Skip to content

Vinnie Got Blown Away – Review

June 24, 2020

Vinnie Got Blown Away by Jeremy Cameron

Nicky Burkett wants revenge. He finds his childhood friend Vinnie dead at the bottom of a tower block with his feet sawn off. Nicky’s code of conduct says he can’t let that stand. Whether you’re Charles Bronson in Death Wish or a wannabe diamond geezer from Walthamstow (Burkett’s manor in North-East London), every male instinctively wants to return violence with violence. But Burkett has to uncover the reason behind Vinnie’s grisly demise before he can wreak revenge. And that ain’t easy when you’re still in your teens and have got the probation service breathing down your neck.

Jeremy Cameron’s debut novel Vinnie Got Blown Away was released in 1995. Lee Horsley identified the book as one of a number of crime novels which critiqued the ‘failed Thatcherite efforts to bring Britain closer to the market-oriented financial system of the United States’. You might say the Iron Lady met the Iron Genre. Cameron uses his experience working for the Probation Service to critique the system. Everyone is on the make, whether they work for the system or against it. And while that worldview might seem cynical, Burkett’s first-person narration has such brash charm that the reader may feel won over by this world of cockney wideboys and tropical chancers

Here’s an example of Nicky in full-flow after lifting a Ford Sierra:

Me I never knew what to do now so circled out and went home, not far off. Thought if I went quietly no one’d notice, never reckoned on looking upstairs for the chopper. Always thought they were up there for the weather or something only this one was following me twenty minutes. Did me no harm in the district mind, it was like Lethal Weapon. Took the Sierra home, dumped it, tumbled out knackered and there was the Bill in six motors. Gave Mum a turn, kept expecting them to shoot her like they do on the news.

Never had shooters so they just had to give a kicking down the nick. Got tired of that after a bit so they drew up nineteen charges. Did me no harm on the manor either, no one on the estate got more than ten before. Mum came down for the charges and the statement, couldn’t make it earlier on account of she had the tea on.

There was Aggravated Vehicle and Criminal Damage and No Licence and Insurance and Unsupervised and Reckless and No ‘L’ Plates and a few others I never heard of. Then they stuck on Obstructing Police, knew I wouldn’t go not guilty on one out of nineteen. Didn’t give me a Producer, hardly worth it at fifteen. Nor tax evasion nor bullion robbery but enough to be going with. Got my brief in, Mrs Mellow that time, and I made no reply when charged.

They reckoned I ought to get some driving lessons. Not many kids my age couldn’t drive proper when they nicked a motor.

The dialect might be difficult for some readers, but at a brisk 160 pages this is a novel that does not outstay its welcome. Indeed, I’ll be rushing out to buy the four follow-up books in the Nicky Burkett series. Oddly enough, the novel is very American in tone and sometimes reminiscent of an Elmore Leonard caper or George V Higgins’ darkly comical takedowns of the justice system. Which is ironic if, as Horsley suggests, there’s a veiled anger about the Thatcherite Americanisation of Britain.

As our lives ease back into normality after lockdown, support your local bookshop and treat yourself to a copy of Vinnie Got Blown Away.

Copy Boy: An Interview with Shelley Blanton-Stroud

June 6, 2020

Shelley Blanton-Stroud – Author of Copy Boy

Copy Boy is the debut novel by Shelley Blanton-Stroud, an author and academic based in Sacramento.

It’s the height of the Great Depression. Seventeen- year-old Jane is caught between an abusive father and manipulative mother. Then one day her father’s physical abuse gets too much for her. Jane snaps, attacking her father with a crowbar and leaving him for dead in an irrigation ditch. She flees to San Francisco where, turned down for job after job, she calculates that men have more economic opportunities than women. Jane disguises herself as a man to be hired as a Copy Boy for a local newspaper – The Prospect. All goes well for a while. But every time a person reinvents themselves, the past is not far behind. Jane’s new identity could unravel when she spots a photograph of her father in the paper with his arm around a girl who was later viciously attacked with a crowbar and left in a coma.

Is her father still alive? Was the assault on the girl a message and will Jane be next? It’s an intriguing premise, skilfully executed, in a narrative which merges suspense with some finely realised noir period detail. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Blanton-Stroud about Copy Boy:

Interviewer: Your portrayal of the Dust Bowl Depression era is brimming with rich and realistic detail. How did your family history inform your writing on this subject?

Blanton-Stroud: Thank you for that. It means a lot to me.

My novel had its origin in the family stories I heard growing up. My father, Kelly Blanton, is one of ten redheaded siblings, eight boys and two girls. They migrated to California from Texas. They lived in Federal work camps, Hoovervilles, like those described in Copy Boy and Grapes of Wrath. The children of his family (and really most of the children he knew) worked alongside their parents, before and after school, picking cotton. As he has often pointed out, it’s hard to do your homework at night after picking if you don’t have electricity, something that inspired him on behalf of his students when he later became superintendent of schools in Kern County. His family stories provoked me to research the larger phenomenon of the Okie migration and the experience of settling, unwelcome, in California towns unready for so many poor people in need of work.

