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James Ellroy’s THIS STORM – Review

June 3, 2019

James Ellroy is a living legend among crime writers. Of the more than twenty books he has authored, I would count at least six — The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), White Jazz (1992), American Tabloid (1995), My Dark Places (1996) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001) — as masterpieces. You may disagree with my choices, but in my view these are the most flawless works of literature that Ellroy has created. And of course there are the seminal early novels, the gripping Lloyd Hopkins trilogy, unforgettable short stories and hard-hitting articles which, taken all together, amount to an incredibly rich and powerful contribution to the crime and historical fiction genre.

So, after giving him such a glowing introduction, you may have already guessed that my assessment of Ellroy’s latest novel This Storm is that it doesn’t belong with his best work. In fact, any reader who has struggled with Ellroy’s recent output is going to find This Storm difficult. At times it is maddening. But having read the novel twice now, and been quite disappointed at first, I have come to admire its scope, ambition and narrative power more on the second reading.

This Storm begins where Perfidia left off. Isolationism has failed America just as Appeasement failed in Britain. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour means America is now at war with the Axis powers. This global conflict, just over twenty years on since the last one ended, will bring new opportunities to individuals ambitious and ruthless enough to exploit it. Dudley Smith is recovering from the wounds he received at the end of Perfidia. He suspects, wrongly, that Chinese Mafia figures were behind the attack. He hasn’t got much time to think about revenge though as the murder of two LAPD detectives at a local ‘Klubhaus’ sends him on a collision course with departmental reformer William H Parker. Parker has his own demons too, namely women, whiskey and a big dose of Catholic guilt. Heavy storms bear down on LA and, seemingly in an act of God, mudslides expose a charred corpse linked to the Griffith Park Fire of 1933 and, possibly, a gold bullion heist.

As a crime narrative Ellroy is on familiar ground with This Storm. But with its wartime setting, the novel reads as revisionist historical fiction concocted in a surreal pulp fever dream which feels very original. In Ellroy’s version of the war, we don’t get to see the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but we are given tantalising glimpses of a meeting between Nazi and Soviet high-brass in Mexico. Ellroy doesn’t portray the Night of the Long Knives, but he does have a bizarre sex party reenacting the massacre in a plush Brentwood mansion. Ellroy is in different territory than many more conventional depictions of World War Two. War may be horrific, but for many in LA, it was a chance to live fast and get rich.

There is a thread of humanity that runs through this tale of deceit and avarice. It sometimes reads like Ellroy is concocting a fantasy version of his parents’ lives before he was born. Much of the action alternates between three settings: LA, Tijuana and Ensenada. LA is where Lee Earle Ellroy grew up. His mother took him on a childhood roadtrip to Ensenada and Tijuana. Armand Ellroy had his fateful meeting with Margarita Cansino at the Agua Caliente hotel in TJ. Ellroy makes these settings come alive in the novel as they are tied to his family history.

In the character of Joan Conville, Ellroy has written his mother into the LA Quartet and she is a lot more vibrant than some of the more familiar characters. Conville is a navy nurse from the mid-west who falls under the wing of Chief Parker to avoid a vehicular manslaughter rap. She has her own agenda, to avenge the death of her father ‘Big Earle’ Conville who died in a forest fire in Wisconsin which she suspects was set deliberately.

Of the famous real-life characters, Ellroy’s visceral hatred for Orson Welles is striking and, surprisingly, this makes him the most interesting of the Hollywood set. The constant tawdry tales of Hollyweird debauchery and Nazi fetishism get wearisome after a while, but the depiction of Welles being coerced by Dudley Smith into snitching on his leftist entourage does seem plausible and pushes the narrative forward.

However, for everything that I liked about This Storm, there was something else that grated. In a narrative spanning over five hundred pages the problems are manifold. Dudley Smith comes across as a parody the more central he is to events. He seems to think he won the Irish War of Independence single-handedly. He talks like he is directing US policy in Mexico. Although readers will be relieved to hear that Dud’s ‘daughter’ Elizabeth Short only appears briefly, and it is not too distracting. Dudley does get some comeuppance for his pomposity, but this has the potential to upset readers who thought they knew him. For instance, Dudley seems to have an incredible sexual charisma around women one moment, and then he is sexually humiliated the next. All of Dudley’s dialogue is in a conspiratorial tone. When the conspiracies unravel, he is left feeling naked and ridiculous.

Of all the characters in This Storm, the stronger ones are definitely the newer ones – Joan, Elmer Jackson and Hideo Ashida. Kay Lake is quite engaging, and I enjoyed her diary entries, partly as they are more accessible and readable than the main text. Ellroy’s prose here is the most uncompromising it has been since The Cold Six Thousand. However, no matter how much Ellroy claims this Quartet is compatible with the first Quartet, I can’t help feeling that the cerebral, classical- music loving Kay Lake of This Storm is very different to the streetwise, brassy gal in The Black Dahlia.

I’m delighted that This Storm is getting such strong reviews, and likely winning Ellroy new readers. But I felt its greatest strengths lay in a different, shorter novel. This Storm isn’t as compelling as Ellroy’s best novels but, true to form, it’s as stubbornly radical as all of the Demon Dog’s recent works.

This Storm

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    June 10, 2019 11:40 pm

    Just finished the book-there was a lot of things I liked and a few things I wasn’t so crazy about. I think it’s better than Perfidia, which may seem like faint praise considering some of the reaction to that book, although overall I also enjoyed that book while recognizing its flaws.

