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5 June 2019

James Ellroy’s monuments to bigoted men

Ellroy is a crime writing great – but has he got too close to the ugly racism of his characters?  

By Chris Power

This Storm: the title is a warning to anyone who comes to James Ellroy for a history lesson. “Meyer knew this fruity English poet,” a police detective is told about halfway through this 600-page novel. “WH Auden, his name was. WH wrote a poem for one of his numerous boyfriends, and it had the words ‘This Storm’ in it.” In fact the poem, identifiable from other quoted lines as “To a Writer On His Birthday”, which Auden wrote for Christopher Isherwood in 1935, doesn’t contain the words “this storm” in any of its 12 stanzas. Similarly, Ellroy’s novel contains many actual events – the internment of Japanese Americans in early 1942, the discovery of Japanese submarine bases on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, and the smuggling of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” from Russia to America. But they feature here in alternative versions, just as some of his previous novels have presented alternative versions of the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War and, that most iconic of crimes for Ellroy (one he associates with his own mother’s unsolved murder), the killing of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, in 1947.

This Storm is the second volume of Ellroy’s second “LA Quartet”. The first, published between 1987 and 1992, included both The Black Dahlia (1987), the book that made him a crime fiction superstar, and LA Confidential (1992). His next novel, arguably his greatest, was American Tabloid (1995), the first volume of the “Underworld USA Trilogy”. The new quartet, which began with Perfidia (2014), features younger versions of many of the characters from those earlier series. When the remaining volumes are published, these 11 books will represent Ellroy’s dirty, demented and blood-soaked version of American history between 1941 and 1972.

Perfidia began on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and ended three weeks later. This Storm picks up immediately where that book left off and spans just over four months. As usual with Ellroy, numerous disparate intrigues and cases are introduced that turn out to be tightly interconnected: “popcorn-fart tight”, as one character puts it. “It’s all one story, you see,” says another. This line is repeated six times, enough for it to sound like an excuse for the speed with which these connections are revealed, and the coincidences their revelation sometimes requires – two of the major disappointments of the book.

Whereas the teeming plotlines of American Tabloid build into something powerfully symphonic, in This Storm Ellroy seems in a rush; beyond the book’s primary mysteries – a triple homicide involving two policemen, the identity of a decade-old corpse found after a landslide, and the location of a hoard of Nazi and Soviet gold – subplots are resolved almost as soon as they come to light, and every obstacle that arises is hurriedly circumvented, usually with disappointing ease. It’s as if Ellroy, or his editor, is worried we won’t be able to keep up. The result is a lot of noise but little resonance: sound and fury signifying not exactly nothing, but nothing much.

Crosscurrents and echoes connect all of Ellroy’s novels, and the sense they give of a sprawling yet coherently constructed imaginary world is one of the most significant pleasures of his writing. The chief example of this is the way characters recur across books. Pete Bondurant, for example, Howard Hughes’s lethal right-hand man in White Jazz (1992), becomes a primary character in the “Underworld USA Trilogy”, while in This Storm we meet the teenage runaway Joan Rosen Klein, who will reappear, 26 years later, as one of the main characters in Blood’s a Rover (2009)

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Sometimes the connections are more haunting. Perfidia is named for a song that plays several times in the novel, the same song a couple dances to on New Year’s Eve, 1947 in The Black Dahlia. Bucky Bleichert watches them, a man who, a single line of backstory explains, betrayed his high school friend Hideo Ashida in the war. In Perfidia a pleasing symmetry is enacted when Ashida becomes one of the main characters, and Bleichert is on the periphery.

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Less understandable is why Ellroy chooses to make Ashida’s story echo that of Danny Upshaw from The Big Nowhere (1988) so closely. Both are tasked with infiltrating a group of Hollywood communist sympathisers, and both employ the forensic technique of the “Man Camera” (a hokey invention of Ellroy’s that supposedly enables its user to “become the object you observe”, but essentially involves staring hard at something and thinking). Ashida and Upshaw are also gay men who are tortured by their sexuality, members of a lineage that includes Jack Herzog in Because the Night (1984) and Lenny Sands in American Tabloid (Upshaw, Sands and Herzog’s sexuality is a factor in their suicides).

