James Ellroy is an extraordinary writer and also a remarkable individual. I met him once, briefly, at an event and had a chat with him as he inscribed some books to me. He likes to present himself as 'The Demon Dog of Crime' and it's not always easy to separate the publicity-generating headlines about him, and his sometimes outrageous behaviour, and the real man. I have mixed feelings about his work - some of it I really like, some of it leaves me cold. But, as anyone who has read The Life of Crime will know, I do think he is a significant and interesting figure in the development of modern American crime fiction.
Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is the first biography of him, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Ellroy is, at 74, still writing and has a novel due out soon. There's a lot to unpick in his life story, including of course the consequences of the terrible murder of Ellroy's mother on her son when he was just ten years old. Ellroy has written extensively on this subject himself, and any psychologist would have a field day exploring his complex thought processes.
Steven Powell is one of a number of British academics - Mike Wilson, Jamie Bernthal, and Mark Aldridge are among the others - who are doing good work in writing about crime fiction without an excess of academic jargon. Powell is a specialist in Ellroy and his sympathy for the man is, I would argue, a strength of the book. Importantly, he writes in a clear and accessible way.
Powell highlights, among much else, the influence that the distinguished American editor Otto Penzler had on Ellroy's career. All writers benefit greatly from an editor who believes in their work and Otto definitely has an eye for talent. Inevitably there are a few points one might quibble with. For instance, is it really credible that the CWA gave Ellroy a 'briefing' asking him not to cause offence at the 1995 Bouchercon (which I attended), given that the CWA didn't organise the convention and would have had no standing in the matter? The CWA Chair in those days was the ex-cop Peter Walker and it hardly sounds like his doing.
Overall, though, there is much to relish here, not least the quote from Joyce Carol Oates that Ellroy is 'the American Dostoyevsky'. As Steven Powell points out, for all the troubled nature of aspects of Ellroy's life, it also has an inspiring quality in a number of respects. This book makes a worthwhile and welcome contribution to Ellroy scholarship.
How intriguing is this? Ellroy is a terrific writer if you remember to leave your sensitivities at the door, with the most fascinating aspect of his work how a damaged child to man who can never resolve his complexes - as a result of his mother's murder never being solved, and his father a far from perfect parent - deals with them in his unique voice as they feed through his writing. Cut through the determination to express himself without fear or filters and you do indeed have an American Dostoevsky for today. LA Confidential has always been one of my favourite detective novels, his quartet of cops the most flawed and terrific character studies, with Bud White always my standout. The artfully filleted film wasn't bad either, beautifully cast and played. And I love the way the design of the biography cover echoes the landmark editions of the novels. A book I shall certainly seek out. Thank you for highlighting this.
Great comment, Liz. Thank you.
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