James Ellroy, Brown’s Requiem (1981)

browns requiemBrown’s Requiem is James Ellroy’s first novel, but one already indicative of the passions and obsessions he would explore in later books. Debating whether to borrow it from the library (I had the usual stack of books awaiting my attention at home) it was Ellroy’s introduction that swung it. Written in 1995, 14 years after Brown’s Requiem was first published, it contained all the swagger, the confidence, the fuck you attitude I’ve come to expect from a man once styled ‘the demon dog of American crime fiction’.

In it, Ellroy describes the man who wrote the book as ‘a thirty-one-year-old geek working as a caddy at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. I had recently quit drinking and using drugs – and I was determined to write an autobiographical epic second to none.’ The Ellroy of 1995 also acknowledges the debt the novel owes to ‘Big Ray’ – Raymond Chandler – although (typically) the compliment is somewhat backhanded: ‘he got me going, and he showed me that imitating him was a dead-end street on GenreHack Boulevard.

Ellroy strikes a more humble note in finishing his preface: ‘I dig this book because it’s a summation of my life up to that point when I picked up a pen to write it. I hope you dig it.’ I certainly did, not least because reading the book is an intriguing exercise in distinguishing truth from fiction. Like many first novels, there’s a strong (and probably unavoidable) autobiographical element – Ellroy’s depiction of the down-at-heel world of the golf caddy is surely drawn from life. Hopefully the book’s other themes – police corruption, violence, sexual obsession and madness – drew more on the author’s imagination, although Ellroy has not been shy in referring to his own youthful brushes with the law. I also wonder what impact his mother’s 1958 murder (when Ellroy was just ten years old) had on the book; even though it is not referred to overtly, the failure of the police to find her killer must surely have affected Ellroy’s portrait of the LAPD.

It is certainly a very dark book, the first indication of this coming with its title. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a requiem as ‘a mass said or sung for the repose of the soul of a dead person’ – and there are plenty of those in Brown’s Requiem. The central character is Fritz Brown, an ex-alcoholic, ex-cop private investigator who now spends his time repossessing cars. Brown’s past is satisfyingly complex, and one that he describes as the book progresses; it is also unescapably wedded to the dark plots and conspiracies he uncovers during the course of the book. Approached by golf caddy Freddy ‘Fat Dog’ Baker to investigate the relationship between his sister and an older benefactor, it’s not long before Brown uncovers a dark pact between the police and a killer. The trail leads across the border to Mexico, and along the way Brown uncovers more violence – some of which he is responsible for.

lee-earle-ellroy-mug-shotThe prose here isn’t as striking as Ellroy’s later swaggering jive-talk, but it’s still a muscular, confident start. Brown comes across as a fully rounded character, painfully aware of his past sins and zealous in his pursuit of atonement for them. Brown shares his author’s passion for classical music, which gives the character a different kind of depth. Brown is also very much part of the urban landscape of Los Angeles, a city that, like Ellroy, he clearly knows very well. There’s also a touching relationship between him and Walter, his childhood friend. There’s real love and empathy here, which ensures that Brown is more than just a one-dimensional avenging angel.

Some of the most powerful sections in the book concern Brown’s battles with alcohol; and much of the book’s tension stems from the fact that we don’t know when he will fall from the wagon, but sense that it is surely inevitable. As in all the best noir, Brown is a man chained to his fate, and at the mercy of forces pulling him towards the novel’s bloody conclusion –  although like me, readers familiar with Ellroy’s later books may feel that Brown comes off comparatively lightly. To continue the musical references that permeate Brown’s Requiem, in his first novel Big Jim was evidently still tuning up.

In spite of this, Brown’s Requiem remains a claustrophobic, pessimistic book. It paints a picture of humanity at its most venal, and marks its author’s first step on an increasingly dark path. There are hints aplenty here of the extraordinary literary power that Ellroy was to unleash in his later books – but read Brown’s Requiem, and you’ll see where it all started.

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