Tuesday, March 8, 2022

A Puzzle for Fools, by Patrick Quentin

American Mystery Classics, Penzler Publishers
originally published 1936
237 pp


"It had been a puzzle for fools..."

A Puzzle for Fools is #21 on the Borges/Bioy Séptimo Círculo list, and it's a good one.  It is also the mystery series opener for the nine books featuring Peter Duluth, Broadway producer, ranging datewise from 1936 to 1954.    

Peter Duluth has known his share of tragedy.  His wife Magdalene had died in a fire in the theater, and as a result his life started to hit the skids.  After "drinking to an eight-hour-a-day schedule" over the last couple of years,  and not "particularly reluctant" to drink himself to death, he decided that some time in a sanitarium might be a good idea.  Detoxing was pretty tough at first, but he made it through the worst and now, under the care of a trusted psychiatrist, he seems to be doing pretty well.  His "spells of depression" are less frequent and his physical self was also improving.  As this story begins though, he's not sure sure of himself -- it seems that in the dark of his room, he hears his own voice whispering to him he must get away, and that "There will be murder."  He knows he's not saying these things, and his fright overtakes him until he speaks to his psychiatrist, Dr. Lenz,  who lets him know that "this is not the first disturbing thing which has been reported recently," and that whatever he sees or hears "out of the ordinary, that thing is real and has its basis in fact."   The doctor also feels that there is a "subversive influence" at work in his sanitarium, causing him to worry about the patients and asks Peter for his help. While patients might not reveal things to him that upset them, they might say something to a "fellow inmate."   

It isn't long until he learns about the strange things that are happening among the other patients, including a few who, like Peter,  have also heard themselves talking when they know they weren't.   More talk of murder follows, and it isn't too long until talk gives way to action and someone is actually killed in a way that leaves no traces of violence.  It's a bizarre crime on the impossible side, and while Peter has been allowed to keep up with the police and their investigation in confidence,  he has some ideas of his own as to how to discover who among them is a killer.   However, before he can make any real progress, the strange occurrences continue to plague the patients, and then there's another death. 

After my less than great experience with A Puzzle for Players I was more than a bit  reluctant to once again wade into this series, but  I was surprised at how very much I enjoyed this one.  For one thing, the atmosphere is set at the beginning and doesn't let up over the course of the story.  There's just something compelling about the scene of the crime being inside of a sanitarium with its darkened corridors, locked doors and secrets; even better, this story really is a puzzle -- the author offers any number of clues to put together to get to the heart of this mystery, and his characters are so nicely drawn that at some point I realized that nearly every person in the sanitarium was a potential candidate for suspect, and that ultimately in this story, you can't really trust anyone.   

Don't miss the introduction by Otto Penzler; while I don't quite agree with Penzler's assessment of Puzzle for Fools as a "suspense thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mode," it still makes for a good few hours of fun and unputdownable reading.    Recommended to those readers who enjoy these older mysteries.  The armchair detective in me was highly satisfied -- I never guessed the who and so I was completely taken by surprise when all was revealed.  I call that a win. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Back Country, by William Fuller


Stark House, 2022
originally published 1954
197 pp


Newly out this month, Back Country is yet another entry in Stark House's Black Gat series, "the new face of vintage mystery."  Originally published in 1954, this book is the first of six to feature Brad Dolan, described by Bill Pronzini in the introduction to this book as
"Hardbitten veteran of two wars, with a checkered past in which he ran guns from Tangiers to Saudi Arabia and smuggled aliens into the Louisiana marshes from Mexico. Former advertising exec embittered by the blatant infidelity of his ex-wife Dusty. Adventurer who resorts to violence and to skirting, bending or breaking the law when circumstances warrant. Wanderer whose primary ambitions are fishing and 'blue water, sunshine, and freedom..."

He also enjoys classical music and "can talk a little Nietzsche."

