Welcome to the fourth of our alumni bookshelf features, where we celebrate the creative endeavours of our alumni and the power of the written word. In this edition we take a look at the work of Bruce Crowther. Bruce has published over 45 works covering a range of topics. He is a prolific writer of crime fiction, whilst his non-fiction takes in the full breadth of his diverse range of interests from jazz music and film noir, to the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. When he started out as a mature student in the field of American Studies, there were many reasons why Hull was perfect for him.
“Although I was born and raised in Hull, I moved away for a few years and when I came back I fell in with the local jazz mafia. Among their number were Philip Larkin and John White, who was then Senior Lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the university. By this time, my first four or five crime novels had been published and, knowing of my interest in American history and popular culture, John suggested I attend as a mature student and read for a degree in American Studies.”
In this interview we find out more about Bruce’s writing practice and his relationship to his subjects. A special thanks also needs to go to Dave Tuck, who introduced us to Bruce, and who formed a close friendship with Bruce during their time as students.
“While at Hull I met another mature student, Dave Tuck, who had similar interests, especially in film and American politics. When I was invited by a publisher to write on film, it was through conversations with and encouragement from Dave that I wrote Hollywood Faction: Reality And Myth In The Movies, and Film Noir: Reflections In A Dark Mirror. On these, and other non-fiction books, Dave made a significant contribution during research.”
You write about jazz, film noir and you write crime fiction – what inspires you to write across such varied interests and in varied forms?
From early childhood, I was hooked on films, especially American films and in particular film noir, although at the time I had no idea that this is how they were labelled. As I grew older, my understanding of the genre developed and I took particular interest in the writing and direction and how they reflected a world similar to that in the crime novels I had begun reading in my early teens.
Also as a child, I heard a lot of jazz as my brother was a fan. I didn’t like what I heard, but he was ten years older than me and my objections were ignored. By the time he left home and I was old enough to have a say, I decided I liked it. I am not a musician, but the music fascinated me and I began to learn about the music’s history, rooted as it is in the history of black Americans.
All of these interests – books, films, music – intertwined and often prompt the direction taken in my writing. Most of my crime novels are set in America, some, such as the Harlem Trilogy, are built on specific and significant historic periods: Harlem Nocturne is set in 1939 when the German-American Bund was active, Harlem Madness, is in 1943, the time of the Harlem riots, and Harlem Blues, in 1963 when the Civil Rights movement was making a huge impact. The Civil Rights movement is also at the heart of my (so far only) stage play, The Colors of Your Life, which deals with racial and sexual discrimination in 1963 and the present day.
Why do you think noir has a lasting allure that stays with us even today? Over half of your books are crime fiction – what is it about the genre that attracts you?
Why is film noir still with us? In its early years, much, probably most, of Hollywood’s output was sparkling, glamorous entertainment. With the arrival in America in the mid- to late 1930s of writers, directors and producers fleeing persecution in Europe, changes appeared in films, some of which were eventually labelled as film noir. Summarising their content is impossible in a few words (hence the need for books), but if pressed for brevity, one word comes to mind: cynicism. Even the earlier gangster films were not especially cynical, but these new films were and matched the attitude of growing numbers of people who were affected by rampant unemployment in the 1930s and, as the 1940s began, by war. Fast-forwarding to the present day, and the worldwide repeating of history, audiences cannot fail to respond to this air of cynicism.
What is it about crime fiction that attracts me? Although my early education was poor (correction: the education was good, the student was poor), I read avidly, having begun before I started school. By the time I reached my teens, I had exhausted the children’s section at Hull public library and was reading the books my parents and older siblings read. These included much American literature, among which were crime novels. These appealed enormously, especially books by James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler (the work of all three of whom feature extensively as inspiration for film noir) and their appeal has never faded. As mentioned, I began writing crime fiction, still read it, and have never felt the urge to try any other fiction genre. Indeed, I doubt that I would know how.
What tips do you have for anyone out there hoping to make a living as a writer?
When I was writing full time, I kept normal working hours (roughly 9 to 5). Even today, I keep to set hours – although now for nowhere nearly as many. I have never worked just because I felt like it. Often quite the opposite, working when I didn’t feel like it or when I would rather have been doing something else. It isn’t a game. It’s a job.
If you are writing fiction, read, read, read. Hugely important for any writer is to be first a reader. Read all that you can, all styles, popular or not, best sellers or not (but see cautionary note below). And while you are reading: Think! If the writer makes you laugh or cry or angry or sad or just plain annoys you, try to figure out why. What words are being used, how are they phrased, how is the storyline developed, what are the characters saying or thinking that creates the emotions you are feeling?
If you are writing non-fiction, research, research, research. When researching, be very wary of unchecked facts. Long ago journalists were urged to check everything three times. That no longer applies. Although the Internet is an invaluable tool, all too often one site is simply copying from another and as credit is only rarely given there is no way of knowing this. A falsehood can be repeated so often it becomes accepted as fact. (Look at what’s happening in politics today.) So dig deep and when you think you’ve gone as far as you can go, dig a little deeper.
Fiction as Bruce Crowther:
Dead Man’s Cocktail
The Colors of Your Life
Dead Man Running
All Cut Up
Shadows of the Night
The Girl in the Green Hat
as James Grant:
Island of Gold
The Rose Medallion
The Ransom Commando
The Left-Handed Shell
Don’t Shoot the Pianist
as Michael Ansara:
as Bruce Crowther:
Hollywood Faction: Reality and Myth in the Movies
Charlton Heston: the Epic Presence
The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (with Mike Pinfold)
Laurel and Hardy: Clown Princes of Comedy
Gene Krupa: His Life and Times
Bring Me Laughter: Four Decades of Television Comedy (with Mike Pinfold)
The Big Band Years (with Mike Pinfold)
Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror
Captured on Film: the Prison Movie
Burt Lancaster: a Life in Films
Mitchum: the Film Career of Robert Mitchum
Yesterday’s Yorkshire: a Literary Anthology (Editor)
Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (with Mike Pinfold)