This site began life as a supporting site for two books: 100 American Crime Writers and 100 British Crime Writers. These books are edited respectively by Steven Powell and Esme Miskimmin and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in their Crime Files series. The blog is edited and maintained primarily by Steven and Chris Routledge.
It’s 1970 and an aging Albert Campion is appointed Visitor to the newly constructed University of Suffolk Coastal. Campion finds the role of Visitor as baffling as the murky world of academe itself. It’s not clear what his employers expect him to do, except give the occasional speech to oversexed undergraduates. The campus has been built on the site of Black Dudley, the stately home which, forty years earlier, was the setting of the very first Campion novel. It’s tempting to say Campion hasn’t changed much over the intervening forty years even if the architecture has. Medieval cloisters have been swept away in favour of modernity and the Brutalist architecture which was popular in 1960s and 70s Britain. Campion himself is still urbane, flirtatious and masking a sharp mind behind his other-worldly manner. That said, the excellent Mr Campion’s War revealed the murky acts of espionage Campion committed for Blighty during the war have hardened his soul, and the rapid changes happening in post-war Britain have given him reasons to become more cynical with age. Despite this, he still lights up at the thought of a good lunch and a mystery to be solved.
It’s not long before a death on campus gets Campion back to his more natural role as a sleuth. Professor Pascal Perez-Catalan is a geochemist whose brilliant career is cut short when he is found with a knife in the back. The Latino Don was noted for his fiery left-wing views (he supports Salvador Allende in his native Chile), and his unparalleled skills of seduction. So was his murderer a right-wing fanatic, a rival colleague, spurned lover or a jealous husband? Campion must get to the bottom of it all. On his way, he stumbles across the mysterious ‘Phantom Trumpeter’, who plays the Last Post every midnight without fail, and wrestles (almost literally) with giant outdoor chess pieces. Budding chess players on campus can play a game against one of those newfangled computers, an invention which Campion’s loyal manservant Magersfontein Lugg confidently predicts will never catch on.
Mr Campion’s Visit is another triumphant addition to the Campion series by Mike Ripley. It’s both engrossing as a mystery and frequently very funny in its depiction of academe. This reviewer has visited the campus on which the University of Suffolk Coastal is based –trust me, Ripley nails it! In fact, one might say that Mr Campion’s Visit has all of the elusive qualities of an ideal academic– it’s eccentric, effortlessly witty, detached (in the best possible way) from the real world and fizzing with great ideas.
It took some time, and a lot of hard work, but I think the Venetian Vase found its voice as a blog which publishes in-depth research on genre fiction. Oh, and if you enjoy the work of James Ellroy then this is the blog for you.
I owe a big debt of gratitude to everyone who has contributed to this blog – Diana Powell, David Hering, Chris Pak, Steve Hodel, Craig McDonald and, most recently, esteemed Ellrovian Jason Carter.
Thank you to all past, present and future readers, and a big thank you to the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.
Here’s to the next ten years.
When I interviewed Ellroy at his home in LA in 2009, the year I started the blog
Meeting Ellroy ten years later in Manchester 2019, while he was on tour promoting THIS STORM
I’ve heard Ellroy’s “Peepers, prowlers, panty-sniffers” schtick plenty of times (it never gets old) but it’s always enjoyable to watch the shocked and astonished responses from people whom have never experienced an Ellroy reading. Typically, these unlearned ones are quiet, conservative little old ladies, and there were quite a few in attendance.
Beyond that, the audience—pock-marked with refugees from the sunken Alamo Drafthouse—was much more diverse this time than in 2009, and I’d like to think there were plenty of new and potential Ellroy fans present. Right from the start, Ellroy told the double-digit crowd to refrain from asking him any questions pertaining to contemporary American politics and/or the current occupant of the White House. “I live history, I breath history. It’s not 2019. I pay no attention to what some people have called a tumultuous political climate.” This Storm and only This Storm was the star of the show.
“This Storm and Perfidia celebrate the hard-charging, shit-kicking World War II America,” Ellroy began, calling his new novel “an instant American bestseller published to thunderous acclaim.”
Regarding the novel’s incendiary cover art, Ellroy bludgeoned any ruffled sensitivities. “Dig it, it’s a Swastika—can ya dig it?” the Dog taunted. “Live with it, it’s ok, calm down right now.”
Ellroy’s trademark profanity was a dynamic and conspicuous no show throughout the night, and there was a respectful and dignified reason for that: Tattered Cover’s presentation dais just happens to be in the middle of the children’s and young adult literature, so in a display of his copious morality and empathy, the Demon Dog went fuck-free, and even refused to read any passages from the book in regards for the numerous young children there. It was absolutely the right call. “There’s nothing I can read in this book that doesn’t have any reference to sex or pornography or profanity, so I’m not going to,” Ellroy told us.
“I expanded the text to enhance the emotional lives of the protagonists,” Ellroy said of the book’s production, launching then into brief summaries of most of This Storm’s major characters. “I live with their eyes. I breathe with their soul… I loosened the constraints of my admittedly sometimes constricting staccato short sentence style in order to give you intimate access to my protagonists, who are the wildest bunch of mofo’s I’ve ever written in one book.”
Plenty of patrons asked Ellroy questions, though most of them weren’t about his new book. Helen Knode, the Demon Dog’s second ex-wife and current girlfriend, was seated directly behind me, and asked most of the Storm-specific questions. “Helen’s read the book,” Ellroy said, pointing at her.
I asked Ellroy whether he felt Joan Conville was the novel’s conscience, and even quoted how the red-headed army nurse admonished Whiskey Bill Parker just like a guilty conscience would. He seemed to like my idea, somewhat. “No, Kay Lake is the conscience of the novel, but yeah…”
Always a master of nuance, the Demon Dog also threw his loyal readers a bone that may just explain his endearingly contradictory ways: “I’ve got the twin influences of my life in my head at all times: One, the Lutheran church, two, Confidential magazine: the moral vision and the sin at full blast, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the definition of an artist is someone who can hold concurrently two diametrically opposed points of view and retain their sanity… that’s me.”
Before closing out his speech with his standard recital of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft, or Sullen Art,” the Demon Dog left us in no uncertainty about his historical impact: “Who’s the greatest artist ever spawned by civilization? To me, it’s Beethoven, and if I am indeed the American Beethoven, I would call Beethoven the German Ellroy.”
It’s quite common for successful writers to be asked “what advice would you give to aspiring writers?” Most get away with “write what you know,” but Ellroy has for many years delivered a far more personal and pertinent instruction: “Write the kind of book that you like to read.” Tonight, he expanded on the genesis of that wisdom. “I was always looking for a giant book that would hold me longer than four or five days… Nobody was writing these books, and so many, many decades later—now—I don’t write what I know, as much as I write the books I wish I could’ve read as a kid that nobody else was writing.” I can relate to that. I waited years and years for a writer to directly explore Ellroy’s countless contradictions, and it never happened… until I did it myself.
