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The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

January 21, 2023 25 comments

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) French title: Le Dahlia noir. Translated by Frédéric Michalski.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is probably one of the oldest books of my TBR. The mention inside says my roommate gave it to me in 1995. Ahem. I was reluctant to read it, not sure I’d get along with Ellroy. I only started to read noir fiction after I went online with Book Around the Corner and discovered Guy’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy’s a crime fiction and noir afficionado.

And now I wonder: what was I waiting for?

The Black Dahlia is loosely based upon a real case, the murder of Elizabeth Short that the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She was born in 1924 in Boston and was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Her case became famous because her body was horribly mutilated and it’s still unsolved.

Ellroy uses the Black Dahlia case as a basis to write a complex story with a striking picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is our narrator. He’s a former boxer and LAPD agent. He met Lee Blanchard, another LPAD agent when they covered the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Both have a checkered past. Bucky is the son of a German immigrant who doesn’t hide his racist tendencies. Bucky’s patriotism was tested during WWII and he agreed to give his Japanese neighbors up to keep his job with the LAPD. He’s still reeling from it.

Lee Blanchard is famous for solving a hold-up case and shacking up with Kay, the criminal’s girlfriend after the trial. He still lives with her and this scandalous relationship cost him a promotion. His little sister was murdered when he was a teenager and he feels guilty of not protecting her enough.

As semi-famous former boxers, their bosses ask them to fight against each other to raise funds for the LAPD and promote a bill that would increase the wages of the LAPD agents. They get a transfer to the Warrants department. They agree to it. The fight is highly publicized, they are nicknamed Fire and Ice. Their bond is based upon camaraderie and respect but is also tainted by politics and tactics. The relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay is central to Ellroy’s book.

As you imagine Bucky and Lee are detached to the police force dedicated to solving Betty Short’s murder. They get swallowed in the case and the book moves to a classic investigation.

Ellroy follows the thread of a murder investigation and shows corruption and power fights in the LAPD. He takes his characters to the shadiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and takes pleasure in describing brothels, dives, underground gay and lesbian meeting points and seedy hotels. He also brings us to rich neighborhoods and uncovers the ugliness present behind closed doors and polished manners. Greed. Sex. Perversion. They invade every corner of the city and Ellroy exposes what’s behind the Hollywood dreamy facade.

He conveys the pulse of the city, its rapid growth and real estate moguls, the Hollywood hype and the sordid world of hopeless hope of aspiring actresses.

He takes us across the Mexican border to Tijuana in an even more violent and corrupted country. He describes perfectly the intricacies of office politics in the LAPD, the violence against suspects and police procedurals. Or lack thereof.

It’s well-oiled book that keeps the reader on edge. I wanted to know how Bucky would come out of it, if Ellroy would make his characters solve the murder while reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was curious about Bucky, Lee and Kay’s trio. I wondered if the big LAPD machine would run over Bucky or if he’d make it alright.

A brilliant book but I’m glad I waited to read it. There will be more Ellroy in my future.

For the record, I also have the graphic novel of this book by Miles Hyman Matz and David Fincher and it’s a good companion book.

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

August 2, 2015 22 comments

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski 2011. Sadly, it’s not available in French, so it goes into the Translation Tragedy category.

Swiercynski_Fun_GamesFun and Games opens with an amazing high-speed chase in the Hollywood Hills on Decker Canyon Road. It’s steep, full of hairpin turns and dangerous. The actress Lane Madden is driving like a maniac, trying to escape whomever is following her and trying to push her into a car accident. Her moonlight drive is a lot less romantic than Jim Morrison’s song.

At the same moment, Charlie Hardie is on a red-eye from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he’s expected to housesit the mansion of a famous composer. Hardie used to work for the cops in Philadelphia until a tragedy changed everything. He’s now living a wandering life, going from one house-sitting job to the other, trying to forget and go by. When he arrives on site, the house isn’t empty and Lane is inside, bruised and battered, hiding from Them, who attempted to kill her.

As it happens, Them are The Accident People, a secret society with connections in the right places and specialized in rewriting events or erasing unwanted witnesses from embarrassing scenes. They are discreet, efficient and provoke death that look accidental and fitting with the victim’s background. With Lane Madden, they aimed at a timely OD in her car. Only Lane fought back, using what she learned when she trained for stunts in the action movies she’d been doing.

For Hardie, this is a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He should get away from this house and literally run to the hills. But he encounters the brain of this operation and realizes she knows about his past. And suddenly, things become very personal. Why do they want Lane dead? How did they manage to get info on him so quickly?

I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. This is a fast-paced pulp novel, one you don’t want to put down and it would make a fantastic movie. The characters are well drawn and their past is revealed slowly through the book. Don’t read the summary on Goodreads, it gives away too much of Hardie’s background. The man is a survivor and his survival instinct is out of the ordinary.

Swierczynski has a punchy style that highlights the twists and turns of the plot. See a sample here:

When life finally stops kicking you in the teeth, you don’t whine and count the gaps. You see the fucking dentist and move on.