During his service in Korea,  Dolan's leg had been badly injured, and he'd been stuck in a ditch for seventy hours in minus-thirty conditions, after which he decided that he never wanted to be cold again.  Making up his mind that he'd either go to the Southwest or to Florida, a letter from a friend inviting him to Miami cinched the Florida move, so after a stint at Walter Reed hospital and a medical discharge, he was on his way.   After having left Highway 41 to make an inland crossing to the east coast, he made it to Carter County when his car threw a rod.  He made his way to a  town named Cartersville ("the Florida the tourists never see"), not  exactly his idea of the Florida paradise he'd been aiming for, but in need of a mechanic, he's pretty much stuck at least for a while.  It doesn't take long before he finds himself in trouble at a backwoods juke where he offers to buy a gorgeous blonde a drink, gets knocked out in a fight and wakes up in time to find himself taken to the county jail.  Turns out he chose the wrong blonde ... she's the wife of Mr. Rand Ringo, who pretty much owns the county, "lock, stock and barrel."  Ringo needs someone like Dolan to run his operations, someone with "know-how and intelligence and guts," and thinking he can cut himself in on some of the  action, Dolan decides to stick around for  a while.  He's given money and a place to live, and it seems that Mrs. Ringo has taken a liking to him and becomes a regular visitor (wink wink nudge nudge).   That's before he falls for Ringo's daughter, once again "getting jammed up with women," which seems is a weakness of his.  Not only is he caught between a rock and a hard place in that arena, but when Ringo tells Dolan just what he wants him to do, Dolan's not having any of it.  

original 1954 cover, from Amazon 

Subplots follow and tie in to the main storyline, and as promised in the introduction, there is definitely an "explosive climax."   Dolan's got guts and a brain, but above all he's definitely not someone who can be owned, making for a nailbiter of a showdown.  

 Just so it's clear, given that it's the 1950s and especially given that the story is set in central Florida,  racist comments run through this novel that are extremely difficult to read, but as Pronzini notes in the introduction, racism is endorsed neither by Fuller nor by his creation, Brad Dolan.   And speaking of central Florida, I live in south Florida and have been in the area of the fictional Cartersville many times  and his sense of place, even today, is spot on.  

Back Country sold out its first printing -- half a million copies within three months. I can see why -- it's a powerhouse of a novel,  especially for a first in series. This is serious pulp goodness that should not be missed.   There are no dull moments and I spent much of the time wondering how the hell Dolan was going to get himself out of the predicaments he finds himself falling into.  He's an awesome character and more importantly, Fuller was an awesome storyteller, enough so that now I have to find the other five books.  

My many and grateful thanks to Stark House for my copy of this novel.   Definitely recommended. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Embezzler, by James M. Cain


Avon Book Company, 1944
(Avon Murder Mystery Monthly No. 20)
originally serialized as "Money and the Woman" 1938
108 pp


Ask someone which books they've read by James M. Cain, and my guess is that the answers won't likely include this book, The Embezzler.  Actually, until I started reading my way through the séptimo circulo list, I didn't even know it existed, and I'm sure I'm not alone here.   

Set in the Los Angeles area, bank vice president Dave Bennett has been sent from the home office to a Glendale to check up on "not what was wrong" with the Anita Avenue branch, but rather "what was right with it."  The ratio of savings deposits to commercial was "over twice" that of any other branch, and he'd been tasked by his boss to find out "what the trick was" so that it might be something that could be used at the other branches.    When the novel begins, he's working as acting cashier.  The man responsible for such great numbers is the head teller, Charles Brent, but  Bennett likes neither his method nor the man himself, the latter for reasons he doesn't quite understand.    

