Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Story Behind the Story: “The Big Somewhere,” edited by Steven Powell

(Editor’s note: This is the 79th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from Steven Powell, a British scholar and author of The Venetian Vase, a crime fiction-oriented blog. He wrote Conversations with James Ellroy [2012] and James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction [2015], and edited the encyclopedic work 100 American Crime Writers [2012]. In the essay below, Powell recalls the process he went through to create his brand-new contribution to Ellroy scholarship, The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World [Bloomsbury Academic]).

When I began my Ph.D. on the work of James Ellroy in 2006, there was relatively little critical material on this author who called himself “the demon dog of American crime fiction.” There were a number of good articles by critics such as Lee Horsley and Lee Spinks, and the first book about Ellroy, Peter Wolfe’s Like Hot Knives to the Brain: James Ellroy’s Search for Himself, had been released the previous year. On the whole, I was surprised that such a fascinating and controversial figure, who has arguably done more than any other author to reinvent and redefine crime fiction over the past half century (and has always had the knack for generating publicity), had not received more scholarly attention. In the past few years, this has changed. More and more journal articles about Ellroy have appeared, as well as books by Jim Mancall and Anna Flügge. I have contributed to this growing body of scholarship by editing Conversations with James Ellroy, writing several articles, and finally composing a book titled James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction. After the last book, I could have perhaps moved on to other projects. But I had this nagging feeling that there was unfinished business between the Demon Dog and me, and once an idea for a book lodges in your brain—sometimes it’s just impossible to walk away.

I conceived an idea for an anthology of essays about Ellroy in a project that would bring together the most prominent scholars on the subject (Woody Haut, together with the aforementioned Jim Mancall and Anna Flügge), and also allow some new voices to be heard. With the help of my wife, Diana, and some friends and colleagues at the University of Liverpool, I began organizing the James Ellroy: Visions of Noir conference with a view that the outcome of the conference could be the foundation for an Ellroy anthology. The conference was held in July 2015 at the beautiful School of the Arts Library in Liverpool, the former home of Confederate banker Charles Kuhn Prioleau. It was a wonderful event that lived up to my hopes as its organizer. All of the delegates gave fascinating papers. We had two keynote speakers: Woody Haut, who gave a political commentary to Ellroy’s work from his debut novel onwards, and Martin Edwards, who took part in an author interview onstage and discussed his then newly release study, The Golden Age of Murder. When I was listening to the talks on Ellroy, I was struck, not for the first time, by the dense complexity of his plotting: two speakers addressed the subject of L.A. Confidential, but from their interpretation and focus, you could have been forgiven for thinking they were remarking on two different novels. Such is the richness of Ellroy’s plotting and prose that so much story can be packed into just a few pages, and when this style of narrative unravels over a 500-page novel, the effect is quite extraordinary.

With such an expanse of material to choose from, my next challenge was deciding on the theme for the anthology. I’ve always been inclined towards comprehensive studies; James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction covered almost all of the author’s writing career, and much of his life before that. But I am aware of the dangers of such an approach, that if a book is too overarching it might stray into survey territory. Given the interwoven nature of Ellroy’s thematic approach, I didn’t want to edit a collection dubbed “James Ellroy and Government” or “James Ellroy and Voyeurism.” Ellroy’s portrayal of the Surveillance State is very much influenced by his own obsessions—one might say struggles—with sexual voyeurism. As it seemed impossible to disentangle these themes, I hit on the idea of Ellroy’s narrative worlds being a “Big Somewhere” which could be defined, as it says on the back-cover of the book, as “a conglomeration of the cinematic, historical, and fictional worlds that influenced Ellroy, from film noir to the Kennedy era in American politics, and on which he, in turn, has left his mark.” The title refers to half-a-dozen classic film noirs that employed the prefix Big, not to mention Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet novel The Big Nowhere, often considered his greatest work.

(Right) Author Joseph Wambaugh

I was also extremely fortunate that in Haaris Naqvi at Bloomsbury, I found an editor who believed in my vision of an anthology of essays on Ellroy, which would be, from the beginning, both comprehensive in scope and incisive in analysis. The anthology begins with an examination of the writers who influenced Ellroy, and why. Jim Mancall contributed a superbly composed chapter arguing that Joseph Wambaugh was a major, almost unacknowledged influence on Ellroy. This appealed greatly to me as an editor, because there is very little critical work on Wambaugh, and it was exciting to see original material coming together that assessed his impact on the genre, while noting that Ellroy has surpassed him as a stylist. For my part, I composed a chapter examining Raymond Chandler’s influence on Ellroy’s work. I tried to dispel a few myths Ellroy has created about Chandler, an author he has been very rude about. Ellroy has always claimed that Chandler’s reputation in crime writing is overrated, and that Chandler was only an influence on his debut novel, Brown’s Requiem (1981), after which Ellroy turned his back on him stylistically. I make the case that as a source of inspiration, Chandler’s hold on Ellroy ran deep into the L.A. Quartet at the very least. The anthology ends with an examination on how Ellroy has influenced a new generation of crime novelists such as David Peace and Megan Abbott. Between these opening and closing sections there are chapters focused on the cinematic aspects of Ellroy’s writing, his portrayal of race issues, and the evolution of his most famous—or is it infamous?—character, police detective Dudley Smith.

When you have Ellroy scholars as talented as Anna Flügge, Rubén Peinado Abarrio, Joshua Meyer, and Rodney Taveira as your contributors, editing an anthology is a pleasure and a privilege. I spent many hours poring over their work with movie soundtracks playing in the background—including, appropriately enough, Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score to L.A. Confidential. In fact, that’s what’s playing as I write this: track 11—“The Victor.” It’s a beautiful piece of music that takes you into Ellroy’s narrative world and serves as a reminder that sooner or later we’re all drawn back into Ellroy’s Big Somewhere. I hope readers of Ellroy, and fans of the crime-fiction genre in general, will find much to admire and discover about the Demon Dog’s work in The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World.

No comments: