Ellroy bleeds for Hopkins

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

– apocryphal, Ernest Hemingway

The Lloyd Hopkins trilogy is not Lee Earle ‘James’ Ellroy’s first work, nor his best. But I can see that he sat his typewriter and bled to produce it.  Perhaps he just didn’t bleed quite enough.  It seems that Hopkins is Ellroy’s fictional alter ego: tall, energetic, nervy, intuitive.  A genius cop who breaks all the rules.  A womaniser who ruins his marriage that way.  A dark past that hovers over him.

The Hopkins trilogy is comprised of Blood on the Moon (1984), Because the Night (1984), and Suicide Hill (1986).  It was also published as a single volume, L.A. Noir, in 1991.

These are coming-of-age stories for a late bloomer: Ellroy was not yet 40 when the last of the novels was published, but they immediately preceded the work that made his reputation as a writer: the ‘LA Quartet’ of The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992).

In my estimation the Lee Hopkins novels become easier to read and digest in chronological order, but also less memorable from first to last.

Blood on the Moon initially struck me as clumsy for beginning with the origin stories of two sociopaths.  After I was done, that narrative order made better sense.  I recanted my immediate reaction that these origin stories should have been gradually revealed in the development of the plot.  They deserved their standalone treatment.  Scuttlebutt has it that Ellroy had to substantially edit the book to find it a publisher.  I wonder now whether the introductory back-stories are part of that editing.

The first of these vignettes describes school bullies delivering a beating to another boy, ‘the poet’.  A beating that turns into rape.  In keeping the poet’s identity a secret, we already know that the victim will return in some sinister way.

The second back-story reveals the foundation of Hopkins’ psychological makeup.  Rooted in his rôle in the National Guard during the Watts riot in 1965.  He ventures into ‘enemy’ territory with a Sergeant Beller, as lone gunmen ready to kill negroes for the psychotic fun of it.  But Hopkins has experiences that change his mind about going along with that agenda, while Beller shoots up a church full of innocent people: ‘Auf weidersehen, niggers. Auf weidersehen, jungle bunnies. See ya in hell.’

This was Beller.

Lloyd knew what he had to do. He executed Beller.  The beginning of a vigilante complex he carries forward into his police career.

Fast forward to 1982: the novel is a trip through an LA neighbourhood familiar to all the characters, and a growing recognition that the alumni of the same high school are now players in a game of cat and mouse between Hopkins, a killer, the victims, and fringe characters who are nevertheless players in the murders.

Hopkins is billed as a genius-level, intuitive cop with a stellar arrest record, but less than exemplary methods.  He survives as a cop because he has a faerie godfather–his sometime partner and senior, Arthur ‘Dutch’ Peltz.  Unfortunately that intriguing character is never fully fleshed out in the trilogy.

Blood on the Moon was turned into a box office flop, Cop (1988) with the seriously miscast James Woods as Hopkins, and Lesley Ann Warren playing a grating Hollywood ‘feminist’.  Woods co-produced a script by director James B Harris, whose career seems to have ended shortly after this film.  The script removed Hopkins’ pre-history, and excised the sodomy rape, replacing it with the implied rape of a woman instead.  It is a quintessentially 1980s work, like the novel, but fixed in the Hollywood atmosphere of that time–Ronald Reagan’s cocaine-drenched USA.  The way the novel was not.  Woods’ rapid-fire dialogue is pure drug-fuelled Americana.  But it’s not Ellroy’s Hopkins.

The best scene in the film is probably that of the unvarnished cop exploits Hopkins tells his sub-teen daughter as a bedtime story, to the hysterically overplayed disapproval of his soon-to-be estranged wife.  Taken directly from the novel, this father-daughter interaction is a rare moment of verité, of which there are others in the novel, but not in the film.

Ellroy used compellingly ‘real’ anecdotes, like secret doors, occasionally cracked open to offer glimpses at something compellingly true and human, spaced like special treats along the procedural narrative that moves his plot along.

This first Hopkins novel continues to grow on me after putting it down.  My immediate distrust of the extremes in the crimes and characters is being replaced by an appreciation of a less extreme, more timeless reflection on the struggle between idealism and the disappointing world as it is.  If there is a theme to the novel, it’s that the world has no mercy for people with soft spots.

Hopkins trilogy montage.

The second novel, Because the Night, is driven by a far-fetched plot: an evil psychiatrist, Dr John Havilland, brainwashes select clients to commit or collaborate in heinous crimes.  Hopkins must solve these against all obstacles.

I read somewhere that Ellroy was influenced by Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981), the first Hannibal Lecter novel.  Maybe so.  But I see more of a link back to Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940), by way of Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe in the film Murder, My Sweet (1944), which featured highly atmospheric, menacing sequences surrounding the character Jules Amthor–a quack of some sort–and an impressive visualization of drug-induced hallucinations.  Chandler’s Marlowe is the progenitor of Hopkins.  A creature of LA, unthinkable outside that environment.  And, in my estimation, unquestionably a powerful influence on Ellroy.

