Warren Ellis’s polarizing figure

Though I thought my LA Times column made my feelings about Warren Ellis’s CROOKED LITTLE VEIN clear, David Montgomery wondered what I thought, adding:

I found it modestly entertaining, but I kept thinking that he was trying too hard to be hip and wild and shocking… when things that are really hip and wild and shocking don’t have to try to be. They just are.

I found his comment fascinating in light of Tod Goldberg’s review in the LA Times earlier this week, which chided Ellis for playing it safe, and Cameron Hughes’ take at CHUD, which is even more damning:

It’s about as edgy as a Carlos Mencia stand-up special with Nickelback playing in the background. It always feels like Ellis just read about the stuff he writes about, but never participated in.

Well sure; if he had, then he’d be Hunter S. Thompson or Charles Bukowski, documenting the lives they lived for the sake of real truth. Ellis, to my mind, had different aims. For space and clarity, the following paragraph was cut from my column (it reads on the purple side, anyway) but it answers David’s initial question more definitively:

If Ellis offends, it’s because he’s both deliberate and

offhand in approach. The deliberation comes out of a desire to satirize the /st1:place/st1:country-region United States in ways that seem obvious to millions but require the faithful, at least a step

off the beat, to think more than they are used to. The offhandedness is

directly correlated to Ellis’s continuing curiosity (borne out on his multiple

websites, message boards and mailing lists) about how far a person will go to

engage in the most outré activities

possible. No matter how outlandish McGill’s adventures through seedy Manhattan

get, Ellis’s ferocious, idiosyncratic brand of satire teases out the glimmers

of truth lurking deep within genre conventions and the American psyche. For those

reasons, Crooked Little Vein might be

the saving grace of contemporary crime fiction even as it rejects such an idea


Yes, you heard me right. When I read CROOKED LITTLE VEIN I cackled the whole way through because it was about time PI fiction – and the genre as a whole – got a thorough swift kick in the nuts. I don’t think Ellis succeeded outright because there are pages and pages where slackerdom and laziness get the better of him (his interest in furthering the plot is, shall we say, rather lackadaisical) but when so, so, so many people play it safe for reasons of marketing or fear of losing a book contract or mistake ultraviolence for authenticity, here comes Ellis to take the piss out of every hardboiled mystery trope, and he’s not even trying very hard.

Which brings me back to Tod Goldberg, who ended his review as follows:

While "Crooked Little Vein" never ceases to entertain, it takes few
chances, which sadly makes it maddeningly canonical in places. Still, Ellis is a formidable talent whose wit and insight fit perfectly
into the crime genre. Perhaps next time he’ll go as deep as his gifts
can take him.

And that’s where his more negative take and my positive stance collide: that Ellis, even in a medium he hasn’t mastered (yet?) and only intermittently outstanding, can upset the crime fiction apple cart by only taking a few chances shows how deeply entrenched, conventional and safe this genre is. Risks don’t sell; mass audiences don’t want anything too different; the key to hitting it big is to do everything the same with only one or two relatively superficial changes (or as Tess Gerritsen said yesterday, in discussing the risks her next novel takes, "they don’t want us to be artists; they want us to be trained poodles.") And yes, I accept all those things and enjoy some of the finest examples of what writers do within these constraints.

But it sure it great to see a writer who clearly doesn’t give a shit and happily takes his bazooka and fires Molotov cocktails at every trope in sight. I doubt highly CROOKED LITTLE VEIN will land on the Shamus Award list, but it should. Even if I doubt Ellis cares one whit.