Two weeks after Bennett arrives, he receives a phone call and a visit at his home from Charles' wife Sheila, who has a strange request.  Charles, it seems, needs an operation immediately to repair a duodenal ulcer, "verging on perforation," but he is worried that things will "go to ruin" at the bank if he's not there.  Would Bennett let her take his place at the bank?  She's definitely qualified, having worked at the bank in the past, and she knows "every detail" of her husband's work. As he considers his answer, it strikes him as a good idea, not only because of the "general shake-up" Brent's absence would cause, but also because he'd "liked this dame from the start."   So Sheila's in, and one day while she's out trying to bring in a loan, Dave takes over her window and discovers just that Brent's work success hides something else -- an $8500 discrepancy in the books.  Even worse, he discovers that Sheila knows all about it, but he's in love with her -- what to do?   Everything rests on Dave's decisions from this point on.  

By this point in the novel, I already had a feel for what was about to come, and for the most part, I was right.  What kept me reading wasn't so much the action here but my deep  mistrust of Sheila pretty much to the end so I had to see what happened on that front.  I mean, Cain had  already written Double Indemnity, albeit in serialized form (1935 -- it also appears along with The Embezzler in Three of a Kind in 1943)  so I couldn't help but wonder if Dave's judgment would be clouded by his instant infatuation with Sheila, or if she was going to turn out to be another Phyllis Nirdlinger taking Dave down the road to destruction.  No spoilers from me on that score. 

All in all a decent read, but I was more than a bit disappointed with the ending which one reader on goodreads described appropriately as a "major no no" for noir.   No spoilers from me, but jeez -- given all that had come before it just did not work.   Think "sappy" and you've pretty much got it.  

from IMDb

I would love to watch the film made from this novel in 1940, and I found a place that has transferred it to dvd, mine for only $25. Done, making me a happy person.    Unfortunately the shipping was like $45, making me an unhappy person,  so I guess I'll wait and hope to find a copy another time.   

If you're a fan of James M. Cain's books and want to read beyond the better-known novels, this would be a good place to start; in any case it's much better than his The Cocktail Waitress, which was just sleaze, and not good sleaze at that.  This one was just okay. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

My Annihilation, by Fuminori Nakamura


Soho Crime, 2021
originally published as Watashi no Shometsu, 2016
translated by Sam Bett
257 pp


My Annihilation is yet another book I'm reluctant to label as simply crime fiction -- there are layers upon layers to unfold during the reading, and as the author himself notes in an afterword, in this novel he is exploring 
"questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to exist in the world,"
as well as the question "what is a self?"  

It doesn't take too long to become completely immersed in this novel, which begins in "a cramped room in a rundown mountain lodge," where our narrator is considering the "various forms of identification" in his bag, all belonging to someone named Ryodai Kozuka.   In a corner of the room is a white suitcase which he did not bring there, and on the desk is a manuscript, which he believes just might be Kozuka's life story.  As he begins to read, he finds a warning:
"Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life," 

but the narrator reveals that he has "no intention" of giving up his "old life;" all he wants is Kozuka's identity.   Noting that while Kozuka may have left some "unfinished business" behind, he assures himself that "it was no business of mine."    It's at this point (and we're only on page four) that I realized that it may have been a smart thing to heed that warning, but on into the manuscript he goes.  

What he discovers within is unsettling, at best.  It begins with Kozuka's narrative about his childhood experiences, about which after only one-third of the way through, the narrator observes a similarity to his own story.  Reading on, he comes to a passage where Kozuka, looking back, notes that 
"... It doesn't even feel like this is me. It's all so blurry, like something shrouded in a distant fog.  But evidently somebody is going to take my place. Someone willing to take over for me, accepting all the horrors ... I'm going to be saved."  

This bit obviously disturbs the narrator, but only momentarily;  continuing on he comes to the story of  real-life serial killer  Tsutomu Miyazaki,  "one of the most infamous criminals in Japan."  And while the narrator asks himself "What was all that about?"  we know that there are certain things that link both Miyazaki and the author of the manuscript, which I won't mention to avoid spoilers.  Yet for our narrator, nothing seems more important at the time than opening that white suitcase, until he is interrupted by the ringing of a bell to his room.  That's when things, if not weird enough already, start to take the reader far, far down the rabbit hole.  

