Thirteen years ago, I read my first James Ellroy novel, American Tabloid, and it remains my favourite to this day. Most Ellroy fans were probably introduced to the author through a LA Quartet or Underworld USA novel. Indeed, if you read some of the critical appraisals of Ellroy’s work, it sometimes seems like his career started with The Black Dahlia in 1987. It’s easy to forget that Ellroy wrote six strong and distinctive novels before The Black Dahlia, so in this post I’m going to take a look at early, somewhat forgotten works:
Ellroy’s first novel is something of a Raymond Chandler pastiche. Repo-Man cum PI Fritz Brown is hired by the strange, potentially psychopathic golf caddy Freddy ‘Fat Dog’ Baker to keep an eye on his musician sister Jane. Brown obliges, falling for Jane along the way, and becomes embroiled in a case which involves Mexican Hitmen, Neo-Nazis and corrupt police. There are shades of Ellroy in Brown, which he copped to in an interview with the Paris Review: ‘I started to plan a novel about a guy who gets involved with a bunch of country-club golf caddies, who does some process serving, who grew up at Beverly and Western, who was a tall, skinny, dark-haired guy with glasses, all of which is me.’ But what Ellroy doesn’t mention is that ‘Fat Dog’ was similar to the Demon Dog himself before he became an author. Fat Dog’s bigotry and homelessness (he sleeps on golf courses) has parallels with the harrowing early life of Lee Earle Ellroy. Brown’s Requiem is a solid, entertaining debut imbued with naive charm and Ellroy’s idiosyncratic quirkiness. The problem is a plausibility gap, not that crime novels have to be realistic, but authors need to convince you that the events could happen in the world they create. Brown’s Requiem never quite convinces or compels. Final thought, Ellroy’s preferred title for his first effort was the very non-genre sounding ‘Concerto for Orchestra’.
Ellroy’s second novel is meatier fare which features the first appearance of Dudley Smith here in a supporting role. The book is essentially split into two halves: narrator Freddy Underhill charts his rise and fall within the LAPD in the first section, and in the second section, Underhill is a self-appointed avenger determined to solve the murder of a woman with whom he had an ill-judged one night stand. There’s a lot of interesting themes at play here, such as ‘the Wonder’: Underhill’s appreciation for the awesome mystery of human existence. It was also Ellroy’s attempt to solve the murder of his mother in fictional terms: ‘I wanted to get rid of the story. I wanted to prove myself impervious to my mother’s presence and to get on with it.’
Blood on the Moon (1984)
With this novel, Ellroy introduced his first series character Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins of the LAPD who would return for two more novels. It may have been a lucrative choice for Ellroy to start a series, but Blood on the Moon suffered a difficult gestation. It began life as ‘LA Death Trip’ which was turned down by over a dozen publishers. It finally found a home with Otto Penzler and the Mysterious Press but had to be extensively rewritten. The end result is a taut, competent thriller as Ellroy put it ‘contrapunctually structured’ between the viewpoints of detective and serial killer.
Ellroy’s second Hopkins novel was inspired by his reading of Thomas Harris’ Manhunter. Unfortunately, it’s not an influence that works well. Sinister psychiatrist Dr John De Havilland just seems like a pale Hannibal Lecter imitation, minus the cannibalism, and the plot is so convoluted and confusing that by the end I just didn’t care. On the plus side, Hopkins, an intellectually brilliant and impulsively violent sex maniac, is still an interesting lead character.
The final novel in the Hopkins series is the best. Hopkins is shifted to a relatively minor role, and the focus is on the tragic young criminal Duane Rice, who is motivated entirely by his love for a woman with a heart of stone. A sub-plot about growing Evangelical influence within the LAPD is also brilliantly done.
Killer on the Road (1986)
Probably Ellroy’s most bizarre novel. First published as Silent Terror before being reissued under Ellroy’s preferred title, the first person recollections of serial killer Martin Plunkett make for grim and gripping reading. As with Fat Dog Baker in Brown’s Requiem, Ellroy isn’t shy in imbuing an essentially despicable character with some autobiographical traits. Ellroy fans may recognise Plunkett’s voyeurism, alcoholic mother and semi-detached father as taken from the author’s life. There is a twist about halfway through the novel that will leave you reeling, although that’s partly down to it being completely implausible. Killer on the Road is an interesting novel to read over a quarter-century since it was first published as it shows Ellroy’s development and future direction as a writer with its multiple viewpoints and multiple sources of information. The diary entries of FBI agent Thomas Dusenberry and newspaper articles, which appear between chapters, both work well.
Of his first six novels, I would probably say Clandestine narrowly beats Suicide Hill as my favourite, and Because the Night is the least impressive. However, I’d be happy to hear from Ellroy fans who disagree. As always, your thoughts are welcome.