My mother, Yvonne Blanton, is the only child of a farmer and his (also farmer) wife. Though my mother is an only child, and did not have to work in the fields, she was a victim of polio, a horrid disease of that era, which put her in the hospital with no visitors for almost a year as a toddler, also altering her ability to walk. She continues to experience great nerve pain as a result, even now, in her eighties. Yet my mother has always been beautiful, artistic, special. Her experience is at the root of research I did into Dorothea Lange, the WPA documentary photographer who also suffered from polio. Her life provides so much source material for my character Grete.

Interviewer: We are possibly entering, due to the pandemic, another Depression era. Why do you think noir is still relevant nearly a century after your novel is set?

Blanton-Stroud: Protagonists in a Noir story often squirm under the thumb of morally unfit authorities. They are alienated, often a victim of class confrontation. And even when they work to answer the plot’s central question, they generally find that the real question at its core is impossible to answer. There just is no right answer. Noir auteur Megan Abbott adds to this—“In eras tinged with chaos…noir thrives.”

Immoral authorities, alienation, class confrontation, unanswerable questions, chaos? This is a very noir epoch.

Interviewer: Jane disguising herself as a boy is central to your narrative. Gender identity is freely discussed now and considered quite fluid. Did you find much material on gender identity from the period?

Blanton-Stroud: Well of course there have always been cross-dressing women. Even in the 18th century, women enlisted and had careers as soldiers and sailors while pretending to be men—they made much more money doing so than they might have made in female professions. History also describes many women putting on maleness to protect themselves against rape or attack. But also, of course, there have always been women whose cross-dressing reflects their sexual preferences or their attitude toward the rules and limitations of gender. In San Francisco at the time Copy Boy is set, the LGBT community was first fully forming, particularly in the North Beach area. The first lesbian bar, Mona’s on Union Street, opened in 1934, featuring cross-dressing waitresses.

My character, Jane, cross-dresses to get work in the Great Depression. But she’s not just motivated by extreme need. She’s also motivated by ambition. She discovers that “putting on the male” allows her to behave in ways that lead to her professional success. Yet Jane’s age and the extreme circumstances that send her to San Francisco also make her more open to the idea of human fluidity than a typical young woman might be in 1937.

Historically, even when women have worn men’s clothes for practical reasons, like to get a job or earn more money, doing so has meant they were willing to disrupt cultural expectations. They were, as Jane is, difficult women. That disruption is at the heart of things.

Interviewer: You have had a lot of experience helping writers. Did this come in handy when writing your first novel?

Blanton-Stroud: You might think so! However, this actually flowed in the opposite direction. Deciding to be a fiction writer in my fifties required that I put myself at risk in a hundred new ways. Working with peers in critique groups, submitting my work to authoritative strangers, risking rejection, attempting to improve post-rejection—all this, I found, really helped me in my teaching and my professional coaching. I know how it feels to take such risk and keep at it in spite of disappointment, and I remember this when I’m setting up teaching processes, trying to make them as helpful and useful and humane as possible.

Interviewer: Jane struggles to escape from one world and connect with another. Is this a theme which is important to you and does it come from personal experience?

Blanton-Stroud: What a great question. It’s really important to me. I don’t have the drive to “escape” some people do. However, I’m obsessed over whether we are who we are at birth, our particular DNA determining everything, or whether we’re a product of our childhood experience, or whether we can just “decide what to be and go be it,” as the Avett Brothers sing. I like the fact that Jane believes in her ability to do that, to make herself what she wants. And even though she tries to clean up her Okie accent, she can’t entirely—the dust gets in you. I believe we should be able to take our authentic selves with us without it getting in the way of entering new worlds. That obviously doesn’t work a lot of the time. We sometimes have to switch codes to pass in the short term. The friction caused by this “faking” it fascinates me.

Thank you so much for your fascinating questions. I’ve really loved answering them.

The Ticket Out by Helen Knode – Review

May 23, 2020

Ann Whitehead is a film critic for a counter-culture rag in LA. What started as a dream job has become an unfulfilling nightmare. She has seen so many movies that the magic has gone. She has seen lives destroyed in pursuit of the Hollywood dream. Ann wants out, but the murder of a young film student, Greta Stenholm, will plunge her into the dark heart of the movie biz. Greta had been working on a script, now missing, about the real-life unsolved murder of the socialite Georgette Bauerdorf : ‘A Black Dahlia with class,’ quips one detective. Is this a case of murder imitating art?

Helen Knode is the ex-wife of crime novelist James Ellroy. Like Whitehead, Knode was a film critic for many years, writing reviews for the LA Weekly. She puts her inside knowledge of the film industry to good use. Greta Stenholm is loosely based on Kathryn Bigelow. Knode met Bigelow in 1989, when her directorial career was just taking off. Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow won her Oscar for directing a film in the traditionally male-dominated war genre. As Knode puts it, ‘I think that what Bigelow wants, which is to be a female director of action, is strictly speaking impossible, given Hollywood’s gender categories.’

