Sunday 17 March 2024

Blood on the Moon - James Ellroy (1984)


Rating: Mediocre

Most regular readers of this blog would know that I don't read much in the way of crime, but I've long known about James Ellroy, in particular his tragic back-story, with his mother's unsolved murder. I also know that he is an intense guy and this was confirmed when I read about his upbringing, in particular after his mother died, but that's another story. I picked up an omnibus (I've always loved that term...) edition of all three novels in the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy, his first major series of novels, preceding the L.A. Quartet (1987 - 1992), which includes L.A. Confidential (1990), which was then made into a great movie of the same name. So, a big build-up, but unfortunately I was disappointed. In an introduction to the omnibus written by Ellroy, he talks about reading Red Dragon (1981), the book that helped inspire the Silence of the Lambs (1991) movie (along with the book of the same name), after writing Blood on the Moon and realised that it was far superior. Blood on the Moon is Ellroy's third novel and you can tell that he's learning to write as he's actually writing; it's a transitional piece of writing, and I assume that he improved later, as he is so well regarded.  Here the writing is poor, in that you can see the joins, it's a bit clumsy and ham-fisted. The depictions of character psychology, and this includes the renegade sex-addicted cop, Lloyd Hopkins himself, comes across like a lurid cartoon. Everything is exaggerated into a hyperreal state, including the dialogue and scene descriptions. It became tiresome after a while unfortunately.

What Ellroy does have going for him, at this point at least, is his that his intense personality is shining through. There's something compelling about his style which urges you on and sometimes overcomes the poor writing. The plot moves along at a brisk pace too, although it's sometimes kind of ludicrous. The killer is a florid creation, bordering on the ridiculous. His motivations become apparent in the last third of the book, and are kind of cliched. That Ellroy is conflating Hopkins with the killer (I can't even be bothered looking up or recalling his name), showing that they are not that dissimilar, is handled reasonably well. Thanks to Hopkins Protestant ethics he's been drawn onto the side of 'good', although a highly flawed version. Hopkins dealings with women are cliched as well, the women are initially wary and then are irresistibly drawn to him, they just can't help themselves! Even the feminist poet can't help herself! The depictions of the mean streets of L.A. is also cliched, along with the corrupt drug-using gay cop who gets in the way of Hopkins crusade to find the killer. Fortunately the novel ends quite quickly, with the showdown between Hopkins and killer wrapping up before tedium kicks in. Will I read more Ellroy? I'd say so, I'm still curious and I acknowledge that Blood on the Moon is an early book. I don't think I'll bother with the other two books in the trilogy, Because the Night (1984) and Suicide Hill (1985), but I will try the L.A. Quartet, after all, they've been republished as Everyman Classics, so that should count for something.

Monday 4 March 2024

The In-Between - Christos Tsiolkas (2023)


Rating: Excellent

The In-Between, the first book club book after a long break of five months, is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, infamous author of such around the water cooler conversation starters as The Slap (2008) and Damascus (2019), (actually, not a around the water cooler for this one, more like around the pulpit). The In-Between follows too middle-age gay men, Ivan and Perry, as they first date and then embark on a relationship that causes both to have to come to terms with prior significant romantic disappointments. As usual for Tsiolkas the sex scenes are explicit and detailed, especially the initial one between the two main protagonists; Tsiolkas does not hold back, and this may be too much for some readers. There are several such sex scenes throughout the novel, and, after a while, they do come across as a tad performative and become slightly tedious. Far more interesting, however, is the psychological intensity of both men’s attempts to come to terms with their past and to move on into the kind of functional relationship they both really want. In the end it is insightful and tender writing, coming across as very believable and relatable to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and loved again, regardless of sexual orientation. Despite the eye-opening sex scenes and the focus on relationships, the main thematic thrust of The In-Between is really class, as explored in the extended dinner party scene (see below) and also in the stark cultural and societal difference between Perry and Ivan’s worlds. The other major theme is generational change, as explored in depictions of how older gay men had to live, in comparison to contemporary Australia, in which marriage between gay couples is legal and there exists an increased level of acceptance within the community. 

Around the middle of The In-Between Tsiolkas produces the best dinner-party scene I have ever read. Perry is university educated, has travelled widely, and works as a translator, whilst Ivan is a landscape gardener and has barely travelled. At the dinner party, with some of Perry’s old university friends, Ivan is subjected to a thinly veiled, class conscious, ‘friendly’ grilling about his background and worldview. It’s cringeworthy stuff, with the portrayal of Perry’s friends, who on the surface project left-wing acceptance, as judgemental and reactionary. Another interesting aspect to the novel is the device of using minor characters, often ones with no significant presence in the narrative, as a means to observe and comment on the main protagonists. It’s a clever way of thinking about the characters from a perspective outside that of the reader’s, and Tsiolkas uses it to great effect several times. After the brilliant dinner party scene the novel loses some of its focus and tension, in particular when the setting moves to Greece and focusses on another gay couple, however this is a minor quibble, as ultimately The In-Between ends poignantly and effectively with a scene that would touch even the most cynical among readers.