved 1958 murder of his mother, I was transfixed. Ellroy possessed an electric and naturally captivating presence I was immediately drawn to. Yet, there was also a spiritual vibration–subtle, but undeniably there—a thread to trace. A thread that, in the years to come, would take me farther than I ever expected.
Some weeks later, I was browsing in a Denver used bookshop when a large-print paperback caught my eye: Its cover image displayed a dame smoking a cigarette with a pouty, yet deceptively predatory come-hither stare. The book’s title was L.A. Confidential, and I immediately recognized its author, James Ellroy, the fascinating subject of the Unsolved Mysteries episode.
The book was a spiritual signpost, the first of many in a spectacular journey that has consumed the last twenty years of my life. I should have bought the book that day. However, momentary distraction prevailed, and I left the bookstore empty handed.
A year or so later, Hollywood’s big-budget, star-studded film treatment of L.A. Confidential debuted at the box office. I saw the film and loved it, now determined—in spite of all distractions—to begin reading Ellroy. THEN—I learned about the L.A. Quartet, of which L.A. Confidential is book #3. Why would anyone start in the middle of a series? I bought The Black Dahlia. I read The Black Dahlia. The Dahlia took me places. The Dahlia shook me places. I burned through the Dahlia in a mere three days, often reading it until my eyes stung and went completely out of focus from physical exhaustion. I knew I had found something cosmic and spectacular. I did not yet know that I had just been introduced full force to my favorite writer of all time.
Over the next 6 years, I devoured Ellroy’s oeuvre in chronologically manageable proportions, careful not to binge-read him for fear of burning out. In Ellroy’s writing I found a sculpted strength and blunt honesty which is fatuously non-existent in most writers today. During this time, I also read through hundreds of Ellroy interviews, some confrontational, some colloquial, but each serving as Ellroy’s own unique commentary on his work.
After finally reading L.A. Confidential the novel, I was quick to dismiss the film. The movie is by far the best Ellroy adaptation to date, but still seriously impaired. As just one example, I am particularly offended with Hollywood’s grossly disingenuous treatment of Inez Soto, my favorite character from L.A. Confidential the novel. Inez grabbed my heart, she’s my kind of gal: smart, ambitious, independent, tough, brutally honest, flawed, and most important of all, not afraid to love. Ellroy had the dignity to give Inez a heart, a purpose, and a life, flawed though it was. Hollywood did none of this. Inez Soto is indeed a rape victim, and her true rapists are Hollywood shills.
In 2005, Ellroy came through Denver on his tour for Destination Morgue! I tragically missed his appearance, learning about it a few days after the fact. I was crushed. I couldn’t believe I had missed my favorite writer, and lamented that this had been likely my only chance to see him. Was I ever wrong. If only I knew what life held for me in just a few short years.
“Take note of what you are seeking, for it is seeking you.”
I got another chance to see Ellroy in October, 2009, during his tour for Blood’s A Rover, the stunning conclusion to his epic Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy.
At an iconic Denver bookstore, Ellroy gave the teeming crowd a hilarious and dynamic Demon Dog performance, telling us of the adventures of Alfred A. Knopf’s signature borzoi mascot, a “bat-eared, beady-eyed, slope-snouted, malodorus, lawn-shitting, leg humping, toilet-drinking, cat-chomping, misanthropic motherfucker.”
The audience that night was a mix of aging crime fiction aficionados, disenfranchised adolescents who unfortunately read Ellroy purely for the shock value, and little old ladies who attend every author presentation the book store offers simply because it’s the next event. These dames are not unlike a particular old lady who asked Ellroy about L.A. Confidential the movie at a Kansas video store. (start at 53 seconds here).