Watching the Demon Dog interact with his fans afterwards gives you the sense that anyone who has ever accused Ellroy of being a pessimist and a misanthrope would stand severely corrected if they ever attended the autograph component of an Ellroy book reading (try it out sometime, Mike Davis). Ellroy was in great spirits this evening, and his enthusiastic gratitude seemed to pervade the whole room. In short, whomever said you should never meet your icons, has clearly never met James Ellroy.
When it came to my time, Dog signed both my hardcover and uncorrected proof of the book, and though we didn’t have much time or room to talk, the Reverend Ellroy endowed me with an august benediction: “Keep reading, big Jason”.
For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. Here is Jason’s take on James Ellroy’s latest novel This Storm.
It’s all one story, you see.
James Ellroy has always taught us—and me in particular—to seek the design amid the dissonance.
In a 2018 piece published on the Demon Dog’s 70th birthday, I concluded by anointing Ellroy’s ever-ambitious output as an ultra-marathon with no finish line, at a time and age when many people are eyeing retirement the way L.A. Confidential’s Salvation Army Santa eyes the liquor store across the street.
Ellroy’s latest novel This Storm, the midway point in the Dog’s second L.A. Quartet, boldly confirms this, as its blistering pace and pugilistic prose (Ellroy’s sharpest narrative since The Cold Six Thousand… you’ll need stitches on your tongue after reading it aloud) depict a rain-soaked L.A. in a graffiti fever dream of paranoid chaos…
It’s the dawn of 1942. The wounds from Pearl Harbor are still open and bleeding, and the disgraceful roundup of Japanese Americans is in full swing. Boozed out army nurse Joan Conville mows down four Mexican dope peddlers while en route to her first day of duty… It’s the first wave of a monsoon-like tempest of death that awaits the City of Angels. The incessant rain sparks mudslides that unearth a charred corpse in Griffith Park, and later, two dead LAPD detectives are discovered in a downtown klubhaus frequented by gays, black jazz musicians, and fifth columnists. As any Ellroy reader knows, these disparate strands will eventually dovetail towards the end.
The two dead cops in the downtown klubhaus presents a major conflict: Should the LAPD work the case, or protect the department’s reputation? Chief Jack Horall wants the klubhaus kase krushed, ordering “a clean solve [with] dead suspects who will never enter a courtroom” while Captain William H. Parker is struggling to contain a soul-crushing truth (revealed at the end of Perfidia) that could stain the department for generations.
The redheaded Joan Conville, whom Ellroy based on his own mother, is blackmailed into the LAPD after that auto accident. Rather than a vehicular manslaughter charge, Conville accepts a job in the department’s crime lab, where her superb analytical and deductive work soon make her a valuable asset. Ms. Conville, a flawed mother figure, and at times the novel’s ostensible conscience, admonishes Parker for keeping a secret that’s eating him alive. “How can you live with what you know, and do nothing?” she asks him.
Character cameos from Ellroy’s previous two bodies of work are greatly minimized this time, but far from absent. Joan Klein, the 40-year-old Red Goddess and revolutionary mother figure in Blood’s A Rover is here as a 15-year-old revolutionary in training, mentored by the Red Queen Claire DeHaven, Ms. Conville, and even a certain army captain named Dudley Smith (although, Smith seems to distrust Young Joan from the beginning). Those of you familiar with Blood’s A Rover may need to re-read that novel’s chapter 119, which details Joan’s full backstory… I know I certainly did.
Along the way, Joan Conville romantically intertwines herself with rivals Parker and Smith. Ellroy refers to this arrangement as triangulation, and it’s something he’s used quite often before, most notably in The Black Dahlia, and L.A. Confidential.
The ensuing investigation uncovers that the two dead cops at the klubhaus had ugly pasts and a twisted familial arrangement that evokes White Jazz’s equally demented Herrick and Kafesjian families. This obvious evocation recalls something Jim Mancall mentioned in his 2014 companion to Ellroy’s work: Concerning Blood’s A Rover and its narrator Don Crutchfield, Mancall discusses how Crutch, like astute Ellroy readers, searches for clues to understand historical events. As Crutch searches, “readers link patterns across disparate contexts, searching for larger meanings.” Ellroy also seems to pay respectful homage to Ross Macdonald, one of his greatest teachers, with Conville’s subtle assurance that “It’s all one story, you see,” echoing the former Kenneth Millar’s famous adage “it’s all one case.”
It’s difficult not to think of The Big Nowhere’s Danny Upshaw when you read This Storm’s depiction of homosexual Japanese LAPD chemist Hideo Ashida, who even employs Upshaw’s Man Camera to reconstruct the klubhaus krime scene.
Army Captain Dudley Smith is a fascist fetishist here (in the words of Joan Conville), and as expected, concocts countless schemes to reap profit from war. Smith’s collision course with William Parker foreshadows the Dubliner’s White Jazz standoff against Ed Exley some 16 years later. Smith is also severely de-LADded here, so much so, that I wonder if Ellroy’s editors pressured the Dog to tone down his Irish icon’s most distinctive quirk. This is, however, the least of Mr. Smith’s problems in this novel… more on that below.
It’s great fun to see Ellroy put his palpable hatred for Orson Welles into action. I’ve known for quite some time that Ellroy thoroughly detested Welles, though I’ve tried to get the Dog to at least admire Welles as a skilled radio performer (Orson will always be The Shadow to me) and a national prankster. But, in This Storm, the Demon Dog paints the Citizen Kane wunderkid in a light similar to American Tabloid’s JFK: A loser and a buffoon behind the scenes who falls mightily short of his God-like public image. Ellroy even gives an indication towards the bloated behemoth has-been that Welles, who in the novel is muscled into becoming a police informant, would become in later decades (“he eats too much…”).
Though far faster than the plodding Perfidia, This Storm is far from a perfect storm. The Dudley Smith in The Big Nowhere through to White Jazz could kick the bloody shit out of This Storm’s Dudley, who’s a “dud” in more ways than one… It was always a hilarious blast to read Smith, with his inimitable charm melded perfectly with his systemic evil. However, in This Storm, I find it hard to relate to this opium-smoking, kimono-donning, wolf-communing Smith caricature versus the fearless Irish ass kicker in the earlier (later?) books.
At least it’s comforting to know Mr. Smith will toughen up as Ellroy’s chronological 31-year narrative unfolds. I just hope that transition begins within the framework of this new quartet. It pains me to say this, (and rather feels like I’m spitting in the face of my uncle) as I literally grew up reading about Smith, but whereas before I was laughing with Dudley, here I am most certainly laughing at him.
Like all of Ellroy’s work, This Storm’s nightmarish indelible images linger long after the last page. It’s a literary hurricane that will invade your subconscious, and force contemplation…You’ll find yourself thinking about its machinations at odd intervals and even odder hours. In spite of its problems, This Storm makes me excited for volume three.