We get a better look at Dutch Peltz in Because the Night, who nevertheless remains an under-developed character.  And at the Jesus-freak internal affairs captain, Fred Gaffaney, who is Hopkins’ bête noire inside the police department, threatening to destroy our hero for breaking too many rules, and being too popular with the other cops for being successful because of it.

In the film, Raymond J Barry was quite brilliant as the cold-blooded, fanatical, slightly re-named Captain Fred Gaffney, easily eclipsing Woods’ overstated performance.

Like the first novel, but less so, this story evolves for me after I finished with it.  It develops the notion that damaged people seek to heal or protect themselves from the wounds a corrosive world inflicts on their sensitive and dysfunctional character dimensions, but often in ways that make things much, much worse.  Hero or not, Hopkins is shown to be a manipulator almost on par with the evil scientist.  Is it really only the badge and a personal sense of ethics that makes him right, and Havilland wrong?

The final instalment, Suicide Hill, is probably the most credible story, with the most believable characters.  But it also suffers from the mundane tameness that comes with verité.  Villain Duane Rice is doomed from the very beginning in the futile quest to finance a romantic ride into the sunset with a ‘coke whore’ girlfriend who betrayed him.  Events spiral almost predictably out of control and even Hopkins can’t fix the fallout.

The whole thing is made worthwhile by the final scenes of Hopkins confronting Gaffaney, and both realising their brotherhood in being opposite sides of the same coin.  In those passages Ellroy again transcends crime fiction to reach for something more literary and universally true.

He also touches on America’s obsession with religion as the only true source of ethics and moral rectitude.  As big a lie as any ever told–an assessment unmentionable in the USA even in educated circles.  Ellroy never crosses that social fault line again.  He avoids it by presenting characters entirely submerged in realities that make morality a moot point.  Where religion intrudes into his fiction, it is only at the margins … as a vehicle for larceny and murder, as it is in reality.

I came to these novels solely because I was so impressed by the sheer force of Ellroy’s prose in his much later Underworld USA trilogy–American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and Blood’s a Rover (2009).  I had already read his first two novels, Brown’s Requiem (1981) and Clandestine (1982), neither of which I particularly liked, but he converted me with the first LA Quartet of The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992). I was especially fond of the first and the last of these.

Looking back now, before American Tabloid, Killer on the Road (1988) is probably the most impressive work, with its first person narrative of a serial killer’s evolution, the descriptions of his self-delusions, and his imploding dénouement.

The LA Quartet defined a new way of writing thrillers with its mixture of real people in invented interactions with fictional characters.  With its fake news items and police reports.  With its sparse prose and universally imperfect characters.  Underworld USA added to that style the superbly expressive machine gun staccato sentences that reflected the amphetamine mania of the era, and maybe of the author’s state of mind.

Looking at photos of Ellroy since the mid-1990s it is impossible for me not to imagine in those piercing eyes, in that sallow face, mounted on that tall and lanky frame, a man who had seen the damaged people he writes about, and who is one of them, by his own confession. A former shop-lifter, burglar, voyeur, ‘panty-sniffer’, alcoholic, drug addict, and jailbird, I suspect Ellroy suffered more than most for his art.

Finding out about Ellroy’s own back-story, and matching it to his fiction, made me look for those of his books I had not yet read.  Ergo the Hopkins trilogy.  I don’t quite know what I expected to find.  But whatever it was, it wasn’t what I actually found.  Which is Ellroy playing with casting himself as his own hero.  Hopkins is tall and lanky.  Moody and sensitive.  Unconventional and iconoclastic.  Looking to redeem himself from a past he considers both shameful and seminal.  Tied to an LA he grew up in.  An LA of which he feels he is an artistic embodiment.

To make Hopkins come alive, Ellroy had to reveal a lot about himself.  But to make it great literature rather than a confessional experiment, he did not reveal enough.  In terms of the opening quote, he did not bleed quite enough.  And maybe it would have meant exsanguination to bleed so much that Hopkins could have been as satisfying a character as Ellroy’s less personal ones.  Like Bucky Bleichert, Lee Blanchard, Danny Upshaw, Dudley Smith, Buzz Meeks, Pete Bondurant, Kemper Boyd, or Ward Littell, among many others who populated the later novels.

For Ellroy devotees, the Hopkins trilogy is probably mandatory reading.  It reveals the stepping stones Ellroy used to get to his trademark patois and pacing.

For everyone else, I suspect, these novels are still better pastimes than most airport potboilers on offer for the undiscerning reader. Ellroy was always better, even in his formative period, than Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, or flavour of the month: Vince Flynn.  Those authors are to Ellroy as Ian Fleming’s James Bond is to John le Carré’s George Smiley.  Their plots are childishly fantastic compared to those Ellroy invented.

See also my other reviews of James Ellroy novels and adaptations.

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