Holding a Dahlia

I approached this month’s book club with some excitement, as our first choice was a book by one of my favourite writers in a a genre that I regard as my favourite. Funnily enough this book wasn’t my choice, but I’m glad it was chosen, as it gave me a chance to have a little rant about my love for this writer.

I first read James Ellroy many years ago, about the time that the adaptation of his novel LA Confidential was released on film. I was drawn to his writing based on his ability to handle pace and the joy of his dialogue, which is among the finest in the genre in my opinion. Our choice was The Black Dahlia, a magnum opus seeped in obsession and paranoia, based on an infamous case of a murdered woman in the 1940s.

In many ways it has become my favourite Ellroy novel. Whilst I like some of his later work the staccato prose, very alliteration heavy, can be a bit of a turn-off after hundreds of pages. A British author, David Peace, is another that I struggle with for the same reason. This novel has the flavour of his earlier books and is just beautifully written. The theme of obsession outlined above is never more stark than here, and Ellroy’s lifelong pursuit of it is down to the unsolved murder of his mother when he was a child, and to whom the book is dedicated. This haunts the novel throughout and injects the prose with enormous power. The two policeman involved in the case find their personal obsession with the case overspills into their personal lives, and decisions that they make have a direct impact on their relationships and careers. Again, this is classic Ellroy territory but never done better than here.

The plot itself is labyrinthine and far too complicated to go into here, but in most of the great crime novels the plot is almost transcended by the sheer enjoyment and dynamism of the writing. I had the same feeling with this book.

We move to very different territory for our second book, Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding The Man, the story of a homosexual man growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1970s and 80s. This tale is well-known in this country and one of our members went to the same school as Conigrave, so it had a familiarity to most that I wasn’t privy to.

That said, I enjoyed some aspects of the book. I found the overly ‘ocker’ language grating at times, and I found some of Conigrave’s character traits a  little annoying, in particular his promiscuity and willingness to cheat on his partner. He seemed to lead a ‘have your cake and eat it’ lifestyle and his partner John came across as a saintly figure for putting up with it. Indeed, this was probably not an accident, as the depiction of John was very much in that vein throughout, the quiet thoughtful man who stands by his lover stoically.

The novel ends in tragedy as both men end up contracting the HIV virus and the book concludes with John’s death. Despite the inevitability of this I found the conclusion quite moving. There were also some moments where the homophobia of some of their family members was really shocking. They had a tough time being accepted as a couple and even after John’s death Tim was only described as a ‘friend’ in death notices. Whilst this can only evoke anger, it does show how far society has come, even in 20 years or so. Which in the end can only be an uplifting message.

The only other warning I would give is that the book contains graphic sexual content, I would say it is astonishingly frank in places. I admire anyone who is willing to divulge such personal things to the world, I could never do it. I didn’t have a problem with the content but some of our members thought it was a little over the top. I disagree – always tell the truth, and you can’t go far wrong.