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ZaSu Pitts: A Life of Mystery

August 2, 2019

ZaSu Pitts

I’m currently researching figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and I’m amazed at how many talented, tragic, quirky and sometimes bizarre characters the era produced. Many of the names have, over time, drifted away from public consciousness. Take for example ZaSu Pitts…

ZaSu Pitts was an actress and comedienne whose career stretched from the Silent Movie Age right through to the birth of television in the 1940s and 50s, ending with her cameo role in the all-star comic extravaganza It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963. She was known primarily for comedic and dramatic roles. However, she had an abiding love of mystery fiction and would have loved to have played more parts in this genre. She was disappointed to have narrowly missed out on roles in the screen adaptations of And Then There Were None (1945) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). As it turned out, her life was full of mystery and intrigue and she played a key role in some of the strangest chapters in Hollywood history.

ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas. ZaSu is a compound name taken from her forenames Eliza Susan, and it became her professional and legal name. Even ZaSu’s year of birth is something of a mystery. Her obituary in the New York Times and headstone place it as 1900. However, Pitts’ biographer Charles K Stumpf puts her year of birth as 1894. To make matters more confusing, the ZaSu Pitts film festival celebrated her centenary in 1998.

Barbara La Marr and her son Donald Gallery

In 1922, Pitts’ acting career was in full swing, and she celebrated the birth of her daughter ZaSu Ann with her first husband Tom Gallery. Pitts’ nanny would bring baby ZaSu to the film sets to visit her mother at work. It was on the set of Souls for Sale that Pitts met fellow actress Barbara La Marr. La Marr was also having a baby brought to her every day, but under considerable secrecy. As Pitts’ biographer Gayle Haffner describes, ‘Each day La Marr’s maid brought a large covered picnic hamper concealing the infant inside.’ Pitts befriended La Marr and during their spare moments on set together, La Marr revealed the truth about her baby boy Sonny. La Marr had given birth while separated from her husband. To avoid a scandal, the pregnancy had been kept secret, with La Marr’s pre-natal weight put down to overeating. As Sonny was getting too big for the picnic hamper his existence couldn’t be kept a secret forever. An elaborate cover-up was put in place. Sonny was placed in the care of the orphanage Hope Cottage in Dallas. One of Hope Cottage’s chief benefactors was Texas Klan leader Zeke Marvin. He arranged for La Marr to make a public appearance tour of the Cottage, during which the actress would, by chance, spot Sonny and choose to adopt him. In addition, La Marr agreed to name the child Marvin after the wily Klansman. The plan worked and, as it happens, Hope Cottage is still active nearly a century later.

Alas, shortly after her ‘adoption’ of Sonny, La Marr contracted tuberculosis and died on January 30, 1926. She was twenty-nine years old. Pitts looked after Sonny during much of La Marr’s illness. La Marr’s deathbed wish was for Pitts to raise Sonny, which she happily did. Pitts and her husband Tom Gallery legally adopted Sonny (no ruse was necessary this time), and he took the name Donald Michael Gallery.

Don Gallery went on to have an extraordinary life. Raised among the stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was friends with and dated Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor. He attended Stanford Law School and enlisted in the Army Air Corp during World War Two. Pitts did not like the idea of her adopted son on combat duty and used her celebrity influence to get him grounded in a desk job. His post-war experience was more adventurous. He was assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps and tasked with hunting down war criminals. He later worked as an actor in Hollywood and investigator with an insurance company. He retired to Puerto Vallarta where he founded a popular Writer’s Group in 1998. He was an expert on Hollywood history, and he held scathing opinions on the adopted children of movie stars who claimed their parents never loved them. Gallery’s biological father and exact date of birth are not known. Gallery suspected his real father was his godfather Paul Bern. Bern was a screenwriter and director who visited Gallery frequently at the Pitts’ home, often bringing gifts. Bern died in 1932 of an apparent suicide, just two months after he had married Jean Harlow.

Thelma Todd

It would seem Pitts had a habit of befriending short-lived and ill-fated actresses. Pitts became good friends with the actress Thelma Todd and they starred together in seventeen comedies. On December 14, 1935 Todd visited Pitts at her home. Todd was her usual friendly self, spoiling Don Gallery with an early Christmas gift. Todd went to a dinner party at the Cafe Trocadero that evening hosted by Ida Lupino. The next morning Todd was found dead in her car in the garage of Castillo del Mar, a sprawling residence owned by the married couple Roland West and Jewel Carmen. West was Todd’s lover and business partner in her newly opened restaurant Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. There were immediate suspicions of foul play in the death of the twenty-nine year old star. Todd had been seen in an altercation with her ex-husband Pat DiCicco at the dinner party. DiCicco had called Lupino and begged for an invitation at the last minute. She reluctantly invited him, however, he never took his seat at the table but was seen dancing in the Trocadero with a good-looking date, which initiated a loud argument with the humiliated Todd. DiCicco had underworld connections and there was evidence to suggest Mob figures were trying to extort Todd’s business, hoping to run a gambling den from inside the restaurant. However, the LAPD found that Todd’s death was most likely accidental. Todd had found herself locked out of West’s house and she had taken refuge in her car in the garage, possibly turning the engine on to keep warm and inadvertently causing carbon monoxide poisoning. Todd’s friends, including Pitts, insisted she displayed no signs of suicidal feelings. A grand jury probe failed to find any evidence of murder. Todd testified before the Grand Jury and Gayle Haffner argues this cost her a role on a radio show, such was the salacious nature of the story. Whatever the exact circumstances of her death, the premature passing of Thelma Todd was a traumatic experience that would stay with ZaSu Pitts for the rest of her life.

Madge Meredith

In 1947, Pitts found herself embroiled in another mystery. Madge Meredith was a talented young actress whose promising career was cut short when she was convicted of orchestrating the beating, robbery and kidnapping of Nick Gianaclis and Verne Davis. Meredith was fresh out of drama school when she met Gianaclis, who was Greek by birth, in Los Angeles. He became her business manager. As a restaurant supply man, he wangled her a job as a waitress at a studio commissary. It put her in close contact with movie power-brokers and soon she was landing minor and then substantial film roles. Meredith bought a home on Magnolia Drive in the Hollywood Hills. Gianaclis lent her a few thousand to make the down payment, but in doing so he conned her into putting his name on the deed. He lived at the house for a while, but Meredith kept things strictly platonic and was growing tired of his constant romantic advances. She fired him as her business manager, stating she wanted more professional representation now that her career was taking off. It would mark the beginning of a long nightmare for Madge Meredith.

Meredith and Gianaclis arranged to meet in the Hollywood Hills to discuss property rights. According to Gianaclis, Meredith led him and his bodyguard Verne Davis to a secluded area. She blocked the road with her car and then three men in another car showed up who subsequently beat up, robbed and kidnapped Gianaclis and Davis under her instructions. One of