Up Close and Personal

In Clandestine, James Ellroy takes the reader inside the world of one ambitious cop. Fred Underhill is a young LAPD officer who cleverly dodged service in World War II and makes no bones about his desire to climb the rungs of the police department. He finagles and manipulates, breaks the law and justifies his actions, all in a quest to advance his career. His foibles are many, including an early penchant to pursue women for one night stands and a desire to maintain his golf game.

One of Underhill’s female conquests turns up dead and he notices a pattern in this and another murder. At this point the fuse is lit. Underhill goes beyond the law to catch a killer. In the process, he falls for an assistant district attorney, Lorna, who looms large in everything he does. He also encounters a future James Ellroy larger than life but entirely believeable character: Dudley Smith. Smith and his crew co-opt Underhill, leading him down the road of self-destruction at full speed. Underhill soon implodes as his case evaporates based on new evidence. He subsequently loses Lorna but never his desire to solve the case. Toward the end, the story goes on a rambling quest half way across the USA as Underhill, the crusader turned knight errant, redeems himself by ultimately catching the killer.

Where Clandestine excels is in the vividness of the characters. Underhill, his early partner, his commanding officer, his lovers, and his golf partners, all of them are drawn with the skill of a master. James Ellroy pulls no punches, dilutes no dialog, and reveals everything raw in the course of this story. At times, the emotionally intensity may seem overwrought, but the setting is 1950’s LA, a place where the bloom was off the rose and the thorns sharper than ever. Read, enjoy, and contemplate why other authors don’t measure up, especially the recent slew of flat, thinly worded mystery/thrillers that lack any measure of proper development. Ellroy is a master of the genre. This early example of his work proves the point.

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