One final note: Even before the novel existed, This Storm had a turbulent genesis with mind-blowing unintended consequences that more than lived up to its anagrammed admonishment (shit storm). I was even an unwitting catalyst for the ensuing debacle. There’s a wild and tragic tale behind it all, and I promise I’ll tell it to you someday… Off the record, on the QT, you know the rest…
James Ellroy is a living legend among crime writers. Of the more than twenty books he has authored, I would count at least six — The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), White Jazz (1992), American Tabloid (1995), My Dark Places (1996) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001) — as masterpieces. You may disagree with my choices, but in my view these are the most flawless works of literature that Ellroy has created. And of course there are the seminal early novels, the gripping Lloyd Hopkins trilogy, unforgettable short stories and hard-hitting articles which, taken all together, amount to an incredibly rich and powerful contribution to the crime and historical fiction genre.
So, after giving him such a glowing introduction, you may have already guessed that my assessment of Ellroy’s latest novel This Storm is that it doesn’t belong with his best work. In fact, any reader who has struggled with Ellroy’s recent output is going to find This Storm difficult. At times it is maddening. But having read the novel twice now, and been quite disappointed at first, I have come to admire its scope, ambition and narrative power more on the second reading.
This Storm begins where Perfidia left off. Isolationism has failed America just as Appeasement failed in Britain. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour means America is now at war with the Axis powers. This global conflict, just over twenty years on since the last one ended, will bring new opportunities to individuals ambitious and ruthless enough to exploit it. Dudley Smith is recovering from the wounds he received at the end of Perfidia. He suspects, wrongly, that Chinese Mafia figures were behind the attack. He hasn’t got much time to think about revenge though as the murder of two LAPD detectives at a local ‘Klubhaus’ sends him on a collision course with departmental reformer William H Parker. Parker has his own demons too, namely women, whiskey and a big dose of Catholic guilt. Heavy storms bear down on LA and, seemingly in an act of God, mudslides expose a charred corpse linked to the Griffith Park Fire of 1933 and, possibly, a gold bullion heist.
As a crime narrative Ellroy is on familiar ground. But with its wartime setting, This Storm reads as revisionist historical fiction concocted in a surreal pulp fever dream. In Ellroy’s version of the war, we don’t get to see the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but we are given tantalising glimpses of a meeting between Nazi and Soviet high-brass in Mexico. Ellroy doesn’t portray the Night of the Long Knives, but he does have a bizarre sex party reenacting the massacre in a plush Brentwood mansion. Ellroy is in different territory than many more conventional depictions of World War Two. War may be horrific, but for many in LA, it was a chance to live fast and get rich.
There is a thread of humanity that runs through this tale of deceit and avarice. It sometimes reads like Ellroy is concocting a fantasy version of his parents’ lives before he was born. Much of the action alternates between three settings: LA, Tijuana and Ensenada. LA is where Lee Earle Ellroy grew up. His mother took him on a childhood roadtrip to Ensenada and Tijuana. Armand Ellroy had his fateful meeting with Margarita Cansino at the Agua Caliente hotel in TJ. Ellroy makes these settings come alive in the novel as they are tied to his family history.
In the character of Joan Conville, Ellroy has written his mother into the LA Quartet and she is a lot more vibrant than some of the more familiar characters. Conville is a navy nurse from the mid-west who falls under the wing of Chief Parker to avoid a vehicular manslaughter rap. She has her own agenda, to avenge the death of her father ‘Big Earle’ Conville who died in a forest fire in Wisconsin which she suspects was set deliberately.
Of the famous real-life characters, Ellroy’s visceral hatred for Orson Welles is striking and, surprisingly, this makes him the most interesting of the Hollywood set. The constant tawdry tales of Hollyweird debauchery and Nazi fetishism get wearisome after a while, but the depiction of Welles being coerced by Dudley Smith into snitching on his leftist entourage does seem plausible and pushes the narrative forward.
However, for everything that I liked about This Storm, there was something else that grated. In a narrative spanning over five hundred pages the problems are manifold. Dudley Smith comes across as a parody the more central he is to events. He seems to think he won the Irish War of Independence single-handedly. He talks like he is directing US policy in Mexico. Although readers will be relieved to hear that Dud’s ‘daughter’ Elizabeth Short only appears briefly, and it is not too distracting. Dudley does get some comeuppance for his pomposity, but this has the potential to upset readers who thought they knew him. For instance, Dudley seems to have an incredible sexual charisma around women one moment, and then he is sexually humiliated the next. All of Dudley’s dialogue is in a conspiratorial tone. When the conspiracies unravel, he is left feeling naked and ridiculous.
Of all the characters in This Storm, the stronger ones are definitely the newer ones – Joan, Elmer Jackson and Hideo Ashida. Kay Lake is quite engaging, and I enjoyed her diary entries, partly as they are more accessible and readable than the main text. Ellroy’s prose here is the most uncompromising it has been since The Cold Six Thousand. However, no matter how much Ellroy claims this Quartet is compatible with the first Quartet, I can’t help feeling that the cerebral, classical- music loving Kay Lake of This Storm is very different to the streetwise, brassy gal in The Black Dahlia.
I’m delighted that This Storm is getting such strong reviews, and likely winning Ellroy new readers. But I felt its greatest strengths lay in a different, shorter novel. This Storm isn’t as compelling as Ellroy’s best novels but, true to form, it’s as stubbornly radical as all of the Demon Dog’s recent works.
When Joseph Knox introduced James Ellroy at Waterstones in Manchester last night, it was hard for him to contain his excitement and, as an audience member, I can vouch for the palpable sense of anticipation in the room. Knox is a young local crime writer, a former employee of Waterstones, who has authored several crime novels and whose writing, he freely admitted, owed a huge debt to Ellroy.
Ellroy walked on the stage to enthusiastic applause and read from the opening pages of his latest novel This Storm. The scene is of a bootleg radio broadcast by the ultra right-wing Father Charles Coughlin, lamenting America’s entry into World War Two:
Good evening bienvenidos, a belated Feliz Navidad, and let’s not forget prospero ano y felicidad – which means “Happy New Year” in English and serves to introduce the Mexico-at-war theme of tonight’s broadcast. And at war we are, my fellow American listeners – even though we sure as shooting didn’t want to be in the first place.
Let’s talk turkey here. Es la verdad, as our Mex cousins say. We’ve been in this Jew-inspired boondoggle a mere twenty-three days, and we’ve been forced to stand with the rape-happy Russian Reds against the more sincerely simpatico Nazis. That’s a shattering shame, but our Jew-pawn president, Franklin “Double-Cross” Rosenfeld, has deliriously decreed that we must fight der Fuhrer, so fight that heroic Jefe we regretfully must. It’s a ways off, though – because we’ve got our hands full with the Japs right now.
So let’s meander down Mexico way – where the senoritas sizzle and more HELL-bent jefes hold sway.
