James Ellroy’s novels defy easy classification. There are a few early novels that fit nicely in a pigeon hole – the Lloyd Hopkins novels are serial killer procedurals, Brown’s Requiem is essentially “just” a hard-boiled detective yarn. But it’s not easy to categorically say what White Jazz or American Tabloid are. Ellroy uses the chasis of various incarnations of the detective novel, the thriller, the crime caper and there is a deep terror lurking in his later work that is far more affecting than the majority of “straight” horror. The inside cover of Clandestine describes it as an “early novel”, and I think that feels right. The story concepts that he will bring to razor sharpness and laser accuracy in his greatest works are all present here.
I tend to think of Ellroy as the bastard love child of Chandler and Hammett. Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, frugal – all those things Chandler called him. What made his writing different from his contemporaries is a question that consumed nearly 18 months of my life, but one answer I keep circling back to is the location of his characters in their milieau, especially The Continental Op. The Op is at home wherever he goes – he fits into the environment. He is a detective who gets amongst the victims he avenges and the killers he isolates. Perhaps no single story illustrates his versatility better than The Big Knockover. At the start of the story he’s indistinguishable from the police at the start, and perfectly comfortable amongst the crooks at the end. When the Op shows you a corrupt world, he is aware that it’s his world.
What separates Chandler is almost the opposite quality. Philip Marlowe remains aloof, detached and self-sufficient. Much is made of his independence from sex and love, but that’s just one facet of his total independence from everyone. He looks down on a dangerous and corrupt world with a lyrical and philosophical eye. Sure, he’s a bastard at times, but that derives from a self-reliance bordering on the solipsistic.
For me, Ellroy’s best detectives somehow combine Marlowe’s lyrical clarity with the Op’s immersion. The Op takes the world as it comes, he never looks for any kind of meaning. All of Ellroy’s detectives ultimately do look for meaning. Marlowe understands the world, but doesn’t participate. Ellroy’s go into the darkest places aware of just how deep the rabbit hole really is. I think that as a consequence, Ellroy’s characters go beyond anything dreamt of by Hammett or Chandler. And their delving is universally, 100%, a case of being careless of what they wished for. There is hardly a single protagonist that hasn’t been broken on the wheel by the end of a novel, assuming they even started in one piece.
Safe to say, I’m a fan.
Clandestine is a great place to begin your encounters with Ellroy, because it is dark and complex, but not as brutal as Ellroy’s work gets later on. I feel like offering much more explanation than that runs the risk of spoiling it for the first-time reader, so I’ll leave it there… for now.