Review – Craig McDonald’s ‘One True Sentence’

I first heard about Craig McDonald’s series of historical mystery thrillers fairly recently via a review by fellow Ellroy scholar Steven Powell. In it, Powell draws some fascinating links between McDonald’s work and James Sallis’s ‘Lew Griffin’ mysteries – a series of compelling, unusual and beautifully written crime novels. Probably better known as the author of Drive (which was subsequently made into an excellent film by Nicolas Winding Refn), James Sallis is one of the most underrated – and one of my favourite – crime writers working to day, so this comparison was intriguing enough for me to pick up one of McDonald’s books.

McDonald’s novels follow the exploits of Hector Lassiter, a crime writer/amateur detective who finds himself swept up in some of the most violent and infamous events of Twentieth Century history. One True Sentence places us in 1920’s Paris, an historical milieu populated by bohemian artists and real life figures from ‘the Lost Generation’. Not long out of fighting in the First World War, Lassiter and best friend Ernest Hemingway are both jobbing writers struggling to make ends meet in Paris’s nepotistic and narcissistic literary scene. Whilst Hemingway labours to crack the ‘Great American Novel’, Lassiter secretly subsidizes his similarly lofty ambitions by writing trashy crime novels for pulp magazines back in the U.S.

The novel begins with Lassiter crossing the Pont Neuf on a freezing Paris night, when he is suddenly alerted by the sound of a body falling into the icy depths of the Seine below. This ultimately transpires to be the first in a long line of brutal murders of literary magazine editors that throws Paris’s artistic scene into disarray. Determined to halt this frenzy of killings, Gertrude Stein assembles a collective of prominent crime and mystery writers. Among these is Lassiter’s love interest Brinke Devlin, a seductive yet mysterious crime writer who Lassiter desires but cannot bring himself to trust.

Inextricably weaving fact with fiction, One True Sentence offers a vivid historical setting with vibrant and engaging characters. Lassiter in particular is an empathetic and complex creation and the relationships that he forms (most notably with Hemingway and Devlin) are both nuanced and authentically constructed by McDonald. The novel is also full of metafictional musings that constantly make you question the reality of what you are reading. One True Sentence is a crime novel about writing crime novels and – as the title suggests – the question of what is ‘true’ pervades the narrative throughout. This is certainly where you can see the influence of Sallis’s work on McDonald’s writing.

One the whole, the novel is well plotted and builds to a satisfying conclusion, but there are some issues along the way. For one, the body count is a little out of control. By the end of the text I could barely keep track of who had been killed and for what reasons. I also found aspects of the action a little bit repetitive, particularly the various scenes in Parisian cafe’s. Nonetheless, on the whole One True Sentence is a deftly constructed, humorous and intelligent novel that provides a vivid insight into a rich historical and cultural setting.

If you enjoy the work of writers such as James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, McDonald is definitely for you!

#20: David Peace – ‘1974’

The first text in my countdown of the ’20 greatest crime novels’ is David Peace’s 1974. I was a bit of latecomer to David Peace, but having picked up 1974 – the first volume in his ‘Red Riding Quartet’ – a few months ago, I have swiftly worked my way through the other three books in the series.

Inspired both stylistically and thematically by James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Quartet’, the ‘Red Riding Quartet’ traces the secret criminal history of Yorkshire in the 1970’s and 80’s, following multiple characters though a bleak and violent world of police corruption, organised crime and murder. In the process, Peace – like Ellroy –  deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, drawing on real life crimes (such as the Yorkshire Ripper Killings) to inspire his sordid and brutal alternate history.

1974 centres around journalist Eddie Dunford, a cocky yet troubled crime correspondent for The Yorkshire Post, who is tasked with covering the mysterious disappearance of ten year old school girl Clare Kemplay. After Clare’s mutilated body is discovered on a decrepit refuse site, Dunford’s investigation leads him to suspect a connection between Clare’s death and the disappearance of a number of other young girls.

The plot of Peace’s novel is extremely complex, which, coupled with the frantic and unhinged style of the narration, makes 1974 a book that demands focused attention. It propels you full-speed through a disorientating whirlwind of corruption and crime, and at times is difficult to follow. But don’t let this put you off! The style and pace of the book is breathtakingly hypnotic and Dunford is a flawed yet compelling central character.