This served as a perfect introduction to the themes of paranoia, profiteering and extreme ideology of This Storm. As Ellroy expounded upon in the questions with Knox and the audience later, this is a novel about Los Angeles’s war, the war he imagined as a child, the war of the Quartet characters. It was a time, Ellroy explained, when people gravitated towards the most fanatical ideologies ever devised by man. And yet, his research of LA newspapers showed that there was non-stop parties going on in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Hollywood throughout the war. Policemen, politicians, gangsters and movie stars mingled at shindigs which violated blackout drills. The birth-rate went through the roof as an impending sense of death and destruction brought on by the world’s deadliest conflict gave people a voracious appetite for sex and loot. It’s a dream setting for a historical novelist.
There were a few other tidbits that tantalised Ellrovians in the audience. Ellroy insisted this Quartet would end on VJ Day, 1945, so I guess that means Dudley Smith’s involvement in the police investigation of the murder of his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, will never be revealed. My instinct tells me Ellroy will do some sort of extended epilogue. It’s too big a question to leave completely unanswered.
Ellroy discussed how the character of Joan Conville was based on his mother Jean Ellroy. He gave the names of two actresses who he had grown up watching on TV and film – Shirley Knight and Lois Nettleton. Knight and Nettleton’s classic beauty, natural intelligence and superb acting skills had reminded him of his mother, and he said watching them onscreen had allowed him to vicariously live or extend his mother’s life after her unsolved murder. This was a surprising and delightful revelation. I thought I knew all of Ellroy’s artistic and emotional influences, and then occasionally he comes out with new ones.
After the Q and A was over, there was a long queue of fans waiting for Ellroy to sign their copy of This Storm. Ellroy was generous and enthusiastic, chatting and posing for photos with each person. When it came to my turn we reminisced about the interviews we did, published in Conversations with James Ellroy. I mentioned my favourite interview, conducted in his then home at The Ravenswood in Los Angeles 2009. He sighed, describing that time of his life as his nadir, and then a second or two later his beaming smile came back, and we chatted about the book and then it was the next person’s turn to meet him.
On the train back to Liverpool that night, I pondered what Ellroy had said. I knew he had been dealing with some issues in 2009, which he candidly explored in his memoir The Hilliker Curse and the novel Blood’s a Rover, but he had been so kind and encouraging to me as a young researcher that they were never apparent in our interactions. I guess it makes me doubly grateful that James Ellroy is both the writer and person he is.
You can find full details on Ellroy’s UK and US tour for This Storm here.
The dates and locations for James Ellroy’s publicity tour for This Storm are now available online. In the US, Ellroy is taking the book nationwide. He will be appearing at venues in New York, Connecticut, Washington DC, California, Oregon, Washington State, Arizona, Texas, and in his now hometown of Denver, Colorado. You can find full details here.
Armand Ellroy, James Ellroy’s father, was an accountant and Hollywood fixer. His most notable Hollywood connection was Rita Hayworth, whom he met in Tijuana in the 1930s and served as her business manager from 1948-52. But what about his other Hollywood contacts? Two names make fleeting but intriguing appearances in Ellroy’s memoirs when he discusses his father’s movie biz friends — former child star Mickey Rooney and ‘schlock producer’ Sam Stiefel.
Alas, precious little is known about Armand Ellroy’s friendship with either Rooney or Stiefel, whereas Hayworth biographies provide some useful information on Ellroy’s relationship with the movie star he worked for (and claimed to have bedded). However, there is an abundance of material on Rooney and Stiefel’s professional and personal relationship with each other. The two men enjoyed a friendship and business relationship that began with ‘can-do’ American optimism and descended into one of the most bitter Hollywood feuds of the 1940s, as Rooney gradually realised he was being extorted by a conman, charlatan and alleged Jewish Mafia figure. Once he had extricated himself from Stiefel’s influence in the early 1950s, one can imagine that Rooney’s friendship with Ellroy must have also cooled as he didn’t want to be around any of Stiefel’s old friends. James Ellroy described Stiefel as a ‘schlock producer’, and this is a little unfair. Stiefel was both bigger than ‘schlock’ in his achievements, but sometimes smaller than it in his moral actions. He was, in every respect, an unceasingly complex man.
If Sam Stiefel had never gone to Hollywood, then the chances are that today he would be remembered as a liberal, perhaps even a visionary, reformer. Samuel H. Stiefel was born into an entrepreneurial Jewish family in Norma, New Jersey in 1897. The Stiefel family, which traced its roots back to Pokatilovo in the Ukraine, built and owned several theatres on the East Coast. Sam, who eventually took over the family business, opened the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia in 1923 and shortly thereafter purchased the Howard Theatre in Washington DC. These venues were part of the ‘Chitlin Circuit’, which catered to largely African-American audiences and featured Black performers who, due to segregation, were blocked from appearing in all-white theatres. Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington are two performers who became famous on the Chitlin Circuit.
Mickey Rooney was on a promotional tour for the film Girl Crazy in 1943/4 when he first met Sam Stiefel at a Pittsburgh theatre. Stiefel, never lacking in confidence, asked the stage manager to pass a message to Rooney requesting a meeting, and the diminutive former child star agreed. Stiefel wined and dined Rooney and his publicist Les Peterson, and by the time Rooney was on his way back to Hollywood, he had hired Stiefel to be his business manager. Rooney was clearly naive to hire Stiefel on impulse, and there were already signs that he had misjudged his character. Peterson described Stiefel as ‘a short, squarely built man who wore suits with wide lapels and flashy silk ties and looked about as trustworthy as a pit boss in Las Vegas.’ Attorney Murray Lertzman’s assessment of Stiefel wasn’t much better: ‘He had this rough, gravelly voice […] He carried a wad of bills that would have choked a horse. He was very flashy and quite persuasive.’ Stiefel was itching to make it in Hollywood, and was seething with jealously that his former business partner Eddie Sherman had broken into the business before him after being hired as Abbott and Costello’s business manager.
In Hollywood, Stiefel continued to earn Rooney’s trust. He began extracting Rooney from his contract at MGM (where he had long felt cheated) and persuaded him to put his earnings into a company he had set up – Rooney Inc. Rooney was also a heavy gambler and Stiefel, who owned several racecourses, was happy to cover his losses. He even promised to loan Rooney’s mother cash, if and when she needed it, while the star was away.
In his memoir, Life is too Short, Rooney describes how the night before he was due to leave for his army induction (he served in Special Services during World War II) his by-then ex-wife Ava Gardner seduced him wearing ‘a red nightgown and red peignoir’. The next morning, ‘I couldn’t believe what a lucky guy I was. While I was off fighting for my country, Sam Stiefel would take care of my finances and Ava would be waiting.’
