originally published 1981
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.
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.