Saturday, January 2, 2016

The best books and moments of 2015, featuring James Ellroy not punching me in the face.

For me, the most memorable literary moment of 2015 happened outside a movie theater.

I'd bought my dad and I front row tickets to see James Ellroy introduce the movie version of L.A. Confidential at the Alamo Drafthouse. I brought along my personal copy of the legendary crime novel, on the off-chance Ellroy decided to do a signing. And on my way to Littleton, I stopped by Tattered Cover and purchased one of my own books because, well, I don't know why. But I did.

Ellroy gets onstage and tells the crowd that the movie we're about to see is simplistic and badly acted, and it succeeds only because it's "a model of filmic proficiency" and because of the genius of the source material. He admonishes us for sacrificing a night of our "sex lives and drug habits" to sit through it. He then walks offstage, leaving us to our film.

Afterwards Ellroy comes back onstage and does a long and generous Q&A. To my dismay, the audience's questions focus not on his books, but on his opinions of various TV shows. Anyway, the Q&A concludes and - gasp! - Ellroy says he'll sign books in the lobby.

I get in line, trying to figure out what I'll say to one of the greatest novelists ever. Minutes blur by. I reach the table. He signs my copy of L.A Confidential. I take a deep breath and blurt, "I know you don't need writers pushing their books at you, but I wrote this and I want you to have it." I thrust Sin Walks Into the Desert into James Ellroy's hands, fully expecting him to beat me to death with it.

He looks at my book, looks at me, and says something like, "Yeah, OK."

Success! I was alive! I start to retreat. When all of a sudden my dad jumps in front of me and tells James Fucking Ellroy, "It's such a good book, you really have to read it."

Time stops. My jaw hits the floor. Ellroy looks at my dad. My dad doubles down, literally says, "I'm his dad, so I know it's a great book."

I'm too old to be embarrassed by my parents, high school-style. But I just stand there, unable to move. Finally James Ellroy looks at me, sort-of smiles, and says, "You better take good care of this one. He's a good man."

I say something like, "Yes sir," or "You bet," grab my dad and shuffle towards the door.

End scene.

Meeting James Ellroy was great. He's everything you hope and fear. But what really made the night special was being there with the best man I know and the best friend I have. My dad.

My year-in-books did have a few highlights that actually involved reading. With the exception of a single Louis Lamour novel I picked up late one night at a roadside jerky stand somewhere between New Orleans and Texas, I didn't venture outside the crime genre. Here are some of the books that stood out:

Best Impossible Crime Book: Without a doubt, the dizzying, grisly 1981 novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. The book opens with a man murdered in a locked room. Beside him, police find a long letter detailing his plan to chop up his daughters and use their parts to construct the perfect woman. Days after his death, the murders are carried out. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders requires the reader to uncover clues within painstaking explanations of alchemy, astrology and geographic data. But the big reveal, when it comes, is brilliant.

Book That Most Made Me Want To Take A Shower: At The End of a Dull Day's protagonist is a sociopath. He murders. He manipulates. He desperately defends the money he thinks he's earned and the status he thinks he deserves. I think less of myself for having finished this book. And loving it made me feel downright filthy.

Best Climax:wrote pretty extensively how deeply the short stories in Zane Lovitt's debut collection, The Midnight Promise, affected me. Each story builds on the last, getting grimmer and grittier as a self-loathing private eye tries to fulfill his self-centered death wish. The book ends as he hits rock bottom, and that final story haunted me for a long time.

Best Mayhem, Best Title & Most Alcohol Consumed: Frank Sinatra In A Blender wins 2015's Triple Crown. The damn thing is just chaos incarnate. Crazy cool characters, bullets flying, and everyone is full-scale fall-down loaded the entire time.

Best Repurposing of the English LanguageDonnybrook! I already wrote a post about how enamored I was with the pure audaciousness of this novel. You can check out my reasoning here.

I'd like to end this post with a moment of silence for William McIlvanney, who passed away this year. McIlvanney's greatest hero was Laidlaw, a cop clinging desperately to the idea that even the most wretched lives matter. In the final lines of The Papers of Tony Veitch, Laidlaw pulls an elderly woman from a cab queue to dance in the rain to the tuneless noises of a homeless man's harmonica. It's a defiant and wonderful scene, defining what makes the crime genre special. Life must have meaning, if detectives are willing to work so hard to uncover the facts that surround its miserable end.

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