Without spoiling things for potential readers, what actually emerges here is a sinister plot for revenge,  and I must say it's one of the creepiest I've encountered, with the actual mystery behind it all taking a number of  surprising twists and turns before all is revealed.   Underlying this novel is the answer to the question of "what is a self,"  to which the author responds that  "Under a particular set of circumstances, it becomes impossible to tell."  Using various forms of textual material throughout the novel, the author runs with this idea, revealing just how easy it is "to get inside a person's head," an idea at the very heart of this story.  He raises questions of identity and memory, especially the ways in which they might be changed or in this case, even created. With that then comes the question of what happens to the original self that must somewhere continue to exist; this sort of philosophical/psychological underpinning  is why I noted my reluctance at the outset to define My Annihilation as just another crime novel. At the same time, it moves this book well and deeply into the literary zone, and as the back-cover blurb notes, "into the darkest corners of human consciousness."   In short, it's right up my alley.  

I love to try to solve mysteries as I read them, but My Annihilation is  one of those books where just when you think you have a handle on things, there's a shift and you realize you're completely off base.  As quickly as things change here, for me it became a matter of just giving up, going with the flow and letting things reveal themselves.   I'm not sure I'd recommend this one to all crime/mystery readers, but it's definitely for people who like their reading on the darker side.  

Monday, January 10, 2022

Act of Darkness, by Francis King


Valancourt Books, 2021
originally published 1983
305 pp


I'm actually on the fence about labeling this book as crime fiction, because really, there's so much more to it.  I mean,  there is a crime (quite a heinous one in fact), there is a bit of an investigation and a number of possible suspects who might have been responsible.  At the same time, it ventures well into the literary zone, as the author delves into and  unravels human souls, exposing people for who they really are, and it works on a metaphorical level as well.   The bottom line, however, is that it's quite good, very dark, highly atmospheric and well, anything but typical.  

Just very briefly and excruciatingly barebones so as not to spoil things for anyone who may want to read this novel, Act of Darkness is structured in five parts, and it is in the first of these, the appropriately-entitled "Omens,"  that we meet the Thompson family.   Set in India in the 1930s, they are at home  in the hill-station villa where they've gone to escape the hot summer weather of the plains.   Toby Thompson is the head of this family, although business and other matters interest him far more than his home life.  He is married to second wife Isabel, now pregnant, and they have a young six-year old son named Peter who can often be annoying and definitely curious.  Toby's daughter from his first marriage, Helen, a sort of cold young woman who feels out of place and somewhat resentful,  has recently returned from boarding school in England, and  also living in the home is Clare, Peter's governess, who likes things simple, unmessy and uncomplicated. These characters are introduced from his or her own perspective; by doing it this way King allows the reader to glean an understanding of the complexities and the tensions within their interactions with each other, and most importantly, careful readers will be able to pick out the "omens" of what's to come. 

The central "Act" of this novel is a horrific murder that happens in the middle of one night, but it's the aftereffects that are at the heart of this story.  As the author writes,
"A slow, expected death has a way of irresistibly sucking the members of a family together down its dark funnel. This death, as violent and unexpected as the explosion following the detonation of a bomb, had the opposite effect of blowing the members of the Thompson family in separate directions, however much they struggled to cling to each other." 

The murder also lays bare some of  the pent-up frustrations, jealousies and suspicions that have been simmering and chipped away at under the surface within this household.  The author absolutely excels here as he traces the effects of this crime on those left behind over the years that follow,  offering more than one or two surprising twists as he comes down to its solution.

