By Peter Berard
Clandestine was the beginning of James Ellroy’s dip into his mythic realm, the noir Los Angeles of the 1950s — the world about which he spent his wayward youth wandering around the city fantasizing. Eventually, Ellroy’s dream-nightmare-LA would be the scene for the epic L.A. Confidential quartet; extrapolated to embrace the US, the gestalt he formed would be the basis for his greatest work, the Underworld USA trilogy.
But Clandestine is his first swing at it, and it shows. His main character is Frank Underhill, the sort of SoCal ubermensch Ellroy wrote (and sometimes writes) when he was projecting the man he wanted to be, not the man he was, as he wrote later. Underhill is tall, handsome, athletic, a super-cop and a scratch golfer to boot. He’s a cop because he gets to experience something called “the wonder.” (I wonder if it’s capitalized in print. I plan on ordering a hard copy for my library so I guess we’ll find out.) He’s an appropriately meat-headed expounder of what “the wonder” is and we never quite get at it, despite Underhill waxing rhapsodic about it multiple times. As far as I can tell, “the wonder” is voyeuristic rubber-necking the disasters that people’s lives become, the cheapness of life and death, the small pseudo-poignant details which tend to dissolve into death-kitsch; the sort of thing you get to see a lot of as a cop or other first responder. In later works, Ellroy gave up on characters explaining or describing “the wonder” and simply showed them basking in it. That’s an improvement.
Voyeurism and schlock are important parts of the Ellroy gestalt. Belonging is another key part. But it is a certain kind of belonging: that of being one of the few who get to peek behind the curtain and act on what they find there.
The story goes that someone is killing women in LA and Underhill is tasked to a special LAPD unit led by Irish psycho Dudley Smith, who turns up frequently in Ellroy’s later work. Ellroy tries to be whimsical in the first part of the book, with poetry-spouting cops and cute dogs, punctuated by the killing of some Mexicans. That all goes out the window once Underhill gets in with Smith and tortures a confession out of an innocent man who goes on to kill himself before the evidence can clear him. Smith’s unit is essentially a death squad. Underhill has reservations about this but goes along with it anyway through the middle of the book (by far the strongest part of the novel).
Underhill tries to keep his distance and even double-crosses Smith, but not before taking a fascinated ride through the great domestic war of midcentury America, where crime, vice, simple nonconformity and communist subversion are understood to constitute each other. Underhill gets to be one of the men engaging in the terror campaign this entails while keeping some part of himself above it. Ellroy does better than that when we return to the domestic counterrevolution in Underworld USA. In it, there’s escape, but no getting above the terror whilst keeping a foot in it.
The last part of the book is more interesting from a biographical perspective than anything else. Ellroy has written some fascinating and wrenching autobiographical works. Ellroy’s mother was murdered — a case still unsolved — and he was raised by a negligent father.
Spoiler alert: A character seemingly based on Ellroy’s dad is the mastermind behind the women’s murders, which involves a convoluted plot including drug dealing, secret gay pacts, Nietzscheian delusions and more. He kills someone a lot like Ellroy’s mother, and there’s a whole section where Underhill goes to Wisconsin, the home state of Ellroy’s mother, and tracks down an epic crime story about the woman victim and her family. Moreover, they had a kid who sounds a lot like young Ellroy: obsessed with crime, unable to get along with other kids (and a genius, natch). It’s a lot!
The thesis of the midcentury counterrevolution is that crime and subversion go hand in hand. Maybe Dudley Smith believes that — it’s a convenient thing for a sadist to believe — but I’m not sure Underhill does, or Ellroy. That’s just jive for public consumption. In theory, Underhill and the other cops are part of the thin blue line between civilization and savagery.
The real point is for power to reproduce itself, to continue the cyclical world of violence and chintz that make up “the wonder,” which in turn justifies the violence (and chintz) of men like Ellroy’s cops. This is the joy of the domestic counterrevolution. One reason I think Ellroy is an important artist is that he brings that home better than anyone. He hadn’t quite nailed the delivery yet in Clandestine, but he would in time.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a masterpiece for a reason. It hit me right in that Michael Mann-sweet spot: the meticulous attention to detail in the depiction of tradecraft, the masculine pathos, the deft scene-setting. And it’s better-paced than anything Mann has ever done except, perhaps, Thief.