My one major criticism of the book is that the violence, language and racism are at times a little extreme. One could argue that much of this can be attributed to Peace’s attempts to vividly capture the fractured and incohesive social context of late 70’s/early 80’s Britain. Yet, I can’t help but feel that 1974 is a little too excessive in its detail. There are some sections that provide extremely lurid accounts of  forced sodomy and other forms of violent sexual assault that might be uncomfortable and/or upsetting for some readers. In fairness, even Peace himself has admitted that he regrets certain aspects of the novel’s hyperbolic violence.

Nonetheless, 1974 is an original and mesmerizing novel that is unlike anything I have read in British crime fiction (other than perhaps, Derek Raymond). Peace captures the noir nihilism that has energized american crime fiction for the last century, creating a frenzied, brutal and paranoid novel. 1974 is therefore a must read for fans of dark and violent crime!

20 Greatest Crime Novels of all Time

Over the next twenty weeks, I will be counting down my twenty favourite crime novels. These are always tricky lists to devise and will undoubtedly leave some people feeling incredulous about the non inclusion of a particular text. So from the off I will stress that this list is obviously subjective and of course I would love to hear from you if there are any novels/writers that you feel were wrongfully omitted from my list. Indeed, there are many crime novels that I love that didn’t make the top twenty, so i do intend to post some honourable mentions in the final week.

The decision over which designation to go for has also caused me a certain amount of vexation. I considered ‘detective novels’, ‘mystery novels’ and many other titles, but ultimately landed on ‘crime novels’. The reason for this is quite simply that not all of the novels I have selected contain a conventional detective, nor a conventional mystery for that matter. They span across genres such as the ‘Private Eye’ novel, the ‘Noir Thriller’ and the ‘Police Procedural’ and therefore seemed most logically collated under the banner of ‘crime novels’. Nonetheless, I am hoping that there is still some kind of internal logic connecting the novels that I have selected, a logic that will – again hopefully – become clear over the coming weeks . This list does not, for instance, include any spy novels or generic ‘thrillers’ – just plain on old crime!

So enjoy! I will be posting no #20 later this week…… (hears the sound of shrugged shoulders).

 

Perfidia Revisited

When James Ellroy’s Perfidia was first released in 2014, it’s fair to say that my initial reaction was one of slight disappointment. That is not to say that it is a bad novel – it isn’t. In fact, I enjoyed the book and it was certainly an improvement on Ellroy’s previous effort Blood’s a Rover. Yet, for some reason I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel hadn’t quite lived up to my expectations. So was it that my expectations were too high? Or did Perfidia indeed fail to match the incredibly high standards set by some of Ellroy’s previous work?

Having recently worked on an article examining the complex representation of race in Ellroy’s novels, I found myself revisiting Perfidia for a second time. Straight away I can say this was a much more rewarding experience. Ellroy’s convoluted plotting, ‘real time’ narration and duplicitous characters certainly seem to benefit from a second appraisal. His depiction of an historical Los Angeles fraught with wartime hysteria is more vivid and engrossing second time around and the connections that he establishes between Perfidia and his previous works are doubly intriguing.

At the same time, this second reading also produced an adverse effect. It further crystallised some of my initial reservations, potently solidifying the underlying issues with certain aspects of the novel’s plotting and characterisation.

Perfidia represents the first volume in Ellroy’s planned ‘Second L.A. Quartet’, and sees a return to Los Angeles as the spatial and psychic epicentre of his work. Serving as prequels to his previous historical novels, this planned new series of books will revisit characters – as significantly younger people – from both the original ‘Quartet’ and the ‘Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy’, as Ellroy looks to furnish his already epic fictional history of the United States with greater depth and detail, creating one continuous and dialogic, novelistic history. The novel opens in 1941. The Japanese bombers have just attacked Pearl Harbor leaving America on the precipice of war. Gripped by war fever, the city of Los Angeles is thrown into turmoil, as Japanese Americans are indiscriminately rounded up and interned by the LAPD.