I loved this book -- King has created an atmosphere seething with dark, sometimes violent  undercurrents running below the surface both within this family and also in India under British rule; that tension, once picked up on in the reading, just doesn't go away.  I will say that not too far after the murder, I had this sense that I already knew this story, and rifling through my brain it hit me where I'd previously experienced it.  I won't give away any hints as to what it reminded me of  (just in case), except that it was a particular and sensational crime that had occurred in England during the Victorian era.   Once it dawned on me, I was a bit upset,  thinking "well, I already know how this turns out," but as it happens, I wasn't at all prepared once the truth was revealed.  I can certainly and highly recommend this book, especially to readers who are more into the why behind  things rather than just the who.  It is a memorable story that I still see flashes of in my head  even though I finished reading it a few days ago; it's also a book that I absolutely could not put down.  

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Village of Eight Graves, by Seishi Yokomizo

 I'm looking at the date I was last here -- September!  Yikes!   I have to say that we had an extremely rough 2021 which is actually putting it mildly, but now, thankfully, we've turned that corner and things are much better and slowly getting back to normal going into 2022.   I'll be picking up where I left off with the septimo circulo list shortly as well as with a stack of books I've sadly neglected.    Truth be told, I'm just glad to be back.  

originally published 1950
translated by Bryan Karetnyk
349 pp


Village of Eight Graves will be the third book I've read that features the somewhat shaggy-looking detective Kosuke Kindaichi, whose creator Seishi Yokomizo wrote him into a grand total of 77 novels.  Pushkin Vertigo has also published translations of his The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Clan (my favorite of the bunch so far), and there will be another one, Gokumon Island  later this year.   I've already preordered the last one, and I bought a dvd of that film as well.  I tried to find a copy of Village of Eight Graves on dvd, but I'm not all that sure I really want to pay the $60 the one I actually found goes for.   I did however, content myself with the trailer on YouTube (note: if you to and take a look at it you should know ahead of time that there are no English subtitles, but you'll get the drift).  

The story in Village of Eight Graves is set in postwar Japan, but before arriving in that time period, Yokomizo takes his readers back in time to the sixteenth century to explain how the village got its strange name.  Legend has it that eight samurai fled when their daimyo surrendered to another, taking along with them some 3,000 tael of gold.  They ended up in the village, where the people were hospitable to them until they learned that the samurai were being sought;  at that point they killed all eight, offering their heads in exchange for a promised reward.   With his dying breath, however, the leader of these warriors put a curse on the village, "vowing to visit his vengeance upon it for seven generations to come."  The villagers never did find the gold,  and six months later, the "ringleader of the attack on the warriors," a certain Shozaemon Tajimi,  went more than a bit beserk and not only killed members of his family but "every villager he came across."  Seven died, and Shozaemon killed himself, bringing the total to eight.  Believing that this attack was some sort of "retribution from those eight warriors who had been murdered in cold blood," the villagers decided to give them proper burials, "erecting eight graves where they were venerated as divinities."  

Flash forward first to the 1920s and then on to the postwar era,  as a young man named Tatsuya Terada recounts the story of  how he "embarked on an adventure of dazzling mystery and stepped into a world of blood-chilling terror."   It all begins with  the appearance of an attorney who comes looking for Tatsuya on behalf on someone who has been looking for him.  Identity satisfied, all the lawyer will tell him is that the person seeking him out is "extremely wealthy" and wants to "adopt and provide" for him.  But before he gets any further news, he receives a letter telling him  to "never set foot in Eight Graves again,"  and that if he does, "there will be blood!"  It was the first Tatsuya had heard of Eight Graves, but in another visit to his lawyer, he meets his maternal grandfather, whom the lawyer reveals is actually not the person looking for him.  However, he offers Tatsuya his true identity as the son of Yozo Tajimi, reveals that he has two unmarried half-siblings, and that neither one will ever have children. To prevent the Tajimi line from dying out, it seems that his great aunts have decided to name Tatsuya as the Tajimi heir.  But before Tatsuya even travels to the village, he is there when his grandfather dies, not a natural death, but one determined to be from poison.  This is the first of a number of strange deaths; the remainder will wait  for Tatsuya's return to Eight Graves Village, where it doesn't take long for the villagers to believe they are all done by Tatsuya's hand.  If I say much more there won't be a need to read the book, and people will likely be upset that I've spoiled things.  However,  it's when Tatsuya is taken to Eight Graves Village that not only do the deaths continue, but also that there are a number of strange, seemingly inexplicable occurrences that will test Tatsuya's mettle to the limit.  And while Kindaichi is on the scene here and there, his role remains sort of behind the scenes until the very end, leaving a 300-page plus mystery for the armchair detective reader to try and solve.  I never did but I had great fun getting to the big reveal.    