To be thinking about Sam Stiefel so soon after a night of passion with Ava Gardner might seem odd. However, it reveals the complete trust Rooney placed in Stiefel at this time. Armand Ellroy told his son that Rooney ‘would fuck a woodpile on the off chance that a snake might be inside.’ Armand claimed inside knowledge of the movie stars sex lives, something he may have got from Rooney whose memoir reads like a sex addict’s confessional. At a Beverly Hills party, Rooney describes stumbling into a bedroom to find Tallulah Bankhead, ‘her head between the limbs of a beautiful young blonde’. Unfamiliar with lesbianism and embarrassed, a shocked Rooney made some frantic apologies but ‘Tallulah never missed a bite, never looked up.’ Rooney’s bawdy humour occasionally seeped through the cracks of his wholesome onscreen image – did he really slip the word dildo into the aptly titled Girl Crazy?
Although he had been reluctant to join the army, Mickey Rooney had a good war. He was awarded a Bronze Star, a good conduct medal and a World War II victory medal. However, the minute he returned to American shores at New York Harbour, he sensed something was wrong. None of his family were there to greet him — only Sam Stiefel. Stiefel wanted to party with Rooney and see some shows, but Rooney insisted (according to his memoir) that he just wanted to be with his family. Back on the West Coast, Stiefel met Rooney at the Hollywood Park Racetrack. Stiefel was by now enjoying the luxurious life of a Hollywood mogul, living with his family at a showcase home in Bel Air. While puffing away on a huge cigar, Stiefel informed Rooney that he expected full repayment for all of the gambling debts he had covered. In addition, Rooney’s mother had racked up a debt with Stiefel of $159,000 which he expected the actor to repay. Stiefel had also, seemingly without permission, invested Rooney’s earnings in a racing stable which was losing money. In desperation, Rooney agreed to forgo fifty per cent of his earnings to Stiefel until his debts were cleared. ‘Having survived the Nazis, I thought I’d have an easier time when I got back to Hollywood. I was mistaken’ Rooney lamented.
This ruinous situation was affecting Rooney’s mood at MGM. Colleagues began to complain about his behaviour and, in a moment of petulance, Rooney gave Stiefel permission to sever all contact with the studio. He later described this move as:
One of the dumbest things I ever did. I had to forgo my $5,000-a-week salary and my pension […] And I had to pay Metro $500,000 besides, which I was to work off at a rate of $100,000 a picture (and keep only $25,000 for myself)). In other words, Stiefel negotiated me down to $25,000 a picture […] Now, I had to do five pictures for $25,000 apiece, minus 50 percent to Sam Stiefel and minus Uncle Sam’s share. That would bring my take down to less than $10,000 a picture – not even enough to pay my upcoming alimony and child support.
Rooney eventually confronted Stiefel, accusing him of extortion to the tune of ‘six million, four hundred thousand, six hundred and thirteen dollars. And twelve cents’. Stiefel’s other big catch in Hollywood was Peter Lorre. He formed the company Lorre Inc and pulled off the exact same con, ‘grossly mismanaging his (Lorre’s) business affairs and leaving him in financial ruin.’ Lorre had many of the same vices as Rooney that made him a perfect target for Stiefel. Lorre was too trusting, struggled to control his spending and was battling a morphine addiction. If it is true that Stiefel was a member of the Jewish Mafia, as Murray Lertzman claimed, then he may have been passing some of this extortion money on to his superiors in the LA Underworld. Stiefel did like to flaunt his criminal connections. His friends included mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, and he was a silent partner in the latter’s clothing store – Michael’s Haberdashery. According to Stiefel’s granddaughter Adrienne Callander, Stiefel once received a call from Al Capone in prison. Scarface wanted his help in building a stage at the prison (presumably Alcatraz, where Capone served most of his sentence).
Although his business relationship with Stiefel was coming to an end, Rooney couldn’t walk away just yet. He was contractually obligated to star in and co-finance three films for the still aspiring producer. First came the run of the mill sporting drama The Big Wheel (1949). The following year came the more impressive Quicksand.
Opening credits to Quicksand
In Quicksand, Rooney plays Dan Brady, a garage mechanic with an eye for a beautiful woman. Barbara Bates plays his ex-girlfriend Helen. Helen still loves him. She’s nice, she’s pretty, she’d be good for him. In a diner one night Dan meets Vera (Jeanne Cagney). She’s blonde, she’s bad, she oozes sex appeal and lusts after a $2,000 mink coat. Dan spurns Helen’s overtures and goes chasing after the femme fatale Vera. This is all going to go very wrong for Dan. Dan steals $20 from the garage till to go on a date with Vera. He buys a $100 wristwatch on instalment payments, which he then pawns for $30 to cover the missing money in the till. Then he is threatened with grand larceny for violating the instalment plan and selling a watch he doesn’t legally own. He has to buy the watch outright in 24 hours or face prison. Now he gets really desperate and mugs a sloshed bar patron, which leads to him being extorted for $3,000 by the crooked owner of the garage where he works. Vera and Dan decide to cover this debt by robbing a penny arcade run by her seedy ex-partner played by Peter Lorre (who only took on the role as he was still in hock to Stiefel). They pull off the robbery, but Vera spends her half on her beloved mink leaving Dan still owing his boss. Then things take a violent turn for the worse.
Dan’s in the quicksand. Each bad decision he makes pulls him deeper into debt and trouble with the law. Quicksand’s narrative of spiraling debt clearly evokes Rooney and Lorre’s predicament with Stiefel. Rooney disliked the film intensely. He poured his money into the production and made a loss on it as ‘Stiefel commandeered whatever cash there was.’ However, Rooney does give one of the most mature and acclaimed performances of his career. He understood the weakness for sex and bad business decisions which drove Dan Brady.
Rooney and Stiefel never collaborated on the planned third film as Stiefel didn’t like the script. And here’s the final irony, as if they had gone ahead and made Francis (1950) together as planned then Rooney and Stiefel would have raked in millions. In the event, Donald O’Connor played the leading part. It was a huge hit for Universal, spawning the Francis the Talking Mule franchise which featured six more films and inspired the TV show Mister Ed. By contrast, the two films Stiefel produced are now in the public domain, which is usually a sign of lax business practices. Both are now free to view on the internet.
Although he must have felt like a horse’s ass for passing on Francis, Sam Stiefel could be proud that he made a good film noir in Quicksand. James Ellroy dismissed Stiefel as a purveyor of schlock, which is not how I would categorise Quicksand.
That said, Ellroy does display a nostalgia for grade-Z, schlock films in his writing. There is the filming of Daddy-O in Dick Contino’s Blues, the ill-conceived comeback vehicle for the titular accordionist. Also, there is the fictional ‘Attack of the Atomic Vampire’ in White Jazz. This stinker of a horror movie is produced by Mickey Cohen in a desperate attempt to revive his standing in LA after his release from prison.