The purpose of this twinning is distractingly obscure, but other repetitions feel entirely redundant. At the level of the sentence – a level of great importance for Ellroy, whose style has always been one of his most distinctive attributes, even as it has moved through several iterations – This Storm is of lower quality than his previous books. When we read, “Constanza pushed him into the back wall and held him there with her mouth”, we remember when, in American Tabloid, Pete Bondurant got together with Barb Jahelka and “pushed her into the wall with his mouth”. When we read that the Mexican policeman and fascist sympathiser José Vasquez-Cruz “went tee-hee. He spoke baritone and tittered soprano”, we remember Carlos Marcello in American Tabloid who “tee-hee-heed – weird for a bass baritone”. When a corrupt cop hears something he doesn’t want to and grips his champagne flute so tight that the stem snaps, we remember when a mobster heard something he didn’t want to in The Big Nowhere and popped the glass in his hand, “shards exploding all over the table”, and when Lenny Sands heard something he didn’t want to in American Tabloid and “SQUEEZED his glass, two-handed. Thick-cut crystal snapped and shattered…”

Elmore Leonard said of The Black Dahlia that “reading it out loud could shatter your wine glasses”, but repetition turns what feels fresh into schtick. With each overfamiliar phrase and recycled character trait, Ellroy’s dark world, once so vast and threatening, becomes smaller and more cartoonish.

It is impossible, or irresponsible, to discuss Ellroy’s work without considering its treatment of race. The triple homicide in This Storm takes place in a black neighbourhood, and as the officers of the “white man’s PD” from which Ellroy draws most of his characters are all varying degrees of racist, the epithets are as numerous and vile as you can imagine. This can be considered reasonable on the grounds of historical accuracy. Where those epithets occur in third-person narration, as opposed to direct speech – which is often – this can be considered just about reasonable on literary grounds (because the close-third narration takes on aspects of the characters’ modes of expression).

What isn’t reasonable is that the chapters in which we are closest to LAPD officer Elmer Jackson, who left North Carolina because he didn’t want to follow his father and brother into the Ku Klux Klan – “That hate-the-jigs diet stuck in young Elmer’s craw” – are the chapters most clotted with racist language. One begins: “He’s scared. It crept up, belated. Oooga-booga. Dem demons done launched demselves his way,” and this minstrelsy inflection runs on and on. It reaches its nadir with the description of a nightclub, the Taj: “A coonverted garage at 28th and Budlong.” The italics are Ellroy’s, the textual equivalent of an elbow in the ribs from your joshing racist mate.

What is the deal with Elmer Jackson’s racism? At live events, Ellroy sometimes introduces himself with a well-worn bit of patter as, “the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right”. His public persona is that of a Republican – “I’m a Thatcherite and a Reaganite” – who gleefully disdains political correctness. He has also described this persona as “about 3 per cent of who I am”, and further confuses things by, for example, telling one interviewer in 2009 he voted for Obama, and another years later that he finds Obama “sinister… the face of cancerous socialism”.

A more consistent position throughout Ellroy’s career has been his defence of his right to portray racist characters, and I would accept that the cast list of a sequence of novels about the LAPD, FBI, CIA, the Mob and US politicians spanning 1941 and 1972 is going to feature a lot of racists. He is very keen to assert that these racist characters shouldn’t need to be defined by their racism. In his 1997 introduction to a compendium of early novels about the detective Lloyd Hopkins, he wrote that he “wanted to create a recognisably racist and reactionary cop and make his racism and reactionary tendencies casual attributes rather than defining characteristics”. He wanted “to build a complex monument to a basically shitty guy”.

That’s his right, but 22 years on he’s built an entire memorial park to shitty guys, so it’s odd that, having created a character who has turned his back on his family because their hatred of black people sticks in his craw, he goes ahead and makes him racist anyway.

Ellroy has admitted a love of “racial invective”, and has offered, as an end in itself, that “racist language uttered by sympathetic characters confuses hidebound liberals”. But at this stage, his urge to express racist thought and spray epithets seems less like critique, or an exploration of the complexities of character, and more like the mechanical action of a compulsive masturbator.

Flipping back through Perfidia I came across an aside Dudley Smith makes to a fellow officer: “That lad shouting racial slurs may be offending Dr Ashida. Please take him someplace secluded and kick the shit out of him.” The relish with which I began daydreaming about this kind of justice being meted out to Ellroy, to see the snapped bridgework flying (another of his vivid but overused descriptors), was a clear signal I’d been spending too much time with his bloody, vengeful fictions.

“I live a brooding, Beethovian, monastic life,” Ellroy told an interviewer a few years ago. He likes to compare himself to Beethoven, but Perfidia and This Storm are not his late quartets. They are larger but much lesser books than his masterpieces, American Tabloid and The Big Nowhere. In “The Guilty Vicarage”, an essay about his addiction to detective novels, “that fruity English poet” Auden wrote of Raymond Chandler that his “powerful but extremely depressing books” are “serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place”. Ellroy has mounted some incredible expeditions to the interior of the Great Wrong Place, but at this stage his return to Los Angeles looks more like the Great Wrong Turn. l

Chris Power’s story collection “Mothers” is published by Faber & Faber

This Storm
James Ellroy
William Heinemann, 608pp, £20