By James Ellroy
Five years have passed since Perfidia, the first book in a proposed new L.A. quartet by James Ellroy, and since this author’s first L.A. quartet featured such classics of modern noir as The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, that automatically heightens interest in Ellroy’s new book, This Storm, which continues the stories of a handful of characters from the earlier book, including corrupt cop Elmer Jackson, tough-guy cop Dudley Smith, and crime-lab expert Hideo Ashida (plus Joan Conville, this installment’s apparently obligatory femme fatale). As in the first L.A. quartet and the author’s brilliant “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy, Perfidia and This Storm are less discreet chapters in a larger story than they are heavily connected resurgences from the same fevered, nerve-flaying dream sequence; readers who’ve eagerly absorbed every word this author has ever written will be no better prepared for the brutal beauties of This Storm than complete newcomers. There is no preparation; you can start right here.
There are murders to kick off the multiple plot-strands of This Storm, and the sense of place, Los Angeles during World War Two, that so suffused Perfidio is here throughout as well, daring the reader with dozens of passages that would be strutting pastiche in any other writer:
Fishing spot, tourist trap, lovers’ hideout. Cliffside hotels and sport-fishing piers. Slum piers crammed with tuna boats and bait shops. Streets named for saints and notable despots.
As in all other Ellroy novels, This Storm is a fusillade of scenes, flashes of lightning and gunfire and neon light. The book is a weird combination of hard edges and lyrical telegraph messages, with Dudley hunting a fugitive named Tommy Glennon, suspected of killing a Chinese restaurant owner, Joan Conville scheming to play both sides of the L.A. underworld against each other, Jackson working a disastrous long-term scheme for his own aggrandizement, and Ashida, the novel’s closest approximation of a hero, playing clean-up at the crime scenes of the book’s many murders: “There were three gunmen. They stood at that near outcropping and hit the sailors with flashbulb glare. They ran up and shot them while they were blinded, and they used silencer-fitted guns,” he reports to Dudley at one such scene, before getting to work:
Ashita went in with a surgeon’s ax and knife.
He cracked skulls. Eyeball sockets collapsed. He scooped brain tissue and dropped it in the sand. He dug out forty-eight spent bullets, todos.
That todos is a tiny sigil, a blinking light signaling the kinds of style-indulgences that make Ellroy a textbook acquired taste; with the exception of Dennis Cooper, Ellroy may be the most idiosyncratic American author working today, the kind of writer who makes gestures like that todos and who keeps the bigoted slang of the period firmly untranslated in the speech of his loutish characters. Whole sections of This Storm read like studied assaults on the safe space trigger-fingered censorship culture of 21st century America; the racist slang is everywhere, the violence is gory and offhand; the sexism isn’t always entirely attributable solely to the characters; and even the bedrock sanctity of the “Last Good War” takes some deep dents. And as is always the case with Ellroy’s books (particularly an elliptical masterpiece like The Cold Six Thousand), the book’s most interesting character, Dudley Smith, is also it’s most repulsive. “Dudley, the Irish arriviste. Dudley, ever strategic,” Ellroy writes about him, in one of many tight little arias of ungrudging admiration, “ ... Dudley devotes equal measure. You love him and fear him proportionately. You submit to him because it delights him and proves your utility.”
In a typical summer slough of hammock fiction and cookbooks, This Storm sits like a brick on the parlor floor. It’s totally, barbarously engrossing, as bluntly sure of itself as a rockfall or a snapping turtle. It’s that rarest of things in any book season: imperative reading.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.