The Washington Post

Brac­ing for ‘This Storm’ in L.A.’s un­der­belly

- BY BILL SHEEHAN Black Dahlia · Los Angeles · United States of America · Austria · Vietnam · Iceland · Belgium · Pearl Harbor · FBI · Geneva · Barbara Stanwyck · Belarus · Underworld · Richard Nixon · William Parker · William Parker · Bette Davis · Peter Straub

James Ell­roy’s ram­page through Amer­i­can his­tory con­tin­ues, more fu­ri­ously than ever, in “This Storm,” the se­cond vol­ume in a pro­jected se­quence ti­tled the Se­cond L.A. Quar­tet. The orig­i­nal quar­tet, which be­gan with the 1987 pub­li­ca­tion of “The Black Dahlia,” of­fered in­ter­con­nected ac­counts of crime and cor­rup­tion in Los An­ge­les be­tween 1946 and 1958. Ell­roy fol­lowed this mas­sive en­ter­prise with the even more am­bi­tious Un­der­world USA tril­ogy, which be­gan with “Amer­i­can Tabloid,” one of the great fic­tional ex­am­i­na­tions of the JFK as­sas­si­na­tion, and ended with “Blood’s a Rover,” a jaun­diced look at the Nixon years and the ori­gins of the Water­gate de­ba­cle. In th­ese three nov­els, Ell­roy raised the stakes con­sid­er­ably, us­ing crime fic­tion as a ve­hi­cle to ex­plore the pub­lic traumas — the war in Viet­nam, the strug­gle for civil rights, the end­less pub­lic un­rest — that de­fined the era. In his new quar­tet, Ell­roy moves back­ward in time to the open­ing days of World War II. The re­sult is a por­trait of life on the home front that only Ell­roy, with his ob­ses­sive in­ter­est in the dark un­der­side of the Amer­i­can story, could have writ­ten.

The cur­rent se­ries opened in 2014 with “Per­fidia,” which be

on Dec. 6, 1941, just hours be­fore Pearl Har­bor, and con­tin­ues through 23 days of vi­o­lence, vir­u­lent racism and ram­pant war fever. The novel’s cen­tral fic­tional event — the rit­ual mur­der of four Ja­pa­nese Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens — pro­vides the ar­ma­ture for a scathing por­trait of fear and hys­te­ria, qual­i­ties that would lead to the forced in­tern­ment of thou­sands of in­no­cent Ja­pa­nese. In the com­pro­mised world that Ell­roy’s char­ac­ters in­habit, the war rep­re­sents chaos, de­struc­tion — and op­por­tu­nity. For Ell­roy, the war years be­come a kind of lab­o­ra­tory for a mer­ci­less ex­am­i­na­tion of mad­ness, cor­rup­tion and un­re­strained greed on the part of pow­er­ful white men “rid­ing the zeit­geist for all it’s worth.”

“This Storm” begins one day af­ter “Per­fidia” and brings back a host of char­ac­ters from ear­lier nov­els. (Many, we al­ready know, will even­tu­ally come to ap­pro­pri­ately bloody ends.) Re­turn­ing char­ac­ters in­clude Wil­liam Parker, al­co­holic fu­ture chief of the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment; Ed “The Fed” Sat­ter­lee, a thor­oughly dis­hon­est FBI agent; Hideo Ashida, a bril­liant foren­sic sci­en­tist caught be­tween two war­ring cul­tures; and, of course, Dud­ley Smith, LAPD sergeant and em­blem­atic vil­lain of many Ell­roy nov­els.

Three crimes — two of them old, one new — pro­pel the nar­ra­tive. It all begins when an in­ces­gins sant rain­storm dis­lodges a long­buried body in L.A.’s Grif­fith Park and con­nects two dis­crete events: the 1931 theft of a train car­ry­ing gold bul­lion and a 1933 fire that swept through Grif­fith Park. All of th­ese crimes will ul­ti­mately in­ter­twine; all are part of a sin­gle story. The quest for the miss­ing gold — a quest that will in­volve many of the cen­tral fig­ures and will as­sume ob­ses­sive pro­por­tions — dom­i­nates that story. As he did in “Per­fidia,” Ell­roy han­dles the crim­i­nal el­e­ments with flair and shows an im­pres­sive grasp of the in­ves­ti­ga­tory and foren­sic tech­niques in use at that time. By the novel’s end, the in­ter­re­lated mys­ter­ies have been re­solved, and it’s ex­cit­ing, page­turn­ing stuff — but it’s only one as­pect of a novel that has other, big­ger things on its mind.

Ell­roy is as much so­cial nov­el­ist as crime writer. Even in ear­lier, more per­sonal nov­els such as “The Black Dahlia” — which serves, in part, as a memo­rial to his own mur­dered mother, Geneva Hil­liker — the so­cial back­drop is metic­u­lously drawn. The world Ell­roy re-cre­ates is filled with grifters, lowlifes of ev­ery stripe, cor­rupt politi­cians and po­lice of­fi­cers on the take. Most cen­trally, the world of th­ese nov­els re­flects a racism so pro­found that it comes to seem a fun­da­men­tal as­pect of the Amer­i­can char­ac­ter. There are few, if any, he­roes in th­ese books. In the moral uni­verse Ell­roy has con­structed, the most ir­re­deemable peo­ple run the world. Set against them are the oc­ca­sional flawed in­di­vid­u­als — “This Storm’s” Elmer Jack­son, an LAPD sergeant with a dis­taste for need­less cru­elty, comes to mind — who learn that there are lines they can never cross, who some­how step back from the moral abyss that sur­rounds them.

All of this comes fil­tered through a lurid, in­stantly rec­og­niz­able tabloid sen­si­bil­ity that de­lights in skew­er­ing the rich, the pow­er­ful and the pre­ten­tious. (For ex­am­ples, see Ell­roy’s near sala­cious por­traits of Or­son Welles, Bar­bara Stan­wyck and Bette Davis, to name just a few. You will never view them — or their movies — in quite the same way.) And this, in turn, comes to us by way of the fa­mil­iar stac­cato style that Ell­roy first de­vel­oped in 1990’s “L.A. Con­fi­den­tial.” It’s a style that uti­lizes frag­ments, trun­cated sen­tences, pro­fane in­ter­jec­tions and pe­riod slang to de­liver large amounts of in­for­ma­tion in tightly com­pressed form. It’s not al­ways an easy, read­er­friendly style, but it ef­fec­tively re­flects the jan­gled, chaotic na­ture of life in L.A. in the early days of the war. With “This Storm,” Ell­roy has reached the mid­point of his most am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing to date. The fi­nal two vol­umes can’t come quickly enough. Bill Sheehan is the au­thor of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An In­quiry into the Fic­tion of Pe­ter Straub.”

 ??  ?? THIS STORM By James Ell­roy Knopf. 608 pp. $29.95
THIS STORM By James Ell­roy Knopf. 608 pp. $29.95

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