Whitehead has a similar drive to succeed in a man’s world. But to do it, and to solve Greta’s murder, she will have to work closely with LAPD detective Doug Lockwood. Lockwood has a bad rep for his role in the Burger King siege, a scandal which did about as much good for the LAPD’s image as the Rodney King or Rampart affairs. Whitehead is apprehensive around Lockwood at first. She’s the bohemian liberal and he’s a cop in the authoritarian LAPD, but it’s not long before an attraction develops. This might seem like a cliche, but Knode makes it believable and, more importantly, likeable. Knode’s ‘feminist noire’ has a healthy dose of hardboiled romance: ‘I am obsessed with romance and men and women and the female principle and the male principle and how in this day and age, romance seems to have turned into something like pathology. Nobody believes in it, and yet people are falling in love all the time.’

The thin line between love and hate in Ann and Doug’s relationship is mirrored by the film critic’s soured view of the movies. This is brought home beautifully when Whitehead reminisces about a trip to the Viennale film festival in 1993. She has a potential dream-come-true moment when she meets the renowned cinematographer John Alton. Alton’s unconventional style, such as ominous low camera shots, made him a legend to film noir buffs. By the time Whitehead meets Alton though he is a jaded nonagenarian completely bored with cinema:

Here was a guy, I thought, who’d worked for MGM in the 1920s; he’d grown up with the movies, he was as old as the movies almost. But he couldn’t have cared less about them. I pointed this out, and he agreed. He’d left Hollywood in the early ’60s because he was finished with pictures. I asked why. He said it was because pictures were bad. Why bad, I’d asked – in what way, bad?

We were sitting together at a small table. Alton had put both his hands on my forearm and he’d said, “There was no longer any Art.”

I first read The Ticket Out a few years ago. I reread it again recently as I felt drawn back to it with the rise of the MeToo movement. The novel is not about sexual abuse, but it brilliantly dissects show-business hypocrisy. Knode’s style is less outrageous than Ellroy’s, but it is just as gutsy, maybe even more so. After all, Ellroy is fond of portraying long-dead Hollywood figures from the 1940s and 50s who can’t call their lawyers and sue him from the afterlife. Knode has some thinly-veiled portrayals of Tinseltown’s living legends which are so scabrous that it will leave you shaking your head and asking – could she really mean that guy? I mentioned this to Knode once and her response was tantalising: ‘Sacred cows make for the tastiest hamburgers, Steve.’

The Ticket Out is a gripping noir thriller that will leave you wanting to read more about Hollyweird culture and the indomitable Ann Whitehead (fortunately for us, there is a sequel). By the time you get to the last page Knode will have you thinking that, in noir terms at least, John Alton may have been wrong – there still is Art.

100 British Crime Writers

May 6, 2020

100 British Crime Writers

This autumn sees the release of 100 British Crime Writers, an anthology of essays on the most iconic British scribes who ever turned their hand to writing crime and detective fiction. Edited by Esme Miskimmin and published as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s renowned Crime Files series, 100 British Crime Writers is a companion volume to 100 American Crime Writers which I edited.

I’m honoured to have worked as a contributor for 100 British Crime Writers which promises to be a valuable and comprehensive resource for any student, scholar or just plain fan of crime fiction.

And if you enjoy reading it, why not check out 100 American Crime Writers! It was published in 2012, got some great reviews and is still selling well

Here’s some more information on the book:

100 British Crime Writers explores a history of British crime writing between 1855 and 2015 through 100 writers, detailing their lives and significant writing and exploring their contributions to the genre. Divided into four sections: ‘The Victorians, Edwardians, and World War One, 1855-1918’; ‘The Golden Age and World War Two, 1919-1945’; ‘Post-War and Cold War, 1946-1989’; and ‘To the Millennium and Beyond, 1990-2015’, each section offers an introduction to the significant features of these eras in crime fiction and discusses trends in publication, readership, and critical response. With entries spanning the earliest authors of crime fiction to a selection of innovative contemporary novelists, this book considers the development and progression of the genre in the light of historical and social events.

Mr Campion’s Seance – Review

April 25, 2020

Albert Campion is one of the most beloved characters in the history of detective fiction. To write a Campion novel, and do justice to the character created by the great Margery Allingham, is no easy task. But Mike Ripley has risen to the occasion with Mr Campion’s Seance, the latest addition in the Campion series which he has brought back to life with a Lazarus-like effect. Other Campion titles by Ripley include Mr Campion’s Abdication, Mr Campion’s War and Mr Campion’s Visit. All of these novels have been officially sanctioned by the Margery Allingham Society as Ripley has proved adept at the cunning plots, cocktail wit and period detail which make the Campion novels so irresistible.

Mr Campion’s Seance is Ripley’s most ambitious novel yet with a narrative that stretches from the war-torn 1940s to the Swinging Sixties. In this novel we meet Evadne Childe, bestselling author of mystery fiction and Campion’s ‘godsibling’. The authoress has been offered gongs from, in no particular order, the Detection Club, Mystery Writers of America and Buckingham Palace. But the latter is less impressive in her eyes after The Beatles (who you shouldn’t listen to without wearing earmuffs) were appointed OBE’s in 1965.

