Monday 15 October 2018

The Big Somewhere by Steven Powell

The growth of academic interest in crime fiction over the past few decades has been quite stunning. When Julian Symons published the first edition of Bloody Murder in 1972, very few scholarly studies of the genre were available. Since then, hundreds have been published, and some of them have been extremely interesting. Crime has become a "respectable" subject for academic study,, something I think is really rather wonderful and indeed overdue. Yet it's striking that not one of these academic books has had as much impact as Symons' book.

Why is this? Certainly, there are many insightful and scholarly studies of the genre which have taught me a good deal. But there is also a sense that some academic books represent the work of a small group of people talking to themselves, rather than to the wider community of crime fans or crime writers. Too often they don't seem designed to be read. It's not uncommon, for example, to find endless pages devoted to turgid footnotes which seem designed mainly to prove that the authors have done their homework and which, I suspect, hardly anyone finds useful. In my opinion, that's a real pity.

Happily, there are signs that things are changing for the better. Not long after The Golden Age of Murder was published, I was invited to take part in a symposium focusing on the work of James Ellroy at the University of Liverpool. The event was organised by a lecturer at the university, Steven Powell, who has specialised in writing about American crime fiction, and in particular about Ellroy. I really enjoyed taking part (and meeting, amongst others, Woody Haut, whose excellent books about hardboiled crime fiction, and its links with Hollywood, have long appealed to me).

I also found that I enjoyed reading Steven's own writings, which seemed punchier and more accessible than much other academic work about the genre. An excellent example of this approach is to be found in a collection of essays that he edited, 100 American Crime Writers.

Now Steven has a new book out; The Big Somewhere is published by Bloomsbury, and comprises a range of essays by various authors (including Woody Haut) on the subject of Ellroy's fiction.  My interest in Ellroy dates back to the late 80s, and although I've not read much of his work of late, I attended a talk he gave in Manchester some years ago (making sure that he inscribed some of his books to me!) and found him as remarkable in person as he is in print. There is nobody quite like "the Demon Dog".

His unique qualities as a crime writer are well captured, and cogently analysed, in The Big Somewhere. In addition to a general introduction, Steven Powell contributes the first essay in the book, and co-authors the tenth and concluding essay, which deals with Ellroy's influence on the British writer David Peace. It's always the case with a book of this kind (as it is with an anthology of short stories) that one will not rate every contribution equally highly, but I found something of interest in all of them. Diana Powell's study of Ellroy's influence on Megan Abbott (in her earlier novels, at least) is particularly thought-provoking.

Because I'm a fan of books about the genre, I'm keen to see a narrowing of the gap between academic studies and more popular accounts of crime fiction, such as Bloody Murder. Novelists like me who are interested in the genre's range and possibilities can learn a great deal from the academics, and I think it's fair to say that there are some academics who could profitably study the art of writing entertainingly. Books like The Big Somewhere, which contain a good deal of valuable information without becoming unduly bogged down by scholar-speak, point the way forward. I enjoyed reading this book, (and not only because of the absence of tedious footnotes in tiny print!) I think that anyone who is a serious Ellroy fan will find The Big Somewhere insightful and interesting.


Juxtabook said...

I agree with much of what you say here Martin. I am a big fan of more academic works on genres such as crime and also children's literature and always try and stock what I can. Crime is such a large part of the fiction market, and takes so many forms, often innovative, that to ignore it entirely in critiquing an eras literature seems mad! There are a grwoing number of MA course no children's lit and I would hope to see more crime ones too. Are you going to the Crime and Children's fair in Harrogate next month?

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Juxtabook. I was planning to go to the fair, but I'm now doing an event in Surrey the previous evening. Still not totally impossible, but a long shot!