Originally created 06/27/04

A brilliant and unoriginal mystery



"Dirty Sally" (Viking Press, 260 pages, $23.95) - Michael Simon

Michael Simon's first hard-boiled mystery novel, "Dirty Sally," manages to be both brilliant and thoroughly unoriginal - brilliant because it is a great story superbly told, the writing as taut and gritty as anything in modern crime fiction; unoriginal because you have to keep checking the title page to be sure it wasn't written by James Ellroy.

Simon has done more than read the author of "LA Confidential" and "The Big Nowhere"; he has studied him, absorbing every nuance of the master's form and style. Ellroy has provided Simon with an exuberant dust jacket blurb. How could he not? He's basically praising himself.

In "Dirty Sally," the city of Austin, Texas, is a mirror image of Ellroy's Los Angeles - a moral wasteland where the rich and powerful pursue cruel agendas by pulling the strings of cops and thugs alike. The story unfolds at a torrid pace, the violence explosive and graphic, the characters twisted by aberrant pasts that haunt their dreams and shape their actions. And of course, by the end of the tale, everyone is betrayed by a boss, friend or lover.

The dark story is told in the chopped, bebop style that Ellroy invented - what he has called "a deliberately proffered vulgarization and coarsening of the American idiom."

The world's great art museums hold unattributed paintings so superb that no one can be sure whether they were done by one of the great masters or by a brilliant disciple. Simon comes that close to matching Ellroy.

The result: "Dirty Sally" may be the finest crime-novel debut since Dennis Lehane's "A Drink Before the War" in 1994.

The main character and narrator is Dan Reles, whose personal demons produce so much crazy behavior that he is having trouble holding onto his job in the homicide division of the Austin police department. When a hooker's body starts showing up in pieces all over town, he latches onto the case as his last chance to prove his worth. But the convoluted investigation leads him to places no sane man would go, and soon the bodies begin piling up.

As a child, Reles was abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, a failed boxer who worked for mobsters until they turned on him and he suddenly had to get out of town.

"I see him running out the door like a scared mouse, his career, his wife and now his home gone because of what the gods wanted," Reles says in one of many Ellroy-like inner monologues. "The big boys needed something and little lives got crushed under their feet. That was in Elmira. In Austin, someone hacked up a girl and was sending pieces to the local gentry. But something felt familiar."

Simon allows himself two small variations from the Ellroy standard. Deep down, Reles seems to be a decent guy - a personality type unheard of in an Ellroy novel. And Simon avoids the extremes of the bebop style that make some Ellroy passages difficult to navigate.

Simon, a former Austin probation officer, is the co-author of three off-Broadway plays. Viking says "Lazy Sally" is the first in a series of Dan Reles novels - good news for Ellroy's old fans and the new ones Simon is about to make.