Evadne might be in trouble. The murder of a Cockney/Maltese gangster named Tony Valetta is strikingly similar to a murder she described in one of her novels. Then, a robbery occurs which is almost identical, detail-by-detail, to a robbery from her fiction. Is Evadne being fitted up, or is she responsible for these dastardly crimes? Or is, as the title implies, someone taking their criminal orders from the spirit world?

Ripley gives the longstanding Allingham fans much of what they want from a Campion story – there is the tryptych of eccentric coppers – Stanislaus Oates, Freddie Yeo and Charles Luke – our amateur sleuth deals with. Then there is Campion’s indomitable manservant Magersfontein Lugg, a former burglar whose knowledge of the London Underworld is rivalled only by his familiarity with the capital city’s public houses. But while there are plenty of Allingham references, there are also many of the quintessential Mike Ripley bon mots which those of us who read the Ripster’s ‘Getting Away With Murder’column have come to love.

One is never sure when Ripley is toying with the reader. Is Evadne Childe a sly anagram I wonder? Or is it a reference to Robert Browning (there’s some discussion of Browning in the novel), whose poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came was a favourite of my undergrad days. One of Evadne’s ‘novels’ The Robbers Are Coming To Town was the provisional title of Allingham’s seminal work The Tiger in the Smoke.  Is Campion chasing his most elusive culprit yet – metafiction!

Amidst all the wit and wordplay, this is still a gripping detective story at the heart. I was interested to learn how the robbery in the novel was inspired by the Eastcastle Street robbery, which has been almost forgotten today but should be just as fascinating as the Great Train robbery to true crime buffs.

Mr Campion’s Seance is another wonderful addition to the series and a great way to ward off those lockdown blues. Highly recommended.

HRF Keating: A Life of Crime – Review

April 15, 2020

Henry ‘Harry’ Reymond Fitzwalter Keating was one of the most prolific and distinguished crime novelists and literary critics of the twentieth century. But by the time of his death in 2011 he was referring to himself as a ‘has-been’. This might seem difficult to believe now – Keating’s creation of Inspector Ghote is one of the most beloved of fictional detectives. So why did he end his days with this rather melancholy view of his achievements?

HRF Keating: A Life of Crime is the first biography of Keating and is also the literary debut of Keating’s widow, the actress Sheila Mitchell. Mitchell’s biography of Keating is an intimate and affectionate portrait of an author who achieved the elusive combination of literary acclaim and financial success. However, the final chapters are tinged with sadness. Not only because they deal with Keating’s declining health, but also his increasing despair at the slow death of publishing. His books got fewer and fewer print runs and were dogged by miniscule publicity budgets. But before we come to this somewhat downbeat ending, Mitchell skilfully and engagingly chronicles Keating’s education at Trinity College, the launch of his career in journalism and his early attempts at writing fiction.

Keating had a number of short stories and novels published before he hit the big time with his introduction of Inspector Ghote of the Bombay (now Mumbai) police in The Perfect Murder in 1964. Keating’s writing was praised for its rich in detail and accurate portrayal of India, but ironically he didn’t visit the country until about a decade after the first Ghote novel was published. He first travelled to India after he was invited as part of a publicity campaign by Air India. Ghote’s incisive intelligence and gentle, unassuming manner is credited with dispelling the stereotypical ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ humour about Indians which had been common at the time. Among his many other works Keating wrote science-fiction, a novel in verse and created the series character DCI Harriet Martens, but his first and true love on the page was always Inspector Ghote.

Mitchell’s portrayal of Keating is teeming with joyous little details. His preferred writing conditions were absolute silence, which must have been difficult to achieve as they raised four children together. His aversion to noise was such that he was practically traumatised after sitting through an overly loud production of a Tom Stoppard play. By temperament, Keating was the most English of writers. He was once mugged while walking near a dark canal and politely asked the assailant to give him his wallet back once he had removed the dosh, which the obliging mugger dutifully did.

Keating’s passing immediately launched a revival of interest in his work. Penguin reissued several Ghote novels in their Modern Classics series. Audiobooks of his novels, several narrated by Mitchell, have become popular. And more and more contemporary novelists have spoken out about their love of Keating’s work. It’s comforting to know that Keating was wrong to think of himself as a ‘has-been’. Interest in his work will continue to grow.

HRF Keating: A Life of Crime is a fine biography worthy of its illustrious subject.


James Ellroy and Fallen Angels: Since I Don’t Have You

April 6, 2020

Between the commercial failure of the first big-screen adaptation of a James Ellroy novel Blood on the Moon (as Cop in 1988) and the Oscar-winning success of L.A. Confidential in 1997, there was another Ellroy adaptation which has been unfairly forgotten today.

