Redemption’s Where You Find It.

Clandestine

“Three out of five ain’t bad”, I wrote a few days back, referencing the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. The first two of five books stacked there turned out to be duds, but the remaining three more than made up for that. The last, a 1999 Avon Twilight trade pb edition of James Ellroy’s 1982 novel Clandestine, was a risky choice right now. Like many, I’ve got the blues these days, whether it’s from the pandemic, or politics, or just every damn thing. An Ellroy novel, while sure to be a crime fiction masterpiece, is unlikely to lift anyone’s spirits.

Just goes to show ya…

Young uniformed LAPD cop Fred Underhill has a skeleton or two in his closet but is brimming with as much ambition as cynicism. He’s buddied with a loveable lush of a partner, spending his nights in an endless series of cocktail lounge pickups and seeking some vague something (which he calls the ‘wonder’). But the partner dies in a bloody holdup shootout. Then Underhill falls hard for beautiful, accomplished but broken prosecutor, Lorna Weinberg. The seamless monotony of Underhill’s daily life is unraveling. Skirting the rules to solve a possible serial killer’s rampage, he’s soon in plain clothes and in pretty heady company, and his attempts at leverage and manipulation are ruthlessly squashed by real department pro’s. When the prime suspect he fed to a rogue detective squad turns out to be innocent (discovered only after the culprit kills himself in his cell), Underhill’s career is destroyed, his marriage crumbles, his entire life seems over. Years pass, the ex-cop’s obsession with the murders still simmering, when events send him far from the familiar glitter and grime of Ellroy’s mid-twentieth century Los Angeles to the seemingly pristine pastures and small towns of America’s Dairyland. There Fred Underhill uncovers scandals and crimes that are almost too vile for the underbelly of Hollywood at its worst.

Cladestine Group Shot

Clandestine surprised me in two ways. First: This was, I believe, Ellroy’s second published novel, and the very familiar creative wordsmithing and staccato rhythm prose that readers cherish from his masterful L.A. Quartet (1987 – 1992) and the in-progress second L.A. Quartet (214 – 2019) is nowhere to be found. Ellroy’s writing’s is very straightforward here (though no less darkly poetic). Second: The novel’s closing pages provided a very unexpected balm to my blues. No one should seek redemption in James Ellroy’s bleak world, but there it was in the conclusion of Clandestine. The “R” word even lurks in the novel’s final sentence. After 320+ pages of Ellroy’s trademark cynicism, corruption and violence, there was a glimmer of hope after all.

Again, it just goes to show ya…

Clandestine is considered a standalone book in the Ellroy bibliography, but it actually nestles quite comfortably alongside the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), with familiar faces making cameo appearances and the long shadow of dastardly Dudley Smith looming over all.

37911831z

Ellroy experts (and I’m not one, only an avid reader) will know better, but Clandestine also seems to point towards his 1996 true crime/memoir My Dark Places, or so it seemed to me. But whether it does or not, Clandestine is an amazing novel on its own, and whatever I reach for next will have to be mighty good to stand up to any comparisons. But the fact is, the writing lair’s endtable is empty now, the to-be-read pile sorely in need of replenishing. There’s a stack of Adventure House 1930’s-40’s Spicy Detective pulp reprints on my bookshelves that are still unread, and they’ll have to do for now…

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.

This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.

If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.

Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.

Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