Review- Ellroy, “This Storm”

James Ellroy, “This Storm” (2019) – How to even describe a late-stage Ellroy novel? Nearly six hundred pages of cop-fantasy fugue gets at the gestalt. Ellroy described his early method as transcribing the crime fantasies he came up with while bumming around LA, frequently homeless and high on shoplifted cough suppressant. His later method, as far as his very few interviews let us see, is to hole up in his house sans internet or tv, marinade his brain with old LA newspapers and jazz and classical records, and let his imagination, full as ever of wild schemes, outre ultra-violence and chintz, spool out into a book every few years. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, though he had to go through hell to get there, what with his mother being murdered when he was a kid and him being raised essentially feral…

Anyway, “This Storm.” Title taken from a line in an Auden poem. Set in LA and Baja California in 1942, second part of a planned quartet of wartime LA crime novels. Ellroy’s trademark telegraphic/police report style enhances the effect of a constant drip of incident, new (sometimes new old- these books link up with his previous books and share characters) characters, layers upon layers… a group of characters, mostly the shady, violent cops Ellroy loves, stumble upon a massive conspiracy involving a gold heist and some kind of totalitarian left-right alliance to sabotage America, during and after the war. As a historian, it’s deeply amusing to me to see Ellroy, a smart guy and lover of history but not a theorist, walk backwards from his kiddie-crime-book inspired rogues gallery of commies and Nazis into something like the classical totalitarianism school concept of mid twentieth century history.

Different characters want different things but most of them want some combo of gold and a “clean solve” to a baffling triple murder connected with the gold. The most interesting is Dudley Smith, as close to a classic Ellroy ubermensch as any Catholic (he’s ever so Irish, y’see) will be (Ellroy might be the last mainline Protestantism snob alive), is seduced by the right side of the right-left gold alliance. This comes in the form of the Sinarquistas, a sort of Mexican fascist movement that actually existed. While Smith and other Ellroy fascists have some right-wing values — order, for sure, and hierarchy — for them, it’s mostly fetishistic, a matter of the look and the violence (this is presumably what attracted Ellroy to the Nazi right as a teen). Communists, in Ellroy’s telling (at least this time around- he was a little more sympathetic towards the end of the Underworld USA trilogy, which I wrote about in Jacobin many moons ago), are a little more self-righteous but much the same- in it for the excitement and the opportunity to lord it over others.

Not to get persnickety with what is, after all, a crime novel and not a political treatise, but it’s not like Ellroy’s USA exactly has some grand point to it other than murder, sleaze, and chintz. One of Ellroy’s great strengths is that he doesn’t even pretend there’s anything at the bottom of it. He continually has his characters refer to it as “this white man’s country.” It’s not subtle and he doesn’t really try to justify it. In the end, he makes clear the totalitarians are just crooks with an added layer of ideological excitement going for them, so… not sure what it all adds up to, but as Ellroy will be the first to tell you, he’s not a political animal these days and he won’t talk about Trump. So there.

There’s a lot else going on, too. There’s divided loyalties, between characters who are sometimes too generic, types, strongarm cops and strong-willed arriviste women. There’s a depiction of a gay Japanese-American dealing with the internment of his community on top of all the crime mess, the sensitivity of which belies Ellroy’s usual provocativeness. And there’s Ellroy’s invocation of nighttime LA which really makes me want to go get a drink at a Chinese restaurant at 1 in the morning, which between living in greater Boston and living under covid doesn’t look too likely…

At this point, one doesn’t read an Ellroy novel for the plot. Starting with the end of the Underworld USA trilogy, they got too big, too fantastic, hallucinogenic even, which I saw as a fitting end to the trilogy but now just appears to be the man’s MO. But the immersion into Ellroy’s nighttime, nightmare world of blackmail, violence, chintz, the fetishitic invocation of the objects and rituals attached to them… for those who have come with Ellroy this far, “This Storm” is worth it. To those beginning the journey, I say go to “American Tabloid” and start from there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ****

Review- Ellroy, “This Storm”

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