The Crime Writer’s Alter Ego by Matt Rees

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James Ellroy went out to dinner a few years ago with some French journalists in Paris. One of the journalists later recounted to me how Ellroy pressed them to take him out to Pigalle, which is a sort-of Red Light district. With distaste, they agreed. “Okay,” growled the Demon Dog, “so which one of you guys has the guns?” Now these were elegant Parisien literateurs. One of them responded (in delightfully colloquial English): “Hey, guy, this is Paris. We’re not packing heat.”

The point had been made, however. The Ellroy act (and it is surely an act, for those of you who’ve ever seen the man speak in public) had been rolled out. The pose, struck.

Does every crime writer need such an act? Would all of us benefit from one? And what should mine be?

Well, I can’t be the urbane, sensitive, wise-cracking Brit with a strong jaw and penetrating eyes. Why not? Because that’s who I am (ask my wife, please), and this is supposed to be an act, remember.

What are the alternatives?

It seems there are more than a few on offer. A crime writer can pretend to be Philip Marlowe. He can pretend to be Philip Marlowe on speed (cf. Ellroy). He can be the gruff city-room editor type. He can be the my-boots-have-walked-in-blood type (as a former war correspondent, I’ve done a little of that.) He can be arch and a little vampiric, a gentleman thief, Raffles and George Sanders.

He could just put on a Swedish accent.

(I’m not examining the possibilities for female crime writers here. I’m prepared to put on an act, but not to cross-dress. At least, not in front of my readers. Again, ask my wife…)

I could act distant from my readers….


No, that’s not going to work. Not in the blogosphere.

I could take my real crimes and exploit them. (Like Ellroy, with his murdered mother, his drug use, and his teenage habit of breaking into women’s homes and sniffing their panties.) Is the world ready for a teenage shoplifter/crime writer? No, the crimes have to be more revealingly bad than that, showing you to be a good guy now because you’re able to write about the nasty stuff you pulled when you were younger. I’ll have to discuss this with my girlfriends of 20 years ago and with the other fellows from the alternative band I played in on the Lower East Side in the mid-1990s….

So the persona is evidently a work in progress. Any suggestions are welcome.

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