    This Storm has a million storylines like any Ellroy book, but I think he did a much better job of making them “all one story” as the characters often say- Perfidia had one main storyline that often got sidetracked into little detours (young JFK visits, young Elizabeth Short visits, the whole Kay Lake plot that had little to do with the main investigation and was a rehash of a Big Nowhere storyline). The Kay Lake journal entries were much better this time around, while I think Ellroy continues to be the master of detailing a step-by-step police procedural. I don’t think he has gotten enough credit these last two books for really getting into the details of police forensics, thanks to characters like Hideo Ashida and Joan Conville. I think this is one area where he actually has surpassed previous books. It’s like CSI L.A circa 1942 in a good way.

    My major complaint-I also have serious reservations about the treatment of Dudley Smith. I can handle the imaginary wolf, the drugs, the Nazi fetish-even the Brentwood party of 1939. My concern is the way he was just totally defeated in every way possible by the end of the book and made to look like a fool and a spent force, locked away in the LAPD version of Arkham Asylum. Dudley is one of the great villains of crime fiction, so I’d rather not have him reduced to a stock character evil genius who somehow manages to always fail in his “brilliant” plans.

    I’m reserving final judgement until this quartet is complete-it very much seems like they should be read collectively as one very long novel. I do hope though that in the final two books Dudley gets some of his own back with the ending of This Storm serving as the catalyst for dumping the bonkers behavior and getting us closer to the Dudley of the original quartet.

    • June 11, 2019 1:33 pm

      Thanks Dan, such an epic novel with so many plot threads. Broadly speaking, I think the problems of Dud’s perception comes down to over-exposure. His criminal tended to unravel in the first Quartet but he had this aura as Ellroy never let you see too much of him. I think the Demon Dog wants to portray Dud as less of a monster, but that perhaps is just what we like about him.

      • Dan permalink
        June 14, 2019 12:33 am

        As much as I love some of the background information in the last two books, you make a great point about the additional exposure perhaps being to the character’s detriment. Any primary-perspective character in an Ellroy book is guaranteed to go through a physical and mental wringer (although I’m starting to feel that Kay Lake is being set up to be a bit too perfect and on the nose about everything).

        I’m just worried that it’s becoming more than a difference in perspective between the two series-it could be leading to major continuity issues. In the first quartet, it wasn’t just the reader’s perception that created the Dudley mystique. The actual characters in that series openly spoke about him as this legendary feared figure. It’s hard to square that with the Dudley we see at the end of This Storm, where even his loyal goons are keeping their distance (or in Breuning’s case open betrayal).

        On that note, it seems like half the characters in the Ellroy universe know about the Dudley-Elizabeth Short connection at this point. That causes some logical problems with the events of the Black Dahlia novel, which doesn’t go away even if Ellroy stops at 1945 like he claims. By the same token, Buzz Meeks seems to know about the Dudley-Claire connection is this last book, yet doesn’t appear to have heard of her in The Big Nowhere, let alone concerned that Dudley is being co-opted into the investigation of his former flame!

      • June 14, 2019 11:36 am

        I think it’s easy to fall in love with Kay in The Black Dahlia or Perfidia, but they are two different people. Even with passage of time the change is implausible, especially as Kay has matured in reverse. I think the newer characters are definitely stronger, but Hideo’s plight due to his sexuality is just not as moving as Danny Upshaw’s. I don’t think Ellroy can top that.

  2. Rob J permalink
    August 13, 2019 4:18 pm

    James Ellroy is a true one-off.

    I have been reading his novels for the last thirty- three years and he has never disappointed
    me. I had the opportunity to meet the great man twice in 1990 and 1995, and despite his outrageous public persona, he was very polite and friendly.

    His new book is compelling. Dudley Smith is still as Machillivan as ever, and his description of mid 20th Century America remains incredibly bleak. Violence, racism, and sexism
    ruled the day. Not much has changed in the USA in seventy-eight years…….

    He once said “Bad white men” created America”.
    Mr. Ellroy had remained true to his word.

    • August 13, 2019 5:30 pm

      Thanks Rob. It’s great you’ve met him twice and have been a fan for so long. He’s still touring today (I saw him in Manchester a few months back), and his act is as wild as ever.

  3. Tom M permalink
    September 20, 2019 10:05 am

    I definitely enhoyed This storm more than Perfidia, by far. Altough, my main complaint about both books is the same. There are too many characters making a come-back from other books.

    I always saw Ellroy’s books as events that would suck in several characters, giving a ‘slice of life’ of the LA underbelly. With his new quartet, he inverts it and makes it feel like all these characters actually had a hand in every major event that ever happened, so instead of an open circle where characters are sucked into a plot, it’s a closed cirlce where they are the reason, the resolution and the plot itself. More than the litterature itself, it disrupts the vision I had of the first LA quartet and the american tabloid trilogy.

    That being said, I loved the fact that Elroy added some “blood’s a rover” in “This storm”. The gold heist, Kay lake’s journal, his readiness to off characters way sooner than usually expected, it adds some layers that make it, strangely enough, more natural and organic as far as storytelling goes.

    My only hope is that he keeps on bringing more new blood and less old characters, Joan conville and elmer jackson seem much more human on the sole account on being new.

    • September 20, 2019 12:35 pm

      Hi Tom, I agree with much of your analysis, especially the view that it is much less powerful or believable to have characters influencing or even instigating every major historical event or historical character within the confines of the narrative. Ellroy’s former vision of characters as movers and shakers trying to earn a buck while history was going on around them was much more involving.

Trackbacks

  1. THIS STORM: Patterns across history | The Venetian Vase
  2. THIS STORM: Ellroy comes home | The Venetian Vase

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