Since I Don’t Have You

Ellroy’s short story ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ was adapted as part of the Showtime noir anthology series Fallen Angels which was first broadcast in 1993. All six episodes of the first season are standalone narratives based on the work of legendary crime writers: Chandler, Woolrich, Thompson etc. Only two episodes were adapted from works by authors who were still alive at the time. ‘Dead End for Delia’ was adapted from a short story by William Campbell Gault, who was by that time an octogenarian (he died shortly after the series aired). The other living author was James Ellroy, who was only in his forties but had already established himself as the leading crime novelist of his generation.

Several L.A. Quartet characters appear in ‘Since I Don’t Have You’: Okie transplant to L.A. Turner ‘Buzz’ Meeks (Gary Busey) is working as a security boss and troubleshooter for Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson) and a bagman for Mickey Cohen (James Woods). He considers both his employers to be ‘world-class shitheels’. But Meeks owes money to the quick-tempered hoodlum Leotis, so he has no choice but to do what his bosses tell him and work his way out of a crippling debt. Both Hughes and Cohen have fallen for the same woman, Gretchen, and Meeks has to find her and bring her to a party thrown by schlocky grade-Z producer Sid Weinberg. Weinberg is carrying a torch for a starlet named Glenda Jensen who vanished into thin air fifteen years ago. Meeks finds himself in a dangerous conflict of interest and has to follow a trail of dead bodies before Gretchen makes her dazzling appearance at Weinberg’s Hollywood party.

Gary Busey as Buzz Meeks and James Woods as Mickey Cohen in Fallen Angels

‘Since I Don’t Have You’ is overtly comic, outrageous and packs in a lot of story into thirty minutes of television. It holds up fairly well, and is probably the best of the Ellroy TV adaptations. The first L.A. Confidential TV pilot filmed in 2003 is dismal, but that didn’t stop CBS ordering a new pilot in 2018 which has still not been aired. Adapting Ellroy for television has proved as difficult as adapting Ellroy for the big screen.

Fallen Angels

A second series of Fallen Angels followed in 1995. Looking at the two series as a whole, ‘Murder Obliquely’ is the most erotic story and Walter Mosley’s ‘Fearless’ is the bawdiest. ‘The Black Bargain’ tries to capture the surreal, nightmarish quality of Cornell Woolrich’s fiction but gets too heavy-handed with satanic symbolism. My favourite episode is probably ‘Fly Paper’. Adapted by Donald E Westlake from a short story by Dashiell Hammett: it is a gripping, fast-paced tale featuring a wonderfully hardboiled performance by Christopher Lloyd as the Continental Op. There are several other novelties of the show worth mentioning. A number of episodes were directed by Hollywood stars. Tom Hanks directed ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ and appears as a button man very similar to his later role as Sullivan in Road to Perdition. Tom Cruise gained the only directorial credit of his career on the show and it’s a belter of an episode. ‘The Frightening Frammis’ is adapted from a Jim Thompson tale and features Peter Gallagher as the wandering grifter Mitch Allison. Cruise alternates the tone of the episode between sinister and comic with directorial panache and it features a nice homage to noir classic Detour. Just imagine for a moment, if Cruise had turned to directing to salvage his reputation after the Scientology scandals of the early noughties rather than regurgitating the MI and Top Gun franchises.

A book companion to the TV series was published in 1993. It featured the original short stories that were adapted alongside the script for each episode. James Ellroy wrote the preface to the book. It’s a typically insightful piece of writing by Ellroy in which he diagnoses our ongoing fascination with noir as a form of Romantic escapism from the spiralling crime rates of contemporary life which are sensationally reported in the tabloid press:

Fallen Angels: an ambiguous title applicable to the characters who rage in these stories, their creators, and you, the audience – especially you, who share a bond with all of Hammett’s children.

You sense the darkness around you and want to know why. We have been haunted by that curiosity and wish to explore it with you for unfathomable personal motives and the near-paradoxical need to hold hands with a friend when night falls. You sense that the deepest human truths boil forth in fiction; we seek to render newscast body counts powerless through the alchemy of our horrific perceptions. We want to touch fire with you, to ensure both of us a tenuous safety from the flames.

Fallen Angels aired at a time when anthology series – Tales From The Crypt, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone – were in vogue. But most were rooted in the sci-fi or horror genre. Fallen Angels was the only one, to my knowledge, to offer viewers the seductive solace of film noir. If you are struggling with the boredom and frustration of quarantine, made worse by the media-saturation of ‘newscast body counts’ then seek out the show. It is viewable on YouTube.

A quarter of a century has passed since Fallen Angels was first broadcast on television, but more than ever we need it to ensure ‘a tenuous safety from the flames’.




The Mystery of Jean Hilliker’s First Marriage – Solved

March 15, 2020

Jean Hilliker and the ‘Spalding Man’

Jean Hilliker

One of the most enduring mysteries of Jean Ellroy’s (nee Hilliker) life is her first marriage. When James Ellroy was re-investigating his mother’s murder in his memoir My Dark Places, he was stunned to discover that his mother had been married before she met his father Armand Ellroy. Ellroy found out about the marriage when he met Jean’s niece Janet Wagner Klock: ‘She said Aunt Jean was married once before. It was a very brief marriage. She was married to a young man named Spalding. He was an heir to the Spalding sporting goods fortune.’

