On ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’, Liverpool University 2 July 2015

In Ellroy’s world, everyone is tarnished and afraid.

It’s good for the soul to wallow in fandom now and again, and I did that yesterday at a terrifically entertaining conference on the work of crime writer James Ellroy. It was also a chance for me to relive my youth; I spent four years as a student Liverpool, and it was great to get back onto the university precinct, just a short distance away from the building in which I regularly skipped lectures.

I was there to present a paper on Ellroy’s influence on British crime writer David Peace, and I was really pleased at the positive response it provoked and the number of people I turned on to Peace. But even more illuminating were the other speakers, each of whom brought an intriguing new perspective on Ellroy’s work. There were attendees from all over the UK, as well as Australia, Brazil and Germany, and each speaker gave a different viewpoint on Ellroy’s novels.

I particularly enjoyed papers on the cinematic aspects of Ellroy’s work; attitudes to race in Ellroy’s White Jazz; the use of Ellroy’s novels as historical documents; and Ellroy’s reliance (and influence) on true crime writing. What each of these papers highlighted was the extraordinary depth that Ellroy’s work has – his novels work on a variety of levels, and almost defy interpretation. As more than one speaker commented yesterday, one could go on ad infinitum developing theories about the motives behind his work.

Two particular speakers made me think carefully about my attitudes to crime fiction – and not just Ellroy’s. The conference included an interview with Martin Edwards, an author who has published his own series of crime novels and has most recently written his own survey of the inter-war period of detective fiction, The Golden Age of Murder. At first glance the 1920s and 1930s is a period seemingly far-removed from Ellroy’s own vision of crime fiction, and yet Edwards gave some compelling evidence that this was not necessarily the case.

The Golden Age period is one that I’m not that familiar with, largely because of the prejudices that Edwards described: the books are formulaic, too far removed from the real-world and lacking in psychological depth. But as often happens with prejudices, they are based on crude assumptions rather than anything more logical; and I was pleased that Edwards so eloquently challenged many of mine. I’ll certainly be taking a look at his book, and will be doing my best to look again at the Golden Age writers with new eyes.

It was also a great pleasure to listen to the critic Woody Haut at the close of yesterday’s conference. Haut has written extensively on Ellroy and has interviewed him several times – his book Neon Noir is well worth a look for anyone interested in the post-WW2 development of noir writing in America. Haut talked at length about Ellroy and his unique brand of ‘high-stakes crime fiction‘, and I learnt a lot more about an author who has never been afraid to live his life in the full glare of the media. Haut examined Ellroy’s development as a writer, through the LA Quartet and into the Underworld USA trilogy, and also his move away from the paranoia of his earlier books into a language that Haut described as ‘part poetry, part obscenity.’ Haut also gave the most concise description I’ve yet heard of the preoccupations that drive Ellroy’s fiction: ‘birthplace, language and death.’ It’s not a bad epitaph, and was a perfect way to round off a stimulating and enlightening day.


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