RARA-AVIS: Scratch'n'sniff Ellroy

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 12 Dec 2002

>I've met plenty of other authors who I didn't
>care for personally, some on this list in fact, but it had no bearing on how
>I reacted to the power of their words on the printed page. conversely, I've
>met some very charming (and well known) authors who did absolutely nothing
>for me as a reader.

Well, that's the way it should be. But I find much of the pathetic dick-waving ego Ellroy indulges in in his publicity is starting to seep into his work, which is a shame. Because at the top of his game, Ellroy can be very good indeed. But it's been a while...

And Kerry wrote:

>Sorry Kevin, but I think there's more to Ellroy's criminal boasting than
>what you allow. It may serve promotional purposes (he is certainly an
>entertaining and amusing reader of his own works), but we also need to ask
>why flaunting a rap sheet would promote the sale of books. Some of it goes
>to credibility, veracity.

Ellroy was, he admits, a minor league punk, a B&E wanker at best, miles removed from the corrupt cops he so lovingly portrays. Most of his knowledge of the crime he writes about (and he's also admitted this, even in that puffpiece "documentary" I saw) is from books and newspapers and "third-hand, fourth-hand" gossip. Hell, a lot of the stuff he writes about, Ellroy was still sniffing his own diapers when it took place.

>In the same way that Hammett's experience as a
>Pink contributed to the credibility of his stories (yes, they're fiction,
>but do they have the ring of truth?), Ellroy's experience as a lowlife
>contributes to the veracity of his stories. This implies that genre themes
>have shifted in the decades between these two writers.

Uh, I'm not sure about the veracity of Ellroy's stories -- a lot of his stuff rings hollow to me. He writes a good story, but too often they're so overbearingly overwrought that they seem, to me anyway, closer to high opera than true crime. As for veracity, while it makes a good PR note, even Hammett's P.I. experience, even back then, never made his stories that much more believable than, say, the work of Raoul Whitfield or Chandler. Experience is always good, but imagination and empathy (and good writing) can easily match it.

>You mentioned in an earlier e-mail that Chandler's Marlow tried to maintain
>a code, despite its corruptions. The difference between Chandlers' era and
>Ellroy's is the acknowledgement of institutionalized corruption.

Uh, no. Chandler often goes on about the institutionalized corruption of his day, just as surely as Ellroy does. Only Chandler takes a lot fewer pages to tell it, and Marlowe tries to keep his head above water. Ellroy dives right in.

>anyone on this list seriously debate that there are different laws for
>different races, that the rich are not punished with the same severity as
>the poor, and that the powerful are seldom even prosecuted? The genre now
>accepts as a fundamental truth that the official code (the law) is itself
>corrupt, as much as its administration.

But that's not new. The only thing new Ellroy brings to it (besides his own style, which is sometimes formidable, and sometimes just silly) is a willingness to wallow and revel in it. It doesn't make him a more realistic writer -- just one with a different point of view.

>There isn't much room for Marlow's
>"bruised romanticism." This applies at all levels of society.

I dunno. I think there are still some people left with some decency in them. I think I saw one just last week. Portraying everything as corrupt isn't reality, it's cynicism. And a lazy, shuttered cynicism at that. Most of us are both good AND bad.

>In Ellroy's works corruption is the natural state
>of human existence. It is the aspiration to redemption, rather than its
>achievement, that is remarkable. In a corrupt world, the man who admits his
>corruption achieves not only credibility, but a perverse honesty.

Sort of like Marlowe bitching he was "part of the nastiness now" at the end of THE BIG SLEEP way back in 1939?

And now its birdlives' turn:

>I wonder why you have such a hard-on for Ellroy.

I don't. In either sense. Though I wonder why you wonder.

>I have own
>my opinions about his novels -- I'm very partial to his old
>work, which, in my opinion, peaked with "The Black Dahlia."
>I've reread "Clandestine," (my favorite) many times.
>However, I literally cannot wade through any of his fiction
>since, finding it suffers from his ambitions to try to
>further his reach, and expand (and implode) the genre.
>Sure, Ellroy's marketed himself in a particular way. God
>bless him for finding success with extreme material in a
>difficult business.

Sounds like a blessing for a kiddie pornographer...

>But anyone who's read "My Dark Places"
>knows that much of it is a persona -- that he exploited the
>memory of his mother, his personal demons, and inverted his
>own self-loathing in pursuit of fame and recognition.

Isn't that what I was suggesting, that a lot of it is a mere persona, put on for show?

>Like his work (and him) or not, you can't deny his talent or originality.

Or his literary inconsistencies.

Look, I like some of Ellroy's stuff. But I don't think he's the great writer some of you do. I think at his best, he can be (arguably) brilliant. But at his worst, he's really, really bad.

His waxing nostalgic to People Magazine, star-struck European filmmakers and fanboys about the pantie-sniffing glories of his youth doesn't make him a better or a worse writer, or a more credible one. It just makes him a little sad, in my eyes.

That's all.


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