Ellroy, along with his co-investigator Bill Stoner, looked into the claims, but they were never able to find a date or location of the wedding: ‘Jean moved to Los Angeles. She might have met the Spalding man there. They were married somewhere. It wasn’t Chicago. It wasn’t in LA County, Orange County, San Diego County, Ventura County, Las Vegas or Reno.’ After such an exhausting search Ellroy might have been tempted to believe Jean’s marriage to the Spalding man was a myth. However, partial confirmation was found as Jean and Armand’s 1947 marriage licence ‘stated that this was the second marriage for both parties.’

The Marriage of Jean Hilliker and Easton Ewing Spaulding

I can now reveal that the wedding took place in Yuma County, Superior Court on November 5, 1940. I have obtained a copy of the marriage licence. Jean was married to Easton Ewing Spaulding. Jean’s family got the Spalding/Spaulding names mixed up, but then the wedding took place in great secrecy: ‘Leoda (Jean’s sister) never met the Spalding man. Jean’s friends never met the Spalding man. Nobody knew his first name.’

This is what I have been able to find out about Easton E. Spaulding. I have taken a lot of this information from the book, The Spaulding Heritage, which was written by Jewell Spaulding Akey in 1970 and is now available online.

Easton was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1902 to Albert Starr Spaulding and Nellie Locke Burrows. In 1908, Albert and Nellie moved their family to Long Beach, California. Nellie died in childbirth the same year. Albert Starr Spaulding had great success as a real-estate speculator in Los Angeles. He purchased and subdivided an area of land ‘between Sunset Boulevard and Fountain Avenue to the east of Fairfax Avenue.’ He used inventive methods to get potential buyers interested ‘Spaulding offered a free streetcar ride, lunch and a lecture on the allure of the area, which was midway between the studios and up-and-coming Beverly Hills.’ The area is now named Spaulding Square after him and is one of the most historically preserved areas in LA.

The Spaulding Family. Easton Ewing Spaulding is on the back row, fourth on the right.

Easton followed his father into the real estate business. His marriage licence to Jean Hilliker lists his occupation as a broker. He had been married twice before he met Jean. In the early 1920s he married Pearl Phelps. They had a son, Frank Tillman Spaulding, born in 1923. He divorced Pearl and married Beatrice ‘Bebe’ McCarthy Clark. They had a daughter Ann, born in 1935. After he married and divorced Jean Hilliker, Easton married for a fourth time. In 1945, Easton married Emile Hensel in – you guessed it – Yuma County.

Once again, the wedding took place in secrecy, but it was reported in the Morning Herald (a Pennsylvania based newspaper) after a tip-off from a source inside the Superior Court:

Didn’t Emily Hensel, sister of Betty Hensel, in whom Cary Grant is interested, get married in Yuma last Monday to Easton Spaulding, wealthy Beverly Hills man? The clerk there says that a license was issued under those names and that a ceremony was performed by Judge Henry C. Kelly…

The marriage lasted until Easton’s death in 1986. Emile died in 2014. Easton was a Beverly Hills resident and records show that he was living there until at least the 1970s. Armand and Jean lived together in Beverly Hills at North Doheny Drive, ‘the address was ritzier than the pad. My mother said it was just a small apartment’. They moved to West Hollywood after their son Lee Earle (now James) was born in 1948. Beverly Hills had a population of 26,000 in 1940. It was a rapidly developing community at the time (it had less than a thousand people in 1920), and was presumably big enough for Jean not to worry about bumping into her ex-husband Easton.


Those are the facts, just the facts. Here are some of my thoughts:

Jean first visited LA on December 12, 1938. She had won a glamour contest as the ‘Most Charming Redhead’. She stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. She took a screen test. She was paid $1,000 and was given a tour of Hollywood. The Spaulding’s had connections in Hollywood. Many Hollywood stars lived in Spaulding Square. Perhaps she met Easton this way. Perhaps he persuaded her to move permanently from Chicago to LA. Perhaps they met after she moved to LA.

Easton’s marriage to Jean was something of an outlier in his life. Yes, he had been married and divorced twice before but those unions had been long enough to produce children. His marriage to Jean appears to have been short and disastrous. It does not appear in the book The Spaulding Heritage, so presumably (as with Jean) none of his family were at the wedding and he probably didn’t tell them about it. The marriage was dissolved shortly afterwards. Armand Ellroy abandoned his first wife, Mildred Feese, to live with Jean in 1941. Easton was short and balding. Armand was tall and handsome. Armand was a few years older than Easton. Perhaps Jean abandoned Easton for Armand. Maybe they were already divorced by the time Jean met Armand. We don’t know. Did Easton pay alimony to Jean until she remarried, or was their marriage too short to warrant that?

