Wednesday, 13 January 2016

James Ellroy by Steven Powell

Last summer, I was invited to speak at a conference at Liverpool University which focused on the work of the American crime writer, James Ellroy. One of the reasons I accepted was that, in my early days as a crime novelist, I found myself reading Ellroy's novels, and thinking about his approach to story-telling. Not because I wanted to emulate his style, but because I believe it's helpful for a writer to absorb a whole range of influences rather than just a few. He is a controversial character, and some of his novels seem to me to be much better than others, but he and his work are thought-provoking, no question about that.

The conference was organised by Steven Powell, a researcher at Liverpool University, who has now written a book about Ellroy, sub-titled Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in their Crime Files series. Steven has previously been responsible for a wide-ranging collection of essays in the same series, 100 American Crime Writers, which I found readable and enjoyable, as well as Conversations with James Ellroy, which I have yet to read.

He makes the valid point that critics have often struggled to distinguish between Ellroy's work and his persona, and notes that Ellroy has managed to establish himself as "a character within the history of the genre". A pretty major character, it's fair to say. And I rather like the quote from Ellroy that ends the book: "I'm just James Ellroy, the self-promoting Demon Dog...You call it swagger. I call it joie de vivre.". Steven Powell's ability to recognise that joie de vivre is one of the key strengths of this book.

The book began life as a thesis, and this is a sign of the times. Not so long ago, few academics were interested in writing about crime fiction. Now there is a flood of academic texts about the genre. Some are excellent, but some of them are not exactly riveting, to put it mildly. One or two authors seem to prefer pedantry to conveying a love of the books, never mind a sense of joie de vivre. One of the things I like about Steven Powell's work is that he doesn't fall into this trap. He writes in a readable way, wears his learning lightly, and puts his discussions with Ellroy to good use. The result is scholarly, but not dull, and for me, the absence of page after page of footnotes was a definite plus (there is an extensive bibliography, which is useful.) I'm not an expert on theses, but the book doesn't seem to me to read like one, and that is a Good Thing. If you are interested in studying Ellroy, this thoughtful if not inexpensive book will prove a valuable and important resource..  

1 comment:

Deb said...

I've enjoyed much of Ellroy's work over the years, but there's no doubt the genesis of his subject matter (and obsessions) comes from a devastating event: the (unsolved) murder of his mother when he was a young boy. It adds a whole other layer to reading his work.