There aren’t any breathing time as we follow Hardie from one attack to the other. Swierczynski seems to have an bottomless well of creativity in ways to eliminate people. And it works.

Fun & Games is the first volume of the Hardie trilogy that continues with Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot, reviewed by Guy. You can find his review of Fun and Games here and I recommend it, he’s a lot better than me at writing about pulp fiction.

For French readers who’d be interested in Swierczynski, try The Blonde, it’s excellent.

This is another read from my #TBR20 project. Now I want to read the two other volumes. So, after the #TBR20 is over, I already plan to buy the two other books of the Markaris trilogy and the two other Swierczynskis. Hmm. I’m afraid the #TBR20 gig will be followed by a book buying spree, followed by another #TBR20. When will that stop? 🙂

The Ravishing of Britney Spears by Jean Rolin.

January 9, 2015 20 comments

Le ravissement de Britney Spears by Jean Rolin 2011 Not translated into English.

After this week’s awful events in Paris, I’m not comfortable with writing about The Ravishing of Britney Spears and you’ll understand why soon. But this was the billet I intended to write this week and that’s what I’ll do. Doing otherwise would give more power to murderers and that’s not acceptable.

Rolin_BritneyYou can’t imagine the buzz there’s been around Le ravissement de Britney Spears by Jean Rolin when it was released. All the critics were raving about it. The plot seemed like a good idea: a French spy is sent in Los Angeles to investigate threats of Islamic terrorist attacks against Britney Spears. As an iconic pop star, the terrorists allegedly think killing her would have a great impact on masses. So far so good. That’s why I was interested in reading the book. And I also knew that Jean Rolin had lived in Los Angeles for a while, so I expected a real feel of the city.

The problem is that our spy doesn’t have a driving license. And he’s on a mission in sprawling L.A. where there are less metro lines than in Lyon. So he’s wandering around the city in public buses. And he describes his journeys in a very detailed way. And all these passages sound like I’m learning by heart the L.A. map of buses. And I’M BORED TO DEATH. At page 121, my head was still full of questions. When will the story really start? Will he give up the mindless descriptions of travelling by bus? No, he won’t? After one look at the TBR, I stopped reading it.

I could have liked this novel. It is about Los Angeles and, from the descriptions, the writer had a good feel of the city. All his traveling by bus makes him visit places he would have ignored if he had been driving. He shows another side of the city than the one we usually see on TV. I could also have liked to read about his arguments explaining why attempting to Britney Spears’s life could fulfill a political goal for terrorists. There are also descriptions about paparazzi’s M.O. and trash press and it could have been interesting.

This book didn’t work for me because in my opinion, it didn’t pick the right side where literary genres are concerned. With a carless spy on a mission in LA and whose main contact info’s name is Fuck, you need to be mighty good to turn it into a serious novel. These two elements tip the scale in favor of crazy or state-of-the-nation satire. I would have loved to see what Kotzwinkle or Carlos Salem would have done with such a pitch. Or Max Barry, who would have turned it into a dystopian novel. It has everything to become a crazy high paced novel with intelligent thoughts. Jean Rolin decided to tip the scale on the side of serious. Slow pace enhanced by long sentences, serious descriptions of L.A., serious thoughts about Britney Spears and serious snoring on my side.

Too bad. I know someone else who had the same experience as me with the book. (Summed up in a sentence “much ado about nothing”) but the ratings are rather good on Goodreads. So perhaps I read it at a bad moment. Or more likely I have a tendency to prefer more off-the-wall books and it felt like a missed opportunity.

Or the all the fun was after page 121.

Romain Gary captures my fascination for America in one sentence

April 20, 2014 6 comments

I’m reading White Dog in English for Romain Gary Literature Month in May and on the second page, here’s a quote that sums up

That day, a rainstorm hit Los Angeles with the kind of larger-than-life fury you soon come to expect in America, where everything tends to be more dramatic and violent than elsewhere, with both nature and man trying to outdo each other at the art of showmanship.

I’ve been to America several times now and every time the size of everything hits me. Everything seems huge from buildings, to cars, roads, portions in restaurants. And renaming French fries into Freedom fries is a perfect illustration of the dramatic side of the country, one that leaves me dumbfounded.

Incidentally, the equivalent of that sentence in the French version of the book is:

Ce jour-là, une averse démesurée comme le sont la plupart des phénomènes naturels en Amérique lorsqu’ils s’y mettent, s’était abattue sur Los Angeles.

The second part of the English sentence is absent from the French one. I knew there was a good reason to read White Dog in English. I suspect it’s going to be a slow read if I’m tempted to check the French version of every quote.

PS: Here’s Delphine’s billet about Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joann Sfar. She included pictures of Gary and the corresponding drawings by Sfar.