Jean Ellroy was murdered in 1958. Armand was questioned by police and ruled out as a suspect. Their son was his alibi at the time Jean was murdered. Armand had custody of the boy at weekends. Armand would have made for a natural suspect if he did not have such a strong alibi. His divorce from Jean had been bitter and acrimonious. Leoda Hilliker always suspected Armand had murdered Jean, ‘my father got a kick out of the notion’. Easton Spaulding, it seems, was never interviewed by the police. His name is never mentioned in Ellroy’s detailed account of the original investigation. It’s probable that the police were unaware of Jean’s first marriage. Ellroy recalls overhearing detectives talking to his father, ‘The cops were saying their case was dead. Jean was such a goddamn secretive woman. Her life just didn’t make sense.’

Jean Hilliker was indeed secretive, but at least we now know the identity of her first husband.

Author’s Note: I informed James Ellroy of my findings prior to the publication of this article.

Read More: The Murder of Jean Ellroy – The Search for Answers

James Ellroy: The Eye of This Storm

March 1, 2020

Now that some time has passed since the publication of James Ellroy’s This Storm, I thought it would be a good moment to revisit the novel and reassess it with some objective distance. To do this, I have been burrowing in the files and plunging deep into my subconscious.

One memory stood out. It was from when I saw Ellroy speak in Manchester during his 2014 publicity tour for Perfidia. Ellroy asked the audience whether any of them knew or admired the work of the English composer Havergal Brian. No one, including myself, in the largely British audience had heard of Brian. I was intrigued. Ellroy’s admiration for composers such as Anton Bruckner and Beethoven is well-known. He keeps a bust of Beethoven on his writing desk. But I had never heard him mention the name Havergal Brian before. I can remember Ellroy gushing about what he most admired about Brian’s work. Havergal Brian enjoyed periodic success in his music career, but by the end of his long life he was working in relative obscurity. Unlike other British composers such as Benjamin Britten or Ralph Vaughan Williams he did not enjoy the privilege of a middle or upper-middle class background or the patronage of the establishment to further his music career. He was noted for being prolific. He was still composing well into his ninth decade. And despite his lack of critical recognition his music was epic and ambitious – The Gothic is one of the longest symphonies ever written. Given the logistical challenges it presents, the work is rarely performed and is by no means universally admired by music critics.

Havergal Brian

The more I read about Havergal Brian and listen to his music, the more I see how his ghost looms large over Ellroy’s recent writing. Like Brian, Ellroy’s family background was modest. He never graduated from an Ivy League university to write about middle-class problems in Suburban America. His talent was driven by his burning obsessions. Ellroy celebrates his seventy-second birthday this week and his books continue to get bigger, increasingly ambitious and more challenging to readers and critics alike. Ellroy is too competitive and well-established in his field to slip into obscurity in the same way that Havergal Brian did. But part of Ellroy appreciates how Brian, through his constant outpouring of classical music, fulfilled his Romantic destiny to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.

If the work of Havergal Brian has been a hidden influence on Ellroy’s work then the references to WH Auden in This Storm were, at times, mystifying. The novel repeatedly employs the phrase ‘This storm, this savaging disaster’. It is supposedly an Auden quote, but the source is never fully made clear. Kay Lake writes in her diary ‘Joan (Conville) quoted it repeatedly and never ascribed a specific source.’ Ellroy has said of the Auden quote:

It’s an interpolation, a fiction. There is a letter WH Auden wrote to his friend Christopher Isherwood and I remember taking a look at it years ago and he used “this savaging disaster”, which, to me, felt incomplete. I wanted a title for this book that reflected my themes, reflected LA in winter and reflected the Pacific coast and I came up with the words “this storm”, which I felt I’d seen somewhere previously. In the book I attribute “this storm, this savaging disaster” to Auden even though he didn’t write that complete line.

As Peter Strempel has pointed out, Ellroy’s memory of Auden’s words has put the line through several permutations. He took it from a poem Auden wrote to his friend, and sometime lover, Christopher Isherwood titled ‘To a Writer On His Birthday’. The line actually reads ‘Who gives us nearer insight to resist / The expanding fear, the savaging disaster?’ The fluidity of memory and influence in Ellroy’s writing seems apt given the difference between the original LA Quartet and the recent novels. Personally, I don’t think once the new Quartet is finished Ellroy will have written a fully coherent fictional history of the US from 1941 to 1972, which he claims is his aim. How will he reconcile Dudley Smith’s parenting of Elizabeth Short with his absence from her murder investigation in 1947 if, as Ellroy insists, the new Quartet ends on VJ Day, 1945?

The new novels are more complex and dreamlike than that. For the first time the reader is in Dudley Smith’s head and it’s a strange place to be. With his opium habit, kimono fetish, blood-drenched memories of the Irish War of Independence and communion with a mystical wolf, Dudley is not a reliable character to make historical revelations. This might irk readers who usually revel in Ellroy’s ability to create and shape a plausible secret history but, upon revisiting This Storm I found that once I accepted these compromises I began to enjoy the text far more. Oh, and another thing, ‘The Expanding Fear’ might be a great title for volume three in the Quartet.

This Storm is Auden rewritten and Havergal Brian writ large. It is also quintessentially Ellrovian.

