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Widespread Panic by James Ellroy – Review

June 8, 2021

Fred Otash is back! Actually, he’s dead. He’s stuck in ‘Penance Penitentiary, Reckless-Wrecker-Of-Lives Block, Pervert Purgatory’. Otash decides to pen a confessional in the hopes of improving his eternal fate. The action jumps back to 1950’s LA, and Freddy’s in his prime.

Dig: He’s verifying salacious stories for the scandal-rag Confidential. He’s an informer for LAPD Chief William H Parker, who wants to lure Confidential into a honeytrap that will topple its tabloid crown. Freddy’s got the goods on everyone in Hollywood. He knows that James Dean is the ‘Human Ashtray’ gimp for his studio masters, aka Nazi-obsessed Afrika Korp fetishist director Nicholas Ray.

Look alive Kats: Ray is a flamer who flings himself at good-looking starlets and actors faster than he can get into bed, figuratively speaking, with Caryl Chessman. Chessman is the robber, kidnapper and rapist whose scheduled appointment with the green room in San Quentin has become a cause celebre to Hollywood figures such as Ray and Marlon Brando who are determined to halt the execution.

Woof Daddy-O: Otash sees the libertine, hypocritical side of Hollyweird which is closed off to the public. He knows that Phyllis Gates ain’t gonna turn her husband Rock Hudson straight, but frankly the portrayal of that couple is relatively tender given the sordid conduct of everyone else. Then Otash falls in love with the actress Lois Nettleton, and we are reminded that behind the glitz and glamour, Hollywood is still the land of dreamers and hopeless romantics.

Tomorrow is a drag, man! Tomorrow is a king-sized bust!: This is the dawn of the age of Camelot, and a certain Senator for Massachusetts with Presidential ambitions can’t help but dip into the boudoir delights that Hollywood has to offer. Such is the confluence between politics and entertainment, tabloid journalism and the silver screen, which makes the Devil’s work and Fred Otash’s payday in Widespread Panic.

The world I am describing could only stem from the fertile mind of James Ellroy, and Widepread Panic is a wild jazzy ride that readers will storm through in one or two breathless sittings. Reviewing the book for the Financial Times, Barry Forshaw describes Widespread Panic as the novel that will ‘win back the legions of fans who have deserted him’. It’s a sobering thought to think that Ellroy has lost fans. I would argue that they have become a bit jaded by the excessive demands that Perfidia and This Storm put on the reader. With Widespread Panic, Ellroy has found a comfortable middle-ground. The tone here is comic, but not in the outrageous-style of the Danny Getchell novellas. It’s Freddy’s first-person narration and Ellroy has a nice distance from the character. In interviews, Ellroy goes to great pains to specify that although he may have liked Otash and found him a veritable goldmine of information, he never actually respected or admired the man. He does succeed in reining in Otash’s more callous, venal nature at crucial junctures, such as in his love for Nettleton.

The structure is also Ellroy at his creative best. Widespread Panic is composed of three novellas – ‘Shakedown’, ‘Perv Dog’ and ‘Gonesville’- – which, when taken together, can also be read as a single novel. Widespread Panic may not be as epically perfect as Ellroy’s best work, but it will, I suspect, reassure a few waverers. And, as Ellroy has already indicated that there are more Fred Otash books to come, it signals a return to the 1950s Los Angeles setting of which he is the undisputed master.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    June 8, 2021 11:21 pm

    Glad to see the almost universal praise so far in early reviews. I’ve been excited for the book but also a little more leery than usual. The more openly comic style found in many of his shorter stories could go very wrong in a novel-length book (and I say that as someone who enjoyed the Danny Getchell stuff).

    At any rate, I was disappointed when all the talk of additional Otash stories a decade ago never went anywhere. Happy that he is now planning to dive further into that world-hopefully these are the types of side projects he focuses on for the remainder of his career rather than film and TV scripts that gather dust.

    • June 9, 2021 6:22 am

      Hi Dan, I did enjoy this book a lot. Ellroy captures Otash’s voice effortlessly. I think as Ellroy gets older he is less and less inclined to write movie or TV scripts that never get produced, no matter how good the money. So I’m glad he has tapped into his unsurpassed knowledge of Otash and the period for this book.


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