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This Storm: James Ellroy and Joseph Knox in Conversation

May 29, 2019

When Joseph Knox introduced James Ellroy at Waterstones in Manchester last night, it was hard for him to contain his excitement and, as an audience member, I can vouch for the palpable sense of anticipation in the room. Knox is a young local crime writer, a former employee of Waterstones, who has authored several crime novels and whose writing, he freely admitted, owed a huge debt to Ellroy.

Ellroy walked on the stage to enthusiastic applause and read from the opening pages of his latest novel This Storm. The scene is of a bootleg radio broadcast by the ultra right-wing Father Charles Coughlin, lamenting America’s entry into World War Two:

Good evening bienvenidos, a belated Feliz Navidad, and let’s not forget prospero ano y felicidad – which means “Happy New Year” in English and serves to introduce the Mexico-at-war theme of tonight’s broadcast. And at war we are, my fellow American listeners – even though we sure as shooting didn’t want to be in the first place.

Let’s talk turkey here. Es la verdad, as our Mex cousins say. We’ve been in this Jew-inspired boondoggle a mere twenty-three days, and we’ve been forced to stand with the rape-happy Russian Reds against the more sincerely simpatico Nazis. That’s a shattering shame, but our Jew-pawn president, Franklin “Double-Cross” Rosenfeld, has deliriously decreed that we must fight der Fuhrer, so fight that heroic Jefe we regretfully must. It’s a ways off, though – because we’ve got our hands full with the Japs right now.

So let’s meander down Mexico way – where the senoritas sizzle and more HELL-bent jefes hold sway.

This served as a perfect introduction to the themes of paranoia, profiteering and extreme ideology of This Storm. As Ellroy expounded upon in the questions with Knox and the audience later, this is a novel about Los Angeles’s war, the war he imagined as a child, the war of the Quartet characters. It was a time, Ellroy explained, when people gravitated towards the most fanatical ideologies ever devised by man.  And yet, his research of LA newspapers showed that there was non-stop parties going on in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Hollywood throughout the war. Policemen, politicians, gangsters and movie stars mingled at shindigs which violated blackout drills. The birth-rate went through the roof as an impending sense of death and destruction brought on by the world’s deadliest conflict gave people a voracious appetite for sex and loot. It’s a dream setting for a historical novelist.

There were a few other tidbits that tantalised Ellrovians in the audience. Ellroy insisted this Quartet would end on VJ Day, 1945, so I guess that means Dudley Smith’s involvement in the police investigation of the murder of his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, will never be revealed. My instinct tells me Ellroy will do some sort of extended epilogue. It’s too big a question to leave completely unanswered.

Ellroy discussed how the character of Joan Conville was based on his mother Jean Ellroy. He gave the names of two actresses who he had grown up watching on TV and film – Shirley Knight and Lois Nettleton. Knight and Nettleton’s classic beauty, natural intelligence and superb acting skills had reminded him of his mother, and he said watching them onscreen had allowed him to vicariously live or extend his mother’s life after her unsolved murder. This was a surprising and delightful revelation. I thought I knew all of Ellroy’s artistic and emotional influences, and then occasionally he comes out with new ones.

After the Q and A was over, there was a long queue of fans waiting for Ellroy to sign their copy of This Storm. Ellroy was generous and enthusiastic, chatting and posing for photos with each person. When it came to my turn we reminisced about the interviews we did, published in Conversations with James Ellroy. I mentioned my favourite interview, conducted in his then home at The Ravenswood in Los Angeles 2009. He sighed, describing that time of his life as his nadir, and then a second or two later his beaming smile came back, and we chatted about the book and then it was the next person’s turn to meet him.

On the train back to Liverpool that night, I pondered what Ellroy had said. I knew he had been dealing with some issues in 2009, which he candidly explored in his memoir The Hilliker Curse and the novel Blood’s a Rover, but he had been so kind and encouraging to me as a young researcher that they were never apparent in our interactions. I guess it makes me doubly grateful that James Ellroy is both the writer and person he is.

Viva Ellroy!

You can find full details on Ellroy’s UK and US tour for This Storm here.


James Ellroy at Waterstones in Manchester





2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    May 29, 2019 8:42 pm

    Thanks for the recap. Ellroy had the exact same response earlier in the week on the Guardian webchat when I asked about post-quartet plans for Dudley and the Dahlia. He does have a tendency to change his mind over the years about his writing plans. I hope this is one of those cases.

    • May 29, 2019 9:14 pm

      We shall see. Unless he can work in some explanation for the murder prior to the VJ Day cut off point, which seems unlikely.

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