Stiefel’s links to Mickey Cohen suggests another possible influence the producer had on Ellroy’s writing. Ellroy always seemed more interested in and fond of wannabe celebrity gangster Cohen than he was in the Mafiosi of the Underworld USA trilogy – Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante Junior. Even though these gangsters were far more powerful than Cohen, the reader never really gets to know them as much as the vain, prickly but ultimately quite likable Jewish hoodlum. Giancana is unsympathetic as he is a lifelong gangster and leader of the Chicago Outfit, which was founded in 1910 and still operates today. By contrast, the Jewish Mafia had disappeared within a generation. As gangsters, Cohen and Stiefel really just wanted to be good immigrants and live the American Dream. They may have had a hand in the rackets, but their ambition was to reinvest their ill-gotten gains and ‘make it’ in legitimate business. Like Bugsy Siegel’s dream of building the Flamingo Hotel in the Nevada Desert, Stiefel genuinely wanted to be a great film producer. Although the fate of the Kennedy’s, as fictionalised by Ellroy in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, suggests children cannot escape paying for the sins of the father.
Quicksand may not be a masterpiece, but it is Stiefel’s enduring legacy from his time in Hollywood. Stiefel left the movie business for good in the early 1950s, leaving behind a trail of vendettas and ending one of Armand Ellroy’s last connections to the movie world (he was fired by Rita Hayworth in 1952). Stiefel returned to the theatre business in Philadelphia, promoting black musicians at a time when Soul music was beginning to emerge. When he died in 1958, Stiefel’s obituary in Time magazine described him as the ‘Father of Negro Show Business’. The Stiefel family papers are held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In the theatre world, Steifel could claim to have made a positive and lasting change.
Stiefel’s time in Hollywood led to a darker, more enigmatic legacy. James Ellroy could have been writing an alternative obituary for Stiefel with the words – It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
I recently came across a film that is the equal to all of the above in terms of never-ending difficulty or, as we might say today, ‘development hell’. The making of this film is a tale of titanic ambition, missed opportunities, horrendous luck, botched compromises and warring egos. I am, of course, referring to the big-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s epic bestseller Tai-Pan.
George MacDonald Fraser is best-known as the author of The Flashman Papers, but he also had a prolific career as a screenwriter and his memoir The Light’s on at Signpost covers his time in the movie biz. In the late 1970s, Fraser was contacted by film director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer was set to direct a big-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s Tai-Pan for Swiss producer Georges-Alain Vuille, and he wanted Fraser to write the screenplay. Tai-Pan is set in Hong Kong in the 1840’s, shortly after the First Opium War, when rival British trading companies are vying for market dominance with mainland China. Dirk Struan is the leader or ‘Tai-Pan’ of the Noble House trading company. His arch enemy is Tyler Brock, leader of the Brock & Sons company. Tai-Pan has all the makings of a rattling good yarn as Struan must navigate the politics of empire, ancient Chinese traditions and treacherous fellow traders for the Noble House to ascend to the peak of Victorian mercantile glory. However, when Fraser sat down to read the novel, he found it to be ‘a wonderful atrocity’, ‘turgid and corny’ and ‘supremely dreadful’. I’m in partial agreement with Fraser here, Tai-Pan has great spectacle and story, but too often I felt like Clavell was rushing from one set-piece to another with little regard for coherence or emotional involvement.
Nevertheless, adapting it for the screen would be an exciting writing assignment for Fraser. He flew to Nice where he met Vuille at the Villa Nelleric. He had great affection for the producer who he described as ‘short, stout, excitable and great fun’. He also met Clavell, who struck him as being ‘a very British Australian’. The Australian born Clavell was actually an American citizen by this point, albeit living as a tax exile in Switzerland. Clavell had enjoyed a brief but successful Hollywood career as a film director. His best-known film is the teaching drama To Sir, with Love. Alas, it had all come to a crashing end when his big-budget historical drama The Last Valley flopped. One of the very few films to be set during the Thirty Years War, The Last Valley starred Michael Caine, Omar Sharif and Florinda Bolkan, and despite its financial failure on release, it is now considered something of a lost classic. Brian Trenchard-Smith gives an excellent appraisal of the film on Trailers from Hell, and Fraser himself admired The Last Valley, writing in The Hollywood History of the World that ‘it must be rated a successful picture’ and singling out the staging of Prince Bernhard’s attack on Rheinfelden Bridge as ‘faithfully done’. Despite his criticisms of Clavell’s writing, Fraser truly admired the man and had a lot in common with him. They had both served in the Far East during the war. Fraser documented his experiences fighting the Japanese in Burma in his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, and Clavell fictionalised his experience as a POW at Changi Prison in Singapore in his novel King Rat. Both men were historical novelists who had lived and fought through the bloodiest period in history, and, for my money, they even looked alike.
George MacDonald Fraser
Clavell told Fraser he had tried and failed to adapt Tai-Pan for the screen himself. This should have set off alarm bells with Fraser. An earlier MGM production, with Patrick McGoohan cast as Struan and Michael Anderson hired to direct, had fallen apart. Would this new version fare any better? Things started well. Fraser wrote a script that both Fleischer and Vuille liked. Vuille admired it so much he immediately commissioned Fraser to write a sequel – Tai-Pan 2. And when Fraser finished that, Vuille wanted a prequel, this to be set during the Battle of Trafalgar when Struan and Brock first develop their mutual loathing while serving in the Royal Navy together. But Fraser turned down the chance to write a third script. He had become exhausted travelling between Cannes, Gstaad and Spain on constant scriptwriting duty at the behest of Vuille and was beginning to have doubts that Tai-Pan would ever get made. He also had to fend off another screenwriter encroaching on his turf. Carl Foreman had worked on the script to the aborted 1968 version of Tai-Pan and was adamant that Fraser should read his version. Fraser refused, surmising that Foreman just wanted a screen credit. When Foreman mailed him his script Fraser sent it back unopened. Fleischer later told him that both he and Foreman had, coincidentally, written an identical closing scene ‘it involves a shot of the Hong Kong beach in 1841, suddenly pulling back in a colossal zoom to show Hong Kong as it is today.’
The question remained as to who would play Dirk Struan. The role required an actor with gravitas and box-office pull. Fleischer and Fraser flew to Los Angeles to meet Steve McQueen at the Beverley Wilshire. At the time McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world and would have been an ideal choice to play Struan. Fraser found the actor to be courteous but rather aloof at first, but he warmed considerably after learning Fraser was Scottish and talked at length about his own Scotch heritage: ‘I blessed the Scottish mafia of Hollywood’ Fraser wrote.
Director, writer and star had two day-long meetings about the project in which McQueen pored over the script line by line, frequently asking questions that impressed Fraser for their insight and intelligence. Finally, McQueen closed the script and proclaimed, ‘I think we’ve got Gone with the Wind here.’
