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THIS STORM: Patterns across history

June 17, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. Here is Jason’s take on James Ellroy’s latest novel This Storm.

It’s all one story, you see.

James Ellroy has always taught us—and me in particular—to seek the design amid the dissonance.

In a 2018 piece published on the Demon Dog’s 70th birthday, I concluded by anointing Ellroy’s ever-ambitious output as an ultra-marathon with no finish line, at a time and age when many people are eyeing retirement the way L.A. Confidential’s Salvation Army Santa eyes the liquor store across the street.

Ellroy’s latest novel This Storm, the midway point in the Dog’s second L.A. Quartet, boldly confirms this, as its blistering pace and pugilistic prose (Ellroy’s sharpest narrative since The Cold Six Thousand… you’ll need stitches on your tongue after reading it aloud) depict a rain-soaked L.A. in a graffiti fever dream of paranoid chaos…

It’s the dawn of 1942. The wounds from Pearl Harbor are still open and bleeding, and the disgraceful roundup of Japanese Americans is in full swing. Boozed out army nurse Joan Conville mows down four Mexican dope peddlers while en route to her first day of duty… It’s the first wave of a monsoon-like tempest of death that awaits the City of Angels. The incessant rain sparks mudslides that unearth a charred corpse in Griffith Park, and later, two dead LAPD detectives are discovered in a downtown klubhaus frequented by gays, black jazz musicians, and fifth columnists. As any Ellroy reader knows, these disparate strands will eventually dovetail towards the end.

The two dead cops in the downtown klubhaus presents a major conflict: Should the LAPD work the case, or protect the department’s reputation? Chief Jack Horall wants the klubhaus kase krushed, ordering “a clean solve [with] dead suspects who will never enter a courtroom” while Captain William H. Parker is struggling to contain a soul-crushing truth (revealed at the end of Perfidia) that could stain the department for generations.

AAA black american flag ellroy poster

The redheaded Joan Conville, whom Ellroy  based on his own mother, is blackmailed into the LAPD after that auto accident. Rather than a vehicular manslaughter charge, Conville accepts a job in the department’s crime lab, where her superb analytical and deductive work soon make her a valuable asset. Ms. Conville, a flawed mother figure, and at times the novel’s ostensible conscience, admonishes Parker for keeping a secret that’s eating him alive. “How can you live with what you know, and do nothing?” she asks him.

Character cameos from Ellroy’s previous two bodies of work are greatly minimized this time, but far from absent. Joan Klein, the 40-year-old Red Goddess and revolutionary mother figure in Blood’s A Rover is here as a 15-year-old revolutionary in training, mentored by the Red Queen Claire DeHaven, Ms. Conville, and even a certain army captain named Dudley Smith (although, Smith seems to distrust Young Joan from the beginning). Those of you familiar with Blood’s A Rover may need to re-read that novel’s chapter 119, which details Joan’s full backstory… I know I certainly did.

Along the way, Joan Conville romantically intertwines herself with rivals Parker and Smith. Ellroy refers to this arrangement as triangulation, and it’s something he’s used quite often before, most notably in The Black Dahlia, and L.A. Confidential.

The ensuing investigation uncovers that the two dead cops at the klubhaus had ugly pasts and a twisted familial arrangement that evokes White Jazz’s equally demented Herrick and Kafesjian families. This obvious evocation recalls something Jim Mancall mentioned in his 2014 companion to Ellroy’s work: Concerning Blood’s A Rover and its narrator Don Crutchfield, Mancall discusses how Crutch, like astute Ellroy readers, searches for clues to understand historical events. As Crutch searches, “readers link patterns across disparate contexts, searching for larger meanings.” Ellroy also seems to pay respectful homage to Ross Macdonald, one of his greatest teachers, with Conville’s subtle assurance that “It’s all one story, you see,” echoing the former Kenneth Millar’s famous adage “it’s all one case.”

It’s difficult not to think of The Big Nowhere’s Danny Upshaw when you read This Storm’s depiction of homosexual Japanese LAPD chemist Hideo Ashida, who even employs Upshaw’s Man Camera to reconstruct the klubhaus krime scene.

Army Captain Dudley Smith is a fascist fetishist here (in the words of Joan Conville), and as expected, concocts countless schemes to reap profit from war. Smith’s collision course with William Parker foreshadows the Dubliner’s White Jazz standoff against Ed Exley some 16 years later. Smith is also severely de-LADded here, so much so, that I wonder if Ellroy’s editors pressured the Dog to tone down his Irish icon’s most distinctive quirk.  This is, however, the least of Mr. Smith’s problems in this novel… more on that below.

