In a strong, clean prose style that occasionally borders on being overwrought, Ellroy constructs a fast-moving, complex private-avenger saga that falls just short of being overcooked. The author, in this second of the monumental L.A.-based crime novels on which his fame rests, is plainly forming the contours of a powerful private mythology, and yet his debt to the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald is equally evident. A tough-sensitive hero-narrator who has an uneasy relationship with the forces of official order, and an all-too-easy way with women. A cast of female characters who are lonely, needy, and (ostensibly) doomed. A child of uncertain paternity whose safety and future hang in the balance. A Southern California landscape in which every sunlit vista ends in disillusionment and death. A story line whose trail of blood and tears leads back to a gothically imagined Midwest. Ellroy incorporates those classic elements into a tale set in the early 1950s—the very moment when Chandler and Macdonald were putting the finishing touches on a classic genre. Here, the memory of that golden era has congealed into a mix of nightmare and nostalgia, providing an apt, cartoon-like backdrop for melodramatic action. (Unlike the world of noir fiction, this world includes no shades of gray. That which is dark is solid black; everything else appears in the blinding primary hues of Fifties-era Technicolor.) For Ellroy, a connoisseur of hyperbole, it’s never enough to let well-enough alone. Like his hero, the once-and-future cop Fred Underhill, he is obsessed by “wonder,” by an apprehension of the beauty that lies hidden on the far side of life’s horrific extremes.
JAMES ELLROY. Clandestine (1982).