It’s a simple story. British intelligence wants to eliminate a dangerous leader in the East German counterintelligence apparatus. They get their former Berlin station chief, Leamas, to pretend to defect. They don’t do it with any phony Damascene Road conversion to Khrushchev-era communism. They have Leamas pretend to dissipate into drink and disrepair, complete with a short prison stint. Le Carré takes us through the whole routine of vetting and bringing in a new defector asset, and, before you know, it Leamas is face to face with East German intelligence . . . and discovering the mission isn’t all it seems. There’s some great dialogue between Leamas and his communist interlocutors, a lot of subtle spycraft. It’s great fun.
That The Spy Who Came in from the Cold will soon be old enough to collect Social Security yet I don’t want to spoil the story for you should say something. The plot, while supremely well-constructed and enjoyable, is somewhat beside the point for this essay. The spies in this care about communism or anti-communism about as much as Ellroy’s cops. It’s more a matter of instinctive reflex and team loyalty than anything else. Le Carré makes clear this happens on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Believers — like Leamas’s British communist girlfriend — are just dupes, pawns in waiting.
It’s too much to say le Carré’s spies believe in the game, but it’s something like that. More than what they believe, they get to be Tragic Men: men defined by being forced into choices that ordinary men never have to consider. No day job, excitement and the opportunity to wax tragic while doing significant things — that’s as appealing in its own way as Ellroy’s cop’s power trips. Higher-toned, perhaps, but it’s a market niche all its own.
Anticommunism is at the center of the world of le Carré’s work just as anti-subversion/crime is in Ellroy’s. But in both of them (as represented by these two novels) the ideology is in most respects besides the point. Where Ellroy’s men find themselves in the battle to keep the domestic population in line, le Carré’s spies reach existential epiphany on the foreign fronts of the Cold War.
Not for nothing is one of the main LAPD stations called “Ramparts” and not for nothing is the then newly built Berlin Wall one of the main symbols in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. The ramparts don’t just separate Us from Them. In these novels, that’s not even the main purpose. The act of manning the ramparts separates those who see from those who can’t.
It might seem the more appropriate pairing with Ellroy’s crime fiction is the other side of the spy-fiction spectrum, James Bond. Sex, violence and over-the-top schlock are what Bond is all about, after all. Well, (a) I’m not sure that’s the case with the early novels and I intend to read (or listen to, in this case) them in order and (b) I think the contrast with le Carré is more interesting. Both Ellroy and le Carré are interested in the introspections of the hard men who watch the ramparts in a way Ian Fleming doesn’t seem to care about. More than that: between them, Ellroy and le Carré span a near-comprehensive array of the affective appeal of the right side of the Cold War, in the Anglo genre world at least.
Le Carré is proper and sparse where Ellroy is over-the-top and leering. This extends to story form, as well. Clandestine involves stories within stories. It sprawls all over the map. This is the case in many of Ellroy’s later works. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a story as well-contained as the Soviet Union turned out to be in Eastern Europe. Le Carré sketches in his characters with a few telling details where Ellroy concocts vast fictional biographies.
Conservative/reactionary/counterrevolutionary, take your pick, politics wouldn’t work if they didn’t speak to people somewhere deep. Conservative genre fiction — and my understanding is le Carré isn’t a raving Tory but his fiction is clearly anti-communist, whatever else it is — is part of the worldbuilding project of the global right, and a guide to the affective pressure points that make the whole thing tick. Probably, I should read the other half — romance fiction — to really get a comprehensive vision, but, hey, one thing at a time.
Peter Berard is a historian, writer and organizer. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 2014, Jacobin published his essay, “A Red with an FBI Badge,” looking at James Ellroy’s “Underworld USA trilogy’s surprising treatment of communism and anticommunism.” Read more of Peter’s book reviews on his blog, Too Much Berard.