This Storm


James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Milwaukee Vice

February 15, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the sixth instalment in Jason’s series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

Milwaukee first felt the corrosive effects of the Great Depression in the beginning of 1930. The national wave of bank failures trickled down to local businesses who began layoffs that would eventually affect more than 50,000 workers over the next three years.  Foreclosure, eviction, homelessness and malnutrition skyrocketed.

Many families turned to public assistance, and the private charities and government officials overseeing the distribution of this welfare were quickly overwhelmed. Those who did receive aid often complained that it was grossly insufficient.

milwaukee depression.v1

The Milwaukee Leader Reported on how the Cream City Economy was Severely Affected by the Depression

Vincent Crupi ran vice for the Guardelebene family, particularly the brothels of Milwaukee’s East Water Street.  In 1930, reports surfaced of Crupi starting fires to eliminate competition from neighboring brothels. Detectives Ralph Hostettler, John Carnell, and Patrolman George Broder raided the Green Light Brothel in October, 1930.  Crupi was arrested for running the brothel and released on $750 bond. Four local girls were arrested for prostitution. The very next evening, the Milwaukee vice squad raided five establishments and made 13 arrests. Crupi was arrested yet again for running a brothel.

Following the raids, Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer ordered Detective Sergeant Burt Stout removed from the head of the vice squad and placed on regular night duty. Stout was charged with neglecting official duty following allegations that he protected Crupi.  The accusations alleged that Stout told the district attorney to drop his case against Crupi.

Chief Laubenheimer both defended and berated his detective when speaking to the press: “In the 20 years that Detective Sergeant Stout has been connected with the vice details, he made the acquaintance of many underworld habitues, obtaining information from them which greatly aided the department in arresting other criminals…  [However,] he failed to use good judgement. […] To permit a house of ill fame to operate merely because a lead might be obtained that would enable the police to arrest other criminals is not, in my judgement, good police work.”

As native Milwaukee chronicler Gavin Schmitt details it, the Milwaukee vice squad then underwent a complete shakeup: Detectives Hostettler and Carnell were made permanent vice officers, while all others involved in the raids were replaced with 10 new officers.  Sergeant Arthur Schiefelbein was appointed the new head of vice and was ordered to report directly to Inspector Joseph Bernard Drewniak. Chief Laubenheimer said internal investigations revealed that favoritism was shown in the vice squad to certain repeat offenders, and especially to Crupi.

To eradicate the favoritism, Laubenheimer ordered that offenders only be arrested once under city ordinances, which carried with them nominal fines, while officers could respond to repeat arrests with state charges, which implied jail time.

The police board, led by Inspector John Bauschek, met to hear testimony on the ousted officer Burt Stout. Though Crupi was called to testify, he never appeared. Stout himself testified for more than two hours and was allowed to cross-examine other witnesses.  The police board ultimately found Stout guilty of incompetence and neglect, and Chief Laubenheimer, who held the final decision, demoted the 18-year vice veteran.

Crupi was convicted on charges of running a brothel (known in court jargon as “operating a disorderly house”) in December, 1930, and sentenced to a term of 1-3 years in the house of correction.  The vice lord’s time there would earn the House of Corrections the dubiously apt moniker “House of Corruption”.

vincent crupi.v1

Mafioso and Vice Lord Vincent Crupi

Chief Laubenheimer was content with the verdict, saying afterwards, “I hope [this] will act as a warning to all the other vice mongers in the city.”

As Gavin Schmitt notes, former guard Charles Lappe kept a diary of daily activities for ten years. It was in these pages where Lappe documented frequent scandal in the house of corrections, including a wild 1933 party on New Year’s Eve involving a nude woman and large makeshift fans.

The next day, guards painstakingly cleaned up the debris, which included broken glass from 42 smashed windows and countless broken benches and chairs. As you may expect, Vincent Crupi sat at the epicenter of the chaos…

Former inmate Joseph Gapinski was subpoenaed before the Milwaukee County Board Committee on Institutions. After serving 38 months in the house of correction on a robbery charge, he began telling stories of inmates receiving favorable treatment through bribes. According to Gapinski, guards were paid to smuggle love letters out of the prison for Crupi, who in turn supplied the guards with liquor and tobacco. Also, Gapinski stressed in his testimony that House of Corrections Inspector William Henry Momson was unaware of such daily circumvention.

Inspector Momson was relieved of duty and suspended without pay following Gapinski’s testimony. Civil Service Commission Chief Examiner David Vincent Jennings charged Momson with permitting federal prisoners to leave the workhouse without the proper authority. Specifically, Jennings referenced the allegation that Momson personally chauffeured infamous Green Bay bootlegger “King George” Kolocheski (under the guise of retrieving a deed from a safety deposit box) to Green Bay’s posh Northland Hotel for several wild parties which Momson eagerly participated in.

In response to the testimony, District Attorney William Zabel asked the county board to replace Inspector Momson with Sheriff Joseph Shinner. Deputy Inspector Gillette Benson, Assistant Deputy Matt Ebert, and nine guards were also suspended for misconduct.

It would be far from the last time that scandal tainted the Cream City’s vice squad.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

%d bloggers like this: