Friday 19 January 2018

Radio: Ruff justice and the Demon Dog of crime fiction

Complicated and thrilling writing: James Ellroy
Complicated and thrilling writing: James Ellroy
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Feature this, hepcats: if those words mean anything to you, you're probably a James Ellroy fan. And I don't just mean you enjoyed the Russell Crowe movie version of LA Confidential, you work-shy rascals; I mean you put in the time and work to read Ellroy's novels, and more pertinently, they said something to you and stuck in your mind… to the point where you might address fellow devotees with 1950s Los Angeles slang like "Feature this, hepcats".

As revealed in an hour-long special on Talking Books (Newstalk, Sun 8pm), Ellroy is a fascinating character, and one of the most distinctive writers I've ever come across. Declaration of interest: I was basically infatuated with the self-styled "Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction" throughout the 1990s, and even intended to write my thesis on his "LA Quartet" for an aborted Masters in English Lit. I still remember reading Ellroy for the first time and being blown away.

The bebop rhythms of his prose, the complex plotting and characterisation, all that violence and casual racism and moral ambiguity contrasted with an almost old-fashioned sense of integrity and probity. I found it so original, I wasn't even sure if I liked it or not until halfway in.

His stuff can take getting used to - you have to work with it and work your way into it - but once you do, it's the literary equivalent of a really evocative jazz record. And you suddenly realise you're hooked on James Ellroy.

Talking Books did an in-depth exploration of all aspects of his life and work. Host Sue Cahill spoke to British Ellroy expert Steven Powell, Trinity academic Dr Elizabeth McCarthy, and American writer Eddie Muller, a friend of Ellroy who the writer has dubbed "The Czar of Noir". (He also describes himself as a "cultural archaeologist", which is too funny for words, but he was a cool guy all the same.)

I knew a lot of this already - infatuated, etc - but it was still fascinating to delve into Ellroy's strange, disturbing back-story, which itself seems close to fictional.

His mother was raped and murdered when James was a child. He started to mentally entangle this with the notorious "Black Dahlia" killing of wannabe actress Betty Short, which he later fictionalised in a novel of the same name, and subsequently drew inspiration from his mother's death for large chunks of his work - female characters, overall themes, a general air of horror and inevitable doom - and also wrote a memoir in which he both re-investigated her unsolved killing and reminisced on a young adulthood of substance abuse and generally depraved behaviour, and a later adulthood of essentially exploiting her tragic end to service his own professional ambitions.

Yep, it's complicated. And Ellroy is complicated, and his books are often difficult and unpleasant and stylised close to the point of self-parody - and thrilling in a way literature rarely is. And this was a fine programme, a loud, spirited howl in tribute to the Demon Dog.

The Marian Finucane Show (Sat-Sun 11am) had a lengthy interview with just-elected Dublin Mid-West TD, Gino Kenny. This was an unusual bit of radio for me, in that I liked him quite a lot, even though I'd probably disagree with the man on every political and economic issue (Gino is with the People Before Profit posse); though not, it should be added, social ones.

There was just something very, yes, likeable about the man. He came across as really decent, well-intentioned, passionate, energetic, striving to better his area and world. He's all wrong on water charges, in my humble opinion; he's all wrong on lots of things. Didn't matter - I liked Gino Kenny.

And normally I can't stand politicians of any ideological intensity whatsoever; I prefer those wishy-washy centre-left or centre-right pragmatists to hard-left or hard-right ideologues. Ideologues are often pretty weird people and sometimes a genuinely scary force, in a way you just don't get with moderates. Give me a cynical shyster over a zealot any day.

Anyway, I guess this interview proved that you can disagree with someone - strongly, irreversibly, in some ways fundamentally - and still respect and like them as a person.

Consumer show You and Yours (BBC Radio 4, Mon-Fri 12.15pm) took a trip to Crufts, that slightly bizarre annual canine extravaganza over in Blighty. This year, organisers have a separate stand for dogs with a big online following.

Surreally, grown adults actually "follow" accounts set up by the dog's owners. One Staffordshire bull terrier has 128,000 followers on Instagram. And such is the dense gravitational pull of the internet/social media that these mutts are affecting trends in the dog-breeding industry, with some types becoming more popular because many, many oddballs are following one on Twitter.

Sadly, I don't think Crufts has set up a special Demon Dog stand (James Ellroy, Cerberus, The Hound of the Baskervilles, those Rottweilers in the graveyard from The Omen, etc).

Maybe next year.

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