Marketing’s first golden rule: Perception is reality

August 7, 2011 15 comments

Syrup by Maxx Barry. 1999. French title: Soda & Cie

Marketing (or mktg, which is what you write when you’re taking lectures notes at two hundred words per minute) is the biggest industry in the world, and it’s invisible. It’s the planet’s largest religion, but the billions who worship it don’t know it. It’s vast, insidious and completely corrupt.

Marketing is like LA. It’s like a gorgeous, brainless model in LA. A gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in LA. That’s the best way I know to describe it.

 Michael George Holloway a young marketing graduate from Iowa wants to get rich and famous. First actions to reach the goal: move in LA and market your name. That’s how he ends up sharing an apartment with Sneaky Pete in LA and change his name into Scat.

Scat wakes up with a great idea: a new cola named FUKK. He doesn’t know what to do with his great idea, so he shares about it with Sneaky Pete who happens to know the New Products Manager of Coke, 6. Sneaky Pete has him an appointment with 6, who loves the idea. The board of Coke wants to buy the trademark and just then, Scat realises he doesn’t have a pattern on the name. When he wants to register it, he learns that Sneaky Pete has done it before. From then on, he will team up with 6 and it will be a deathly business war with Sneaky Pete. I won’t tell more, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s pleasure.

Syrup is a perfect read for commuters unless you’re too self-conscious to laugh out loud in a train carriage. Because you will laugh. It’s made of short scenes of a page or half a page. Each chapter is illustrated with a bar code and there are soda bubbles between sub-chapters. Original. Upbeat. Refreshing. Marketing case studies are inserted in the text, to recall the reader where he is:

mktg case study #6: mktg cigarettes

For a product that kills its customers, this is pretty easy. For one thing, you only need to convince people to start buying. But the best part is that you get to defend the act of selling a product your customers can’t stop buying by claiming they have freedom of choice. Before each marketing campaign, practice the line: “It is not the policy of our company to dictate the lifestyle of our customers”

As a business school graduate, I’ve had my fair share of marketing classes even if I majored in business law. I remember those case studies – about cheese and champagne, yes, that’s French business schools… So Maxx Bary’s novel certainly rang a bell.

 Syrup is a satire of course but it points out real ways of working in nowadays companies. The SMT, the senior team management is a “dozen colleagues in pants and ties (no jackets, no women)” How true. In France they think about imposing quotas for women in boards to try to break the glass ceiling. He also talks about “dick-measuring contests” among the SMT, and I usually entertain my colleagues by pointing out the “concours de quéquette” when I see one. Really frequent. Ends up with decisions not made through a logical decision making process but through a perception of who won the dick-measuring contest. Passages about women in companies are rather accurate. Being a woman executive can be a pain when you get pregnant. As Scat points out, A pregnant woman has about as much chance of being given control of a top project as a drunk; they’re viewed as equally reliable. How true (bis) That’s the paradox. Companies want you most between 25 and 40, just when you have babies. But they’re also very happy to have new customers to consume their products. Who’s going to make them if we can’t get pregnant, uh?

All in all, I thought his description of companies’ politics exaggerated but with a real hint of truth.

 Scat’s choice of a name is a good one. Like scat in jazz, he’s always improvising in marketing. He’s the creative part of the team while 6 is the managing, strategy one. He’s always flabbergasted by how far the internal competition of a company can go. He’s naïve but not that bad at negotiating. He can’t really lie, he has no insight of political forces among the SMT or the manoeuvres Sneaky Pete puts into place to make them lose. There are no holds barred. 6 is the caricature of the steely woman executive who has built defensive walls to survive in her macho environment. She first declares she’s a lesbian to cut off men’s temptation to seduce her. She’s skilled in politics and organizing but has no creativity. She can’t survive without Scat and Scat can’t survive without her.

Like in Company, Syrup is an evidence of globalization. Company is the globalization of management methods. Syrup is the globalization of marketing methods. And just like Coke is an international symbol of marketing, McDonald’s is an international symbol of low quality job: It’s so great to know that after you’ve sucked me dry, you still think I can pick up a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s. In France too, to end up at McDonald’s for a regular job – not as a student job – is seen as a failure. Globalization of methods, globalization of outcome.

I have to say I like the voice of this writer, I think he’s a decent guy – or does he market himself as such? We are from the same generation. He’s obviously a feminist, he has a non-sexist way of describing relationships, and his male characters are the opposite of the testosterone man obsessed by tits and bottoms. Have a look at his website and particularly at his blog entry entitled Dogs and Smurfs if you want to know more. Syrup is currently being filmed. Max Barry wrote posts about the first days of shooting and he sounded very much as enthralled as Scat when he first goes to Coke or visit film locations.

After the 2008 financial crisis, I’d moderate my opening quote. Yes, marketing has a huge power on our lives. It will make you prefer one brand of cereal over another. But let Finance guys unleash their creativity and you get creative accounting, window-dressing, junk bonds, hedge funds, Fannie Mae and a major financial crisis that shatters the entire planet when markets and bankers realise that in that world, Perception CANNOT BE reality.

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