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THREE CLASSICS OF NOIR FICTION

No American mystery author has done more to darken the noir genre than James Ellroy. Though he didn't invent it, he did more than anyone to make it acceptable, and even welcome, in the 1980s.

Ellroy's brooding narratives about life and sudden death in the underbelly of Los Angeles were unsettling and unnerving, his characters thieves, pimps, killers, prostitutes and crooked cops who operated in its neon-lighted avenues and alleys at the end of the day.

"L.A. Noir" is composed of three remarkable classic thrillers featuring Los Angeles detective Lloyd Hopkins: 1984's "Blood on the Moon," 1985's "Because the Night" and 1986's "Suicide Hill."

"Blood on the Moon" zeroes in on roughly 20 random killings of women that remain unconnected in LAPD files, until Detective Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins discerns a pattern. His shrewd investigation and police instincts lead to a tumultuous climax when cold intelligence and red-hot madness are locked in a terrible confrontation.

"Because the Night" revolve around the disappearance of hero cop Jacob Herzog. At the same time, the weapon in an unsolved multiple murder is a pre-Civil War revolver. Are the two cases linked? When Detective Sgt. Hopkins assembles the puzzle pieces, he comes upon a startling trail of obscure secrets and madness, with a psychotic mastermind hiding in the shadowy wings.

When violence erupts after the kidnapping of a bank manager's sweetheart in "Suicide Hill," Detective Hopkins is selected to lead a manhunt. While doing so, he comes upon an evil conspiracy of corruption and betrayal -- among his own colleagues.

Though the prolific author of "L.A. Noir" subsequently wrote nearly a dozen other crime thrillers, including "L.A. Confidential," the three Lloyd Hopkins novels were the earliest to embrace the noir qualities as palpable ingredients.

These three novels also established James Ellroy's signatures: stark, taut suspense, uncompromising storytelling, compelling action and riveting psychological portraits.

Ellroy, who's 50, lives in Kansas City.
L.A. NOIR:
The Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy
By James Ellroy
Mysterious Press
644 pages, $25

More thrills, briefly
Storm Tide, by Marge Piercy and Ira Woos; Fawcett/Ballantine, 294 pages, $25 -- In this well-told coming-of-age novel, a man must face up to his past, his enemies and the results of a tragic mishap before he can finally settle into a new life.

The Black Tulip, by Milt Bearden; Random House, 322 pages, $24.95 -- From the decorated officer who ran the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan, a first-class thriller combining exotic Asian settings, the newest high-tech spy and military hardware, with James Bond touches.