An inspirational, even game-changing experience
I will never forget the experience of reading James Ellroy's Killer on the Road. It was back in the '80s (I've seen it listed as having been written in '99, but it actually came out ten years earlier under another name) and I'd been reading murder mysteries for quite a few years by then. I started as a child with Nancy Drew and never stopped—even when I was prosecuting homicides full time. So when I ran into Killer on the Road, I was no neophyte mystery reader.
Killer was my first experience with James Ellroy's brilliant prose and plotting, and it knocked me out. Centered in the mind of a serial killer, it evoked exactly the kind of warped self-absorption I knew to be so true of the breed. And unlike so many others who wrote in this sub-genre, Ellroy never glamorized his subject. He delivered Michael Martin Plunkett in all his depraved, despicable, and confounding sickness with no holds barred. In that book, as never before, I felt I'd climbed inside the belly of the beast.
James Ellroy himself has said that he'd never write another serial killer novel, that he doesn't want to glorify these monsters who are, in reality, statistically insignificant. He's 100 percent right about that and I never intend to write a serial killer novel either, for those same reasons. I'm sure Mr. Ellroy, one of the most brilliant writers to ever put pen to paper, would say Killer was not his best work.
But the book was an inspirational, even game-changing experience for me. Ellroy's vivid descriptions—more powerful for their haiku-like brevity—and the way he uses a detached, almost prosaic voice to deliver the sock-you-in-the-gut horror of a terrifyingly twisted mind was simply sheer mastery. Although I've read many other Ellroy books since then and have loved them all, Killer on the Road moved my reading and appreciation of the mystery/thriller genre to a whole new level. It and he still inspire me today. ￼
Marcia Clark's latest book is Guilt by Degrees (Mulholland Books, May 2012).
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews May 2012 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.