It’s great fun to see Ellroy put his palpable hatred for Orson Welles into action. I’ve known for quite some time that Ellroy thoroughly detested Welles, though I’ve tried to get the Dog to at least admire Welles as a skilled radio performer (Orson will always be The Shadow to me) and a national prankster. But, in This Storm, the Demon Dog paints the Citizen Kane wunderkid in a light similar to American Tabloid’s JFK: A loser and a buffoon behind the scenes who falls mightily short of his God-like public image. Ellroy even gives an indication towards the bloated behemoth has-been that Welles, who in the novel is muscled into becoming a police informant, would become in later decades (“he eats too much…”).

Though far faster than the plodding Perfidia, This Storm is far from a perfect storm. The Dudley Smith in The Big Nowhere through to White Jazz could kick the bloody shit out of This Storm’s Dudley, who’s a “dud” in more ways than one… It was always a hilarious blast to read Smith, with his inimitable charm melded perfectly with his systemic evil.  However, in This Storm, I find it hard to relate to this opium-smoking, kimono-donning, wolf-communing Smith caricature versus the fearless Irish ass kicker in the earlier (later?) books.

At least it’s comforting to know Mr. Smith will toughen up as Ellroy’s chronological 31-year narrative unfolds. I just hope that transition begins within the framework of this new quartet. It pains me to say this, (and rather feels like I’m spitting in the face of my uncle) as I literally grew up reading about Smith, but whereas before I was laughing with Dudley, here I am most certainly laughing at him.

Like all of Ellroy’s work, This Storm’s nightmarish indelible images linger long after the last page. It’s a literary hurricane that will invade your subconscious, and force contemplation…You’ll find yourself thinking about its machinations at odd intervals and even odder hours. In spite of its problems, This Storm makes me excited for volume three.

One final note:  Even before the novel existed, This Storm had a turbulent genesis with mind-blowing unintended consequences that more than lived up to its anagrammed admonishment (shit storm). I was even an unwitting catalyst for the ensuing debacle.  There’s a wild and tragic tale behind it all, and I promise I’ll tell it to you someday… Off the record, on the QT, you know the rest…        

Jason Carter     

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Cameron Reilly permalink
    June 17, 2019 9:15 pm

    I got a couple of chapters into Storm but had to put it down and re-read Perfidia for the third time because I’m confused. Having recently re-read The Big Nowhere, my timelines are all discombobulated. Can anyone explain to me how Dud can be banging Claire at the beginning of Storm, yet his past with her doesn’t come up in Big Nowhere when Upshaw is trying to infiltrate her cell?

    • June 18, 2019 8:14 am

      I think you might be onto something with these inconsistencies Cameron. I guess we’ll never know why Dud isn’t involved in the Black Dahlia investigation when Elizabeth Short is his daughter. There were some inconsistencies in the original series. The dapper, sharpwitted Howard Hughes of White Jazz is very different from the paranoid, nervous wreck of American Tabloid, even AT begins slightly before WJ’s timeline ends. And of course, there’s Dud’s role in the BD investigation in Clandestine. It does seem though that with the Second Quartet the inconsistencies are mounting.

  2. Dan permalink
    June 17, 2019 10:41 pm

    Great analysis as always, Jason. It’s gratifying that my comments in Steve’s review, both good and bad, seem to match very closely with your impression of the book. I’m really hoping for Dudley to have an “Empire Strikes Back” moment in the next two books to get closer to the character of the first quartet.

    Although it is likely a coincidence (and something Ellroy would never admit to in the first place), I thought the theme of the extreme left and extreme right just being different sides of the same coin was a great commentary highly relevant to current political situations.

    In all seriousness, you should consider writing a book at some just delving into your experiences with Ellroy. At the very least, have you ever considered doing a formal sit-down interview with him for a site this one? There has been some great revelations in the past from various interviews, but also wading through a lot of predictable questions he has been answering for decades. Would nice to have someone like you with the knowledge and personal connection ask some incisive questions from a die-hard fan’s perspective.

    • June 18, 2019 4:41 am

      Thanks Dan. I didn’t know you commented on Steve’s review. I’ll have to check that out. Yes, Ellroy has said for many years that his violent art merely reflects the world we live in today…Thus, the duplicity of the political system Ellroy depicts. As for writing a book, I actually thought of doing that very thing as far back as 2009 (when I first met Ellroy after reading him for 13 years at that time). It’s still something that interests me, and if you trace the trajectory of the features I write, you can definitely see the outline of a book there, so it’s always a possibility for the future. As for interviewing Ellroy, I recently called him and asked the Dog to join me on my weekly health/fitness podcast (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7vbj7hhyiGcc288sn1R0ig) because one way that Ellroy and I connect is through our mutual love for athletics and keeping yourself in prime condition. If I can get Ellroy on the podcast, I’ll write a companion piece for this blog, and include a link to the episode. Anyway, I’ll speak to Ellroy about it on June 21st.

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