Everyone left the meeting very optimistic, but sadly the project fell apart shortly thereafter. Vuille had already squandered a fortune on scripts for sequels and prequels, and McQueen was offered a record-breaking $10 million to play Struan. Fraser attributes the film’s collapse to McQueen’s ‘astronomical fee’. It’s possible however that McQueen was already too ill for the role, and he used the inflated fee as a convenient way to drop out of it. He would die of cancer a few years later. As for Vuille, who Fraser described as ‘the talk of the film world’ and ‘the boy wonder who was going to be the new DeMille’, he left show-business after being declared bankrupt with only three producing credits to his name. He died after a lung transplant at the age of 51.
The story of the production resumes when Fraser ‘was watching the Parkinson show [on TV], and was astonished to hear Roger Moore say that he was polishing up his Scots accent for Tai-Pan.’ Moore had in fact been working on an adaptation of Tai-Pan for years. The Bond star had a higher opinion of Clavell’s writing than Fraser did, having selected another novel in the Asian Saga, Noble House, as his choice of book on Desert Island Discs. Moore said of Tai-Pan, ‘all Clavell’s books are brilliant but I have particular affection for this one’, adding that he and Bond producer Cubby Broccoli used to enjoy greeting each other with an insult from the novel: ‘Ye be a bag full of farts’ (it’s worth noting that it is one of the many lines of dialogue that irked Fraser who described it as ‘a bizarre kind of English’). Fraser and Moore had known each other since the Flashman author had worked on the script of Octopussy. Fraser admired Moore for his ready wit, noting that at least one of his bon mots ‘passed into my family’s language’. He also said cryptically ‘Moore and I discussed Georges Alain (Vuille)’. The idea of a James Bond actor as Dirk Struan was not new. Clavell had said to Fraser, ‘It’s got to be Sean, hasn’t it?’ Fraser agreed with Clavell that Connery was perfect for the role, ‘He’s made for it.’
It’s probably no coincidence, given Fraser and Moore’s mutual obsession with Tai-Pan, that James Clavell’s daughter Michaela has a role in Octopussy as Penelope Smallbone, Miss Moneypenny’s assistant. Her character is limited to one scene, but she manages to inject some much needed sex appeal into the offices of Universal Exports at a time when both Moore and Lois Maxwell were getting a bit long in the tooth. In his memoir My Word is My Bond, Moore describes wanting to rethink his acting career after Octopussy. To his surprise he was asked to play Bond once more, finally hanging up his Walther PPK after A View to a Kill and dedicating all of his energies to producing and starring in Tai-Pan. Moore had experience as a producer, after The Persuaders! had finished its run he worked for Brut Films. He was an executive producer on a handful of films in the early 1970s, the best of which was probably A Touch of Class. Moore was proud of the picture: ‘The film went on to win great reviews, and was very successful, with Glenda Jackson ultimately winning the Best Actress Oscar […] What an auspicious beginning.’ Alas, his beginner’s luck as a producer wouldn’t last. He optioned the rights to Tai-Pan and hired John Guillerman to direct, and they began developing the script together and raising the finances. The project seemed to be coming together, with the sets being constructed in Croatia, when suddenly the financing fell through and the whole project collapsed. Why did the money disappear? Moore provides no answer in his memoir, but it’s a common problem in movie-making and the curse of Tai-Pan had struck again. ‘Months if not years of my life had been wasted’, Moore complained bitterly. In 1989, Moore accepted his first acting role in five years, and the press reported that he had come out of retirement: ‘I had, of course, been busy with Tai-Pan but nobody realised that.’
By the time the press were reporting on Moore’s acting comeback, the film of Tai-Pan had finally been made and swiftly forgotten. Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to the novel after Moore’s production fell through. Bryan Brown played Dirk Struan and Daryl Duke was behind the camera. It’s not a bad film, but it suffers from two major problems. Firstly, condensing a 700 page narrative into a two hour film, and secondly, it features a series of spectacular set-pieces which feel unengaging. It does have one major draw. Joan Chen is superb as Struan’s Chinese mistress May-May. I wonder if it was her performance here that secured Chen her high-profile roles in The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks. She does her best with some dreadful dialogue, and walks away with her dignity intact.
Bryan Brown as Dirk Struan and Joan Chen as May-May
Postscript: The eventual film adaptation of Tai-Pan met with poor reviews and disappointing box-office returns. Was it worth the work and obsession that so many people had put into it over two decades? Well, neither Fraser nor Carl Foreman received a writing credit in the finished film, but the closing shot they had both independently concocted did make it in. The film ends with the camera panning away from the desolate nineteenth-century Hong Kong coast and dissolves into an image of the skyscrapers that make up that Asian metropolis today.
It’s a fitting tribute to Clavell’s tale of the buccaneering Dirk Struan and the epic struggle to get it up on the big screen. And if you can’t take a crumb of comfort from that then ‘Ye be a bag full of farts’.
For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…
In researching the life of A.E. Housman, I unexpectedly came across more than a few stunning parallels with James Ellroy. Enough for me to dub the Demon Dog Housman’s redivivus, a literary term from the 1600s whose etymology translates to “live again”.
I first sensed a similarity between Housman and Ellroy when I encountered a description of Housman by the critic William Stanley Braithewaite, who, in an introduction for Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, described the poet’s works in a vivid manner that all but evokes the work of James Ellroy: “What has been called the ‘cynical bitterness’ of Mr. Housman’s poems is really nothing more than his ability to etch in sharp tones the actualities of experience. The poet himself is never cynical; his joyousness is all too apparent in the very manner and intensity of expression.”
Braithewaite goes on to detail Housman’s characters as well as the poet’s personal identification with his characters, and once again, it’s quite difficult not to think of Ellroy: “The ‘lads’ of Ludlow are so human to [Housman], the hawthorne and broom on the seventh shores are so fragrant with associations, he cannot help but compose under a kind of imaginative wizardry of exhultation, even when the immediate subject is grim or grotesque.” Ellroy has often spoken of his own carefully constructed world of cultural creation, and of finding kinship among the gutter-level implementers of public policy, even calling such bottom feeders his heroes.
Finally, Braithewaite concludes his introduction with an overview of Housman’s work that again strangely evokes James Ellroy: “In many of these brief, tense poems, the reader confronts a mask as it were, with appalling and distorted lineaments, but behind it the poet smiles […] Here is a spirit whom life may menace with its contradictions and fatalities, but never dupe with its circumstance and mystery.” Any reader of the Demon Dog’s autobiographical material can certainly attest that the deeply haunted Ellroy has been thoroughly menaced, and yet somehow has retained a steadfast wonder that propels him to this day.
Housman’s mother died of cancer on the poet’s 12th birthday, a watershed event for the young poet that became a primary source for his lifelong pessimism and obsession with death. As Housman’s sister Clemence noted, the death of their mother “roused within [Alfred] an early resentment against nature’s relentless ways of destruction.” Similarly, the 1958 murder of Ellroy’s mother would lead the future crime novelist to his own lifelong fixation on The Big Adios. Ellroy told me as much when I met him for the very first time in 2009: “My mother’s death hotwired me to sex and death and psychopathology, and the secret history of Los Angeles, and later, the secret history of America, and I began to see that there were two, three, four—exponentially more than that—versions of all alleged historical events.”
