Thursday, March 24, 2011

Because the Book

The Millbrae library didn't have any of the titles I wanted, so I grabbed a bunch of random books from authors who I enjoy or have been meaning to read. First up: Because the Night, my first-ever James Ellroy novel. I think I'd mentally conflated him with various other crime writers whose books have been adapted into movies; Ellroy is most famous for "L. A. Confidential", which I have to confess I haven't actually seen.

Because the Night is a driving, kinetic, occasionally brutal book. It has the tropes of a hard-boiled detective novel, but it's quite modern in its frank fascination with the bad guys on the other side of the badge. The chapters alternate between the hunter and his prey, and Ellroy weaves the two together in a dance for our amusement.


The book opens with a murder, a triple homicide that takes place on the very second page, the culmination of a seemingly botched robbery on the first page. The crime seems senseless. This isn't a whodunit, though. Just a dozen or so pages later, we meet the triggerman, and learn the core details behind the crime.

The characters, while pulpy, are also kind of fascinating. The murderer is a man named Goff, but Goff is merely a puppet for the true villain, a deranged psychiatrist named Dr. John Havilland, who occasionally goes by the monicker "The Night Tripper." Havilland seems to be modeled off of Charles Manson: he's a charismatic figure, who has collected around him various needy, lonely people. He trains them to see him as their savior, and in their abject servility they will fulfill his commands.

Opposing him is Lloyd Hopkins, a Los Angeles detective in the Robbery/Homicide department. Hopkins belongs to the talented rogue school of detectives: he's part of the police force, but typically works alone, frequently bends the rules, fights with his superiors, and would have been kicked out long ago if he wasn't one of the best cops around. Lloyd investigates the gas station murders, and eventually connects them up with a set of other seemingly unrelated events, eventually unraveling a decently complex web that leads to Dr. John but also implicates some important figures within Los Angeles.

On the whole, I liked the way that Ellroy spun things out. I'm used to mysteries that try to obscure the guilty party; in those books, the fun is in trying to figure out who the bad guy is. Here, we have total knowledge of what's going on and so are always several steps ahead of Lloyd; in this book, the fun comes from the increased tension as we nervously watch Lloyd's progress and wonder if and how he will escape from the Doctor's trap.

A couple of things didn't quite work for me. Ellroy seems to be convinced that Hopkins and Havilland are both brilliant; he seems a bit obsessive about slapping IQ numbers on both men. I'm much less sure about just how bright they are. Lloyd is effective, but most of that comes down to good policework, not brilliant flashes of insight; in particular, he's rather shockingly willing to accept as coincidence some major clues that come his way. On the other end, Dr. John's schemes are overly complicated, and only work because the author is on his side. He takes way too many risks while seeming inappropriately confident at how well they will turn out.

The book was also jarring in some ways that may be products of its time. Granted, I don't explore this genre much, but I was a bit surprised at stuff like its frequent use of the N-word. The book was written in 1984, which I THINK is in the post-PC era, although it may have been just before. (No, Ellroy isn't racist, just depicting characters who are, but still, I don't think you'd see language and scenes like he depicts here in any work of American fiction from the last decade or so.)

The book takes a turn towards the Grand Guignol towards the end. It turns out that Dr. John is embarking on his murderous spree as a bit of ad-hoc psychiatric self-help: by restaging violent events that resonate with those from his boyhood, he hopes to break through some repressed memories of his and solve the mystery of what happened to his father. The most horrifying images in the book ultimately aren't those set in the present, which are bad enough (including a cringe-inducing snuff film), but those that Havilland "recovers" towards the end.


The book was a pretty fun read, once I reminded myself that this was genre fiction and I should just enjoy it on its own terms. Okay, "fun" may not be the most appropriate adjective to use here... it's dark and disturbing and violent, but it means to be all those things, and pulls it off with some flair. I won't be running back to Ellroy any time soon, but I'm glad I got to hear him in his own voice.


  1. Sorry we didn't have the books you were looking for at the library! I'm glad you found something good. If you like James Ellroy, you might try going with some old school noir writers -- James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler.

  2. Thanks for the note, Nicole! For the record, I've usually had really good luck finding what I'm looking for in the Millbrae library; and, when I don't, I inevitably end up stumbling across something good.

    I appreciate the suggestions. I've been meaning to read Hammet and Chandler for a while now; it's funny that I've lived in California for so long without experiencing either author.