In Praise of James Ellroy, 2015 Grand Master

From the latest issue of Crimespree on James Ellroy’s Birthday we give to you:

In PraJEise of James Ellroy, 2015 Grand Master
By Craig McDonald

A few days back, the reminder came from Mr. Jon Jordan that the time had arrived for another CrimeSpree column. I was also kindly extended the offer to chip in my picks for year’s favorites in books, films, comics and the like.

That second is a real struggle for me this round. I didn’t put my foot into the comic pool much at all this year, other than to sample an issue of the new Justice Inc. title to see if someone would finally deliver a compelling comic version of Doc Savage (I can’t say they have, at least not for me). My television viewing was fairly limited, although I did spend a couple of binge nights devouring season one of Penny Dreadful, particularly enthralled by the fearless and sexy Eva Green and the always magnetic Timothy Dalton.

Films? I think I saw the second Captain America in a cinema proper when it was new, and that’s probably about it.

I spent most of 2014 with my head down, focused on daily journalism by day and my own fiction at night and on weekends.

For the most part, I was reflecting a sort of hermetic existence outside the culture of the moment, the sort of life inside a bubble that one of my enduring literary heroes, James Ellroy, insists he devoutly maintains (more on that in a bit).

Case in point: This past Saturday evening, after an all-day session of fiction writing, I surfaced briefly to check to see what was new in our corner of the fiction genre world: James Ellroy had been selected to be honored as a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America during the Edgar Awards Banquet in April. (Mr. and Mrs. Crimespree, Jon and Ruth Jordan, have also been announced as Raven honorees—congrats again, Ruth and Jon!)

It’s Sunday morning now, and veering back briefly to that hypothetical Best of List of 2014, in terms of ellroy perfidianew book releases I enjoyed or admired, so far as fiction reads, there was really only one book for me, Mr. Ellroy’s PERFIDIA, which I read twice over the summer.

Granted, I had reason for doing so: I’d been invited to interview Mr. Ellroy at the Iowa City Book Festival, before a live audience in an old church, about his new novel. PERFIDIA is the first in a projected quartet of works that prequel Ellroy’s classic first four novels in the original “LA Quartet” (THE BLACK DAHLIA, THE BIG NOWHERE, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and WHITE JAZZ.)

As a longtime Ellroy aficionado, I was quite taken with PERFIDIA, which tracks the lives of many of Ellroy’s familiar and best-loved characters (albeit many years younger than we’ve seen them before) in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The novel is World War II, as seen through Ellroy’s highly idiosyncratic, Los Angeles prism; a novel of sprawling yet tightly plotted precision, that only he could write.

james-ellroy-primerBy now, Mr. Ellroy’s public persona is well known to anyone with even scant knowledge of crime or historical fiction. Sides have been chosen, and readers have strong opinions about the audacious face Mr. Ellroy fronts when promoting his works.

He often claims to live outside modern culture and technology. The latter is almost certainly true. He still writes longhand in notebooks and leaves it to others to input his words (he has no PC or laptop of his own). He moves through daily life sans a cell phone, let alone anything approaching a smart phone.

He insists he does not read a lot or pay much, if any, attention to modern popular culture, but on this particular claim, I’m skeptical. I’ve read Mr. Ellroy’s fiction and nonfiction for years. I’ve interviewed him many times; conversations about his works conducted in hotel lobbies, via phone, and, now, in front of a live audience (that last is viewable on YouTube via Iowa Public Television).

This past October in Iowa was the first time with Mr. Ellroy in an informal setting, sitting around “green rooms” and over meals, chatting, just two guys talking with no audience and no recorders running (AKA, off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush).

This much I would dare observe: despite his claims to read very little other than that which feeds his work, Mr. Ellroy clearly still reads quite widely and enthusiastically—an apparent mix of his fictional for-bearers, and certainly at least some sampling of his contemporaries’ fictional efforts.
And, very clearly, he has read and continues to savor poetry.

Before that audience in Iowa, after a sharing of selections from PERFIDIA followed by our “public” chat, attention turned to the art of writing.

Mr. Ellroy’s literary ambition and achievements are virtually without precedent or peer in the mystery or crime fiction worlds, yet he has received comparatively little awards attention for his efforts to date—just a single Edgar nomination for best paperback original for his second novel, CLANDESTINE. So far as the Edgar Awards go, despite having written THE BLACK DAHLIA, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, AMERICAN TABLOID or several other novels and at least one memoir that arguably deserved nomination, I believe that nod for his second novel is about it.

In response to the announcement of his coming MWA recognition, Mr. Ellroy was quoted as saying, “This is a splendid honor; it lauds my career to date and spurs me on to stay young, healthy, and productive. The Mystery Writers of America: ever honorable, ever grand in their contribution to the craft of crime writing.”

I’ve wondered occasionally if Mr. Ellroy has eidetic memory. I’ve heard him quote lines of poetry or prose or remember things during interviews with startling clarity and precision.

In Iowa City, he quoted a couple poets in the course of our evening presentation, including T.S. Eliot and, purely from memory, Dylan Thomas’ “In my Craft or Sullen Art.”

A writer’s public persona is one thing; the solitary craftsman who lives in his head, and works very much alone, is another creature entirely.

In light of Mr. Ellroy’s well-deserved coming honor, and the seriousness he brings to his work as an author, here is the answer he gave using Dylan Thomas’ words when the Iowa City audience asked him why he writes:
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.


Craig McDonald is best known for his Hector Lassiter novels. The sixth title in the series, THE RUNNING KIND, debuted in December. He can be found on the web at