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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Case of the Disappearing Detective: Reflections on Two by James Ellroy

By James Ellroy
336 pages
(MysteriousPress.com/Open Road, Aug. 30, 2011)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
352 pages
( Mysterious Press, Aug. 16, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0446698873
ISBN-13: 978-0446698870

Clandestine, James Ellroy's second crime novel, has always been one of my favorite books.

There are three primary reasons:

First, it is the most tightly written of his L.A. crime novels (ClandestineThe Black DahliaThe Big NowhereL.A. Confidential and White Jazz). It has less stream-of-consciousness and riffing bop-talk than his later novels; the dialogue is cleaner and more naturalistic and Ellroy hasn't slipped into the staccato style he leans on so heavily in his more self-consciously "literary" work.  

James Ellroy, creator of a Los Angeles teeming with corruption and depravity.

(Call me old fashioned, but I tend to prefer a story that depends on its characters' personalities to move it forward, not the narrative gimmicks an associate professor of English lit is likely to spend a semester prattling about.)

Second, I like the protagonist, LAPD Patrol Officer Freddy Underhill, a scratch golfer and WWII draft dodger who joined the police department in search of "the wonder," Underhill's term for the strange mix of emotions a person feels when he or she infiltrates the life of a total stranger. As he puts it early in the book, the wonder is "the mutable ethos of we who had to deal daily with drunks, hopheads, gunsels, wienie-waggers, hookers, reefer smokers, burglars and the lonely detritus of the human race."

As a seeker of the wonder, Underhill is a prototypical Ellroy cop: he lies flagrantly, thinks nothing of breaking the law to develop a lead, sleeps with women who are total strangers, has a generally low opinion of his supervisors and is essentially doomed: about half-way through the novel he gets thrown off the force as unfit for duty.

Finally, Clandestine marks the first appearance of Dudley Smith, the brutal, vicious, corrupt and brilliant cop who acts as an eminence grise, arch fiend and political operative in the four Ellroy novels known as the "L.A. Quartet."

It was the Dudley Smith connection that drove me to re-read Clandestine in recent weeks, and to pick up The Black Dahlia, a member of the Quartet I had not previously looked at. I wanted to chart the rise and fall of Dudley Smith in the five novels in which he was supposed to play a key role, and to see how the character had evolved from his initial appearance in Ellroy's second book.

I knew Smith was an important character in Clandestine because I remembered his signature line -- "Knock, knock, who's there? Dudley Smith, so crooks beware!" -- from my first reading of the book shortly after it was published in the early 1980s.  Smith, a massive fellow born in Ireland but raised in Los Angeles, speaks with a pronounced brogue and uses a version of the "knock, knock" doggerel repeatedly in Ellroy's books, substituting "reds," "queers," and other pariahs for "crooks" depending on what sort of case he is working.

In  Clandestine, Smith tells Underhill that as a member of the LAPD's Black Dahlia team, Smith had been assigned to test the stories of any sex offenders who had voluntarily confessed to the slaying. A bit of back story: when a sensational case like the Black Dahlia occurs, it brings hosts of weirdoes out of the woodwork claiming they are the perpetrators. Some of them do this in the hope they will be punished for some other transgression; others do it strictly looking for notoriety; some are so severely addled that they may actually believe they are the culprit.

This phenomenon is not a flight of literary fancy on Ellroy's part: it seems to occur in almost every notorious homicide case. And when it does, the screwballs have to be screened out as legitimate suspects so investigators can get on with the search for the actual killer.

Smith tells Underhill that he was assigned to deal with the crazies by shaking them, beating them and interrogating them to test their confessions.

"I procured a fine-looking young female stiff from a pathologist at the morgue who owed old Dudley a favor," he tells Underhill. "Dick Carlisle [one of Smith's henchmen] and I snuck the stiff over to the warehouse [where Elizabeth Short's body was found] late one night. I dyed her hair jet black like the Dahlia's. I stripped her nude and tied her ankles with a rope, and Dick and I hoisted her up feet first and hung her from a low ceiling beam."

Smith said he showed the corpse to the eight sex criminals who had confessed, forcing them to engage in acts of intimacy with the dead body. It's at that moment that Underhill decides that Smith is a psychotic as deadly and insane as the Black Dahlia killer.

Given Smith's account in Clandestine, it would have been logical for a version of the same story to have been inserted into his Black Dahlia narrative. After all, it was written five years later, so Ellroy had already worked out the framework for inclusion. 

But surprisingly, Dudley Smith does not appear in Ellroy's book about the Elizabeth Short murder at all -- his name is not even mentioned in the 300-plus page novel.

In his novel, "Clandestine," Ellroy inserts his arch fiend Dudley Smith into the story of Elizabeth Short's notorious "Black Dahlia" murder. As a result, readers can be excused for believing that Smith will appear in Ellroy's later novel about the Short slaying, "The Black Dahlia."  Yet for some inexplicable reason, Smith is left out of The Black Dahlia novel entirely, and other characters are added to cover the subplot he appears in. Why Ellroy has done this is the biggest mystery in either book.

The hanging corpse incident Smith mentions in Clandestine is discussed in The Black Dahlia, but the gruesome stunt is ordered by Assistant District Attorney Ellis Loew, not Smith. A different cop is in charge of the operation and Smith is not present when it takes place.

One thing is the same in both books: the ploy fails to help the cops unmask the killer:

In Clandestine, Smith tells Underhill that the rigged interrogation failed to tie any of the suspects to the Short murder: "None of them killed lovely Beth," he says. In The Black Dahlia, the interrogation session is disrupted before it produces the desired information.

There is nothing in The Black Dahlia to suggest why Ellroy would change such a critical plot point. It isn't as if he had grown tired of the Smith character and lacked the stomach to include  him in the novel: Smith goes on to make appearances in The Big NowhereL.A. Confidential and White Jazz, all of which were published after The Black Dahlia

Perhaps Ellroy felt he would have to write Smith into the narrative more completely if he stuck with the version of the interrogation described in Clandestine. Since The Black Dahlia is already well over 300 pages long and details the lives of five major characters and a dozen incidental figures, Ellroy may have simply decided adding Smith in would have been too much.
It certainly would have had a material effect on the plot line of the story, because one of the characters who plays a major role in the hanging corpse stunt ends up being a critical figure in other important segments of the book.

The reason why this explanation is weak, however, is that the subplot involving the hanging corpse that is included in The Black Dahlia requires the inclusion of no less than three additional characters to replace Smith. It seems lthat the story line including Smith would have required less text that the one that is substituted for it.

To me, at least, dropping Smith from the Black Dahlia story results in a major continuity flaw. The book is good, but I think it would have been a lot better if Smith had been included. In addition, adding the bluff and violent Irishman to the story would have set the reader up for Smith's subsequent appearance in The Big Nowhere and created a unity between the four books of the L.A. Quartet which is currently missing.

To the best of my knowledge, Ellroy has never explained why he left Smith out of The Black Dahlia, so any hypothesis as to his reasons remain just that. Whatever the reason, there is no question that Smith's exclusion causes a major disruption in the development of the characters who are key to the "L.A. Quartet." 

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