from Amazon Canada.  Kosuke Kindaichi action figure.  I want one of these!. 

One thing brought out very quickly which is extremely well done here is the effects of fear and superstition on the villagers, all stemming back to the  sixteenth-century and the ongoing belief of these people that history tends to repeat itself,  leading to exactly what some people are capable of when overcome by fear for their own lives.   The mystery (and its solution) is beyond satisfying, and there are a number of suspects from which to choose to up the whodunit game.  Like any good mystery writer, Yokomizo lays down any number of red herrings that tend to take readers down certain paths before realizing they've been had.  Unexpected twists and turns abound right up until the very end, adding to the fun and continuing to add more to the mystery itself  as well as ratcheting up the tension level for the reader.  Two things: first, my advice would be to copy the cast of characters offered at the front of the book -- I ended up doing this not too long into the novel because I found myself  constantly flipping back and forth.  Second, the story takes a bit of a turn into the realm of adventure tale having to do with the samurai gold, which was a bit off-putting until I just let myself go with it, figuring we'd get to the solution at some point -- a good decision.    And while it's not great literature, who cares? It's an incredibly fun book that will test any mystery reader's solving ability.  Definitely recommended.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A James Ellroy Double Feature: Brown's Requiem and Clandestine


Vintage, 2021
originally published 1981
321 pp

(read earlier)

I hadn't really intended to read more of Ellroy at the moment, but back around mid-August I read his My Dark Places and there he was, back in my head and under my skin again. The only way to exorcise his presence was to read more Ellroy, and I decided to start with his earliest work.  Brown's Requiem is his first novel, followed by Clandestine, and I read both.   

 In the introduction to this edition of Brown's Requiem, Ellroy notes from the outset that he was "determined to write an autobiographical epic second to none," but he also realized that his life was "essentially an inward journey that would not lend itself all that well to fiction," which, based on his life as described in My Dark Places,  is probably true.  His response:

 "I then ladled a big load of violent intrigue into my already simmering, tres personal plot -- and the result is the novel you are about to read."

This book is much more a PI novel than anything else he wrote (at least of the books I've read), a fact he makes known in his introduction where he says that this book is "heavily beholden" to  Raymond Chandler.  He also notes that he owes Chandler a "two-fold debt" -- for getting him going and showing him "that imitating him was a dead-end street on GenreHack Boulevard." The Chandler influence shows.   Fritz Brown is an ex-cop, now private investigator whose main source of income as the novel opens is repossessing cars.  The PI business is slow; before making money from the "repo racket" he'd handled "a few cases," but now his office is more like his reading room; the business much more a tax front than an active concern.   Enter Freddy "Fat Dog" Baker, a caddy with a pocket full of bills, who comes to Brown with concerns about his sister.  It seems that 28 year-old Jane has been staying with an older "rich guy," who evidently wants Jane to have nothing to do with her brother.  There's "no sex stuff" going on -- "it ain't like that," but Fat Dog feels that the man is "not right somehow," and that he is "using my sister for something."  He wants Brown to tail the guy, to see what he's into because "he's fucking her around somehow," and Fat Dog wants to know what's going on.  Brown likes the idea of a "surveillance job," one he can work around the repo schedule, so he agrees.   On his first sight of the older man, Sol Kupferman, Brown recognizes him, and his mind goes back to the Club Utopia,"a sleazy neighborhood cocktail lounge"  that had been firebombed in 1968, causing the deaths of six people.  Three culprits were caught, owned up to what they'd done, but had named a "fourth man" as the mastermind, a story that  the cops never believed.  While on the force, Brown hadn't been involved with that case (he was a rookie at the time), but he had been to the Club Utopia with his patrol buddies before it had gone up in flames, and had seen Sol Kupferman there at the time.  As the face of his investigation begins to change,  his finds his own past becoming inextricably intertwined with the case at hand.  