Meanwhile, the violently mutilated bodies of a Japanese American family of four – the Watanabes – are discovered strewn across the “blood-soaked, blood-immersed” living room floor of their suburban house. Staged like a ‘seppuku’ style ritual suicide, certain inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in the case evidence point to homicide. Enter Hideo Ashida. A gifted police chemist, Ashida is granted special dispensation due to his expertise and value to the force. Ashida is by far the most conflicted character in the text. Racked with guilt due to his association with the LAPD (a violent institution of white social power ruthlessly subjugating fellow Japanese Americans), he also battles his own latent homosexual desires, the central object of which is Black Dahlia protagonist Bucky Bleichert.

Perfidia is predominantly told from a limited third person perceptive, with each chapter focusing on – alongside Ashida –  two other main characters: Captain William ‘Whiskey Bill’ Parker, an alcoholic yet ruthlessly ambitious senior officer, who seeks to use the war to facilitate his rise to the position of chief of police; and sergeant Dudley Smith, an unethical, violent and highly intelligent officer, who not only epitomises the corruption  and vice that Parker aims to eradicate, but who also seeks to profit from the hysteria and heightened racial animus catalysed by the bombing of pearl harbour. Although vicious enemies both vying for power and control, through their various actions, Smith and Parker come to equally embody the discriminatory practices and violent authority of white establishments and white power structures, ones that utilise racial bigotry as means of sustaining such power. These three perspectives are interspliced with diary entries from a fourth central character, bored dilettante and eventual ‘Fifth Column’ infiltrator Kay Lake (another Black Dahlia character).

What follows over the course of Perfidia is a tumultuous maelstrom of war profiteering, crazed eugenics plans and racial exploitation. The plot is typically complex and the pace of the novel – again, typically of Ellroy – builds to a frenzied crescendo. As a huge Ellroy fan, it is very satisfying to see the return of many of the characters from his previous works. Not only do we get central characters such as Bucky Bleichert, Kay Lake, Lee Blanchard, Dudley Smith and Buzz Meeks, but Ellroy also furnishes his ever more detailed fictional world with background characters from his other novels. Although, as i said, this continuity is fascinating, it also creates its own problems.

Placing Dudley Smith as a central character in Perfidia was an intriguing move by Ellroy and one that, on the whole, pays off. The arch villain from Ellroy’s previous L.A. Quartet, Smith is certainly a fans favourite. Yet this is the first time that Ellroy has used Smith as a central character and I have to say that I prefer it when Smith is on the margins. There is something about Smith’s peripheral status in the original Quartet that makes him such an unpredictable and menacing villain. I can’t help but feel that the potency of this menace was reduced somewhat by centralising his perspective in this text.

The other problem with reintroducing previous characters as younger people is that many of their story arcs have already been decided. One of the most gripping aspects of Ellroy’s work to date is that he has never been afraid to kill off central characters (I still don’t think I am fully over Danny Upshaw’s suicide in The Big Nowhere). Yet by using Kay Lake, Dudley Smith and real life former police chief William Parker as the narrative focus in Perfidia, the text ultimately loses this element of jeopardy. To an extent, we already know what is going to happen to these characters and this nullified the action slightly for me.

Then there is the other considerable elephant in the room….Elizabeth Short. In Perfidia, Ellroy reveals that Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) is in fact Dudley Smith’s illegitimate daughter. This is a bold move from Ellroy, and I’m slightly concerned he has backed himself into a tricky ‘continuity corner’ with this plot choice. As Dudley Smith does not feature in The Black Dahlia at all, it raises some problematic questions that Ellroy will have to attempt to ‘write around’ in future novels. Most obviously: where is Smith during the action of The Black Dahlia? Why is he not involved in the investigation into his own daughter’s death?

Overall, Perfidia has its problems. The plot is overly complex and the denouement is a little unsatisfying. William Parker’s character is also slightly one dimensional and difficult to invest in. Nonetheless, the novel is skilfully written with an intricate and vividly realised historical setting. Ashida is also a complex and engaging character and i hope he returns in future books. Even if this isn’t his strongest book, it is still a masterful example of historical crime writing, as Ellroy continues to show that he is still the greatest practitioner of the genre working today.