Novelist and critic B.J. Leggett, who authored an acclaimed study of A Shropshire Lad feels that Housman’s work is more nuanced and complex than the poet’s critics have ever acknowledged: “What has concerned Housman’s critics since the publication of A Shropshire Lad in 1896 is the enigma of Housman the man as it is reflected in his verse… his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry.” Some scholars even see Housman’s poetry as only a key to understanding the convoluted personality of the author.
According to Leggett, the dominant theme of A Shropshire Lad is the existential progression from innocence to experience and the painful wisdom gained by such growth. Housman critic John Stevenson has a tidy—and quite noir—way of explaining it: The burden of experience ultimately reveals that “ ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’ are illusions [and] that life, while perhaps not a sham, is something of a hoax, and that meaning comes only through struggle.”
Meaning wrestled from struggle is something both critics of Housman and Ellroy have frequently failed to grasp. In Jim Mancall’s 2014 companion to Ellroy’s oeuvre, Mancall notes that Ellroy’s 2009 novel Blood’s A Rover (named, appropriately, after a line from A Shropshire Lad) contains a possible allegorical gut punch from the Demon Dog: “[Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A.] trilogy places demands upon the reader—easy answers, big picture coherence, will be elusive. Close, careful and repeated readings are required to make sense of what lies hidden… If readers find themselves stymied by [Ellroy’s] dense, code-like style, Ellroy seems to imply they are not trying hard enough.”
Though Housman was raised as a devout Christian, the death of the poet’s mother would begin a process that would lead Housman to committed atheism by age 21. Accordingly, as Leggett noted, A Shropshire Lad presents Christ as “a disillusioned man who is faced with the vanity of his efforts in the light of his knowledge of the true nature of man.” Such disenchantment is eerily similar to that which plagues Ellroy’s tough guy right wingers, who all struggle with a spiritual and moral exhaustion throughout the Demon Dog’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (especially in Blood’s A Rover). The similarity is so striking, that I wonder if the devoutly Christian Ellroy did in fact read A Shropshire Lad, (despite once claiming that he had not) and structure his character’s preoccupations around this point of conflict.
Housman, like Ellroy, is often expeditiously described as a pessimist. In fact, Hugh Molson said that Housman saw life “as an unmerited ordeal which serves no useful purpose, but from which man obtains his final release after death.” This is echoed by other critics who frequently cite the pervasive violence and depravity of Housman’s work (and Ellroy’s) as proof of their creator’s supposed disgust with life.
As Jacob Brownstein observed, “Housman’s poems reel from one standard to another. If one poem finds love worthy… the poem over the page will find it pointless…” Hugh Molson has also noted Housman’s contradictory ways: “[Housman’s] running grievance, on examination, can be resolved into two separate complaints that are not at all consistent: First, life is lovely enough, but all too short, and death is the enemy of happiness. In the second, existence itself is a misery only to be endured until the welcome arrival of death the deliverer.”
Housman’s compulsive focus on death has, like Ellroy’s, been widely noted, condemned, and subject to frequent oversimplification and a rigidly literal interpretation (Does any of this sound familiar, Mike Davis?) However, as Leggett has noted, it is better to view Housman’s death obsession as one component of an overall larger concern with permanence and change, innocence and experience, subjects that also dominate much of Ellroy’s work.
Just as Ellroy and his father Armand were supported by insurance payments disbursed by Ellroy’s aunt Leoda, Housman’s father Edward was eagerly anticipating a substantial inheritance from Housman’s wealthy grandmother, who later cut all beneficiaries from her will in disgust of her son’s financial incompetence. Following a stroke, Housman’s father pursued countless ridiculous schemes including growing and preserving exotic fruits and prospecting for gold, all intent on quickly finding life changing wealth. Like Ellroy’s fast-buck father, Edward Housman also hid his fecklessness behind a façade of hyperbolic joie de vivre.
In Peter Parker’s (no, not that one) 2016 book Housman Country, it is argued that Housman typically remained silent about his own work, often side-stepping the more intriguing and complicated truths behind the writing. While Housman would go to great lengths to explain his process of writing poetry, he almost never discussed its origins. Ellroy has often done likewise, concealing his motives behind deliberate ambiguity. When interviewer David Peace noted that the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy’s format of mixing fictional characters with historical figures, closely resembled a design previously utilized by novelist John Dos Passos, author of The U.S.A. Trilogy, Ellroy tersely remarked that he’d “never read [Dos Passos]”.
Housman’s brother Laurence was among many who noted numerous instances of Housman caught between the warring urges of concealment and revelation. Ellroy is like this too, with his over-the-top love of promotion and egotism juxtaposed against his monastic, Beethovian private life.
Of particular note to Parker is Housman’s friendship with Joan Thomson, a woman who saw a far more personal side to Housman than what the poet ever displayed to his male friends. Writing three years after Housman’s death, Thomson noted the poet’s amazing powers of restraint and self-control, but also something else: “[Housman] was capable of emotion terrifying in its strength,” Thomson wrote, concluding that Housman was “ashamed of the strength of his own feeling,” which is why, according to Parker, Housman made such effort to hide and suppress it.
I’ve often wondered why Ellroy, who had his own catalytic encounter with a fiery femme named Joan, is always so elusive and elliptical when you speak to him. Could it be that the Demon Dog is himself ashamed of the strength of his own emotion? I’ve always attributed Ellroy’s obscurity to his mimicry of the ubiquitous ambiguity found so richly in film noir, but this possibility certainly opens new avenues for examination.
Housman, like Ellroy, was extremely distrustful of nostalgia, characterizing it as poison air wafting in from an irrecoverable past. Parker argues that “Nostalgia has become debased in recent years through too much careless handling, transformed into a kind of comfort blanket for adults in which they can wrap themselves against the chill winds of the present.” Ellroy would express a systemic disdain for nostalgia, beginning in earnest with the Demon Dog’s second novel Clandestine, in which narrator and protagonist Fred Underhill warns of the dangers of succumbing to nostalgic intoxication. All of Ellroy’s works are haunted by a sneering distrust of popular culture. According to Parker, Housman viewed nostalgia as deadly, characterizing it as the poet’s famous “Land of Lost Content”, a place where past happiness is recognizable, but unattainable.
“Housman’s natural reticence and solitary habits, his apparent failure to form any satisfactory emotional attachment, his devotion to the dryer aspects of classical scholarship, and his habit of brusquely rebuffing those who complimented him or asked about his poetry have led to descriptions of him as austere, unapproachable, aloof, taciturn, arrogant, rude, bitter, morbid, self-pitying, even self-loathing,” Parker writes. “Those who knew Housman well, however, insisted he could also be […] a good conversationalist [and] capable of great kindness and generosity.”
That last part definitely sounds like someone I know.