While my description doesn't do this novel the justice it deserves (and of course, there are plots, subplots and characters that I haven't gone into because of time), it's easy to see the first inklings of what to expect in Ellroy's future writings, especially Ellroy's penchant for writing novels that are dark with a capital D.    In Brown's Requiem the prose is more tame, less zippy than in his LA Quartet, but given that it's his first novel, you can see still detect faint strains of the originality of yet to come.  It's interesting to go back and reread Ellroy from the start, especially knowing that  the first book of his excellent LA Quartet  would be published only six years later.    Recommended for those so inclined, mainly people who've enjoyed Ellroy's books and know what to expect. 

Avon, 1999
originally published 1982
paperback, 328 pp

With  Clandestine Ellroy gets more personal, more autobiographical than in Brown's Requiem, tackling his mother's 1958 murder, albeit in fictional form.  It's so very easy to spot, of course, having read this novel after reading Ellroy's My Dark Places, but he also admits to it in a 1996 interview with Laura Miller at Salon where he says that Clandestine was a "chronologically-altered, greatly fictionalized account" of her murder.  Unlike real life though, in Clandestine he also "solved the case."  My Dark Places also allowed for recognizing a fictional young James Ellroy in this book who under a different name, makes an appearance here as well.  

In 1951 Fred Underhill is a young policeman working Wilshire Patrol. When not on the job, he "played a lot of golf and sought out the company of lonely women for one-night stands."   On the job, after roll call one morning, he and his partner were out warning the owner of a small butcher shop/market about a two-man stickup team hitting small markets and a liquor store, and while there they was called to the horrific scene of Underhill's  first murder, a woman identified as Leona Jensen.  Not too much after that, his partner is killed, and later Underhill was sent to the "tragic sinkhole" of the Seventy-seventh Street Division, Watts.   News of a second murder reaches him, that of Maggie Cadwallader, a woman with whom he'd once had a one-night stand after meeting her in a bar called The Silver Star.  It strikes him as more than coincidence that he'd found a matchbook from the Silver Star at the scene of Leona Jensen's death; as he noted, "it was slight, but enough."  Eventually he tracks down the man he believes might be the perpetrator, and thinking about his case, his suspect, his revenge, his collar, his "glory and gravy train," reports his findings to his Captain, only to be slapped down as a "supremely arrogant young man," for whom justice is certainly not a motivation.  Rather than being suspended from duty, however, the Captain sets up a meeting with a certain Lieutenant Dudley Smith, who will be in charge of deciding "the course of this investigation."   And here is where the story actually begins, in my opinion, as Underhill's ambition gets the better of him, making decisions for which the outcome will bring serious repercussions both personally and professionally.    It isn't until he sees the story of the "dead nurse" that he realizes he may have a shot at justice for the dead, as well as for his own personal redemption.

In Clandestine, Ellroy introduces a number of characters (and themes as well) that will reappear in later work, most notably Dudley Smith, a truly bad guy even here, with more than enough hints of what will happen to anyone who crosses him.  This certainly book is more future Ellroy than its predecessor, reading very much like a prequel to the LA Quartet; it would be a great place to start for anyone who's considering Ellroy's work.  Beware: it's good, but it  ain't pretty.