I was seated in the front row. Ellroy gave us two dynamic readings from Blood’s A Rover that possessed more cinematic muscle than Hollywood could ever hope to muster. Then, he opened the floor for questions. “How’s your tour going?” “What kind of music do you like?” NOBODY was asking about Blood’s A Rover! “C’mon, you guys gotta have more questions,” Ellroy pleaded. An old lady asked “What did you think of the ‘Balloon Boy’ incident?” (the Denver media’s current freak show obsession). Ellroy was exasperated, “I came to Denver for THIS?!”
Then, I raised my hand. “Tell us about Joan,” I said, referencing one of Blood’s A Rover’s most pivotal—and incendiary—characters. Ellroy was instantly revived. “You’ve read the book!” he exclaimed. Ellroy and I then began an amazing personal discussion that seemed to drown out everyone else in the room.
When I left the bookstore that night, I felt privileged that I had finally been able to meet my favorite author. As awesome as it was, it was just a hint of what lay ahead for me just a few years later.
Shortly after Ellroy’s book tour for Perfidia was announced in late 2014, I posted the following message on his Facebook page: “Come back to Denver, Mr. Ellroy!” Ellroy’s Perfidia tour did not include a Denver stop. However, I had no idea at the time of just how literally my words would manifest just one year later.
Imagine my surprise and shock when I learned that Ellroy had moved to Denver in August, 2015. I was further astounded to learn that, due to Ellroy’s hosting of a monthly film series at a special theater in a south west Denver suburb, I would see him every month or so. The films Ellroy selects are dark, often obscure crime pieces that reflect many of the themes that so often appear in his novels: Murder, revenge, brutality, paranoia, abandonment, deceit, and heavily compromised redemption.
I’ve re-read many of Ellroy’s books several times over the years. Though certainly not required, I highly recommend his readers do likewise. You will gain a far more cultured and intricate perception of just how detailed and assiduously mapped out each book is. This is also why I personally don’t mind waiting many years (8 years in the case of Blood’s A Rover) for a new Ellroy novel… Each one is an absolute feast for the brain, and worth waiting for.
Ellroy’s books have helped me traverse some dreadfully difficult times in my life. His books have given me confidence when I had none. Ellroy’s well-documented struggles in overcoming his addictions helped me to finally abandon my own twentysomething alcoholism and a collegiate fixation on over-the-counter cough syrup.
I’ve bought at least 50 copies of Ellroy’s books to date. Some because I’ve re-read them to the point of structural instability, some I’ve bought for others in trying to generate new Ellroy fans.
By far the most poignant chapter in my on-going Ellrovian Journey are the conversations I’ve had with Ellroy during each of the five times I’ve met him since he moved to Denver. In short, Ellroy the novelist is awesome, Ellroy the public performer is amazing, but both are microscopically miniscule compared to James Ellroy the man.
When Ellroy is with his fans, he is very kind and genuine, acutely interested in the lives of others, and above all, monumentally grateful for his readers. That gratitude is quite conspicuous. I wish more people could see him like this—especially his detractors, or those who—fatuously—think of him only in the context of his “Demon Dog” persona.
Since I first met Ellroy in 2009, I’ve been deliberately careful to address him as “Mr. Ellroy,” his preferred moniker for those he doesn’t know. In November, 2015, during a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low, Ellroy upgraded me: “Call me ‘Dog’ ”.
In January, 2016, Ellroy announced—loudly and humorously—to the theater’s patrons that I was his son-in-law (note: Ellroy in fact has no children). I felt incredibly honored. Ellroy has certainly taught me more than my own father—a chronically unemployed 65-year-old drug addict—ever did.
James Ellroy is my greatest teacher. He has taught me lessons about morality and propriety that extend far beyond the written word. Ellroy has also taught me more about the English language than any other person I’ve ever encountered in my life—and this was all BEFORE I met him. This may sound like hyperbole to you, but it’s entirely true.
Maybe there was some seldom-used psychic brain function at work 20 years ago when I saw Ellroy on Unsolved Mysteries. Maybe that’s what that spiritual vibration was all about: An otherworldly projection able to see years into the future. Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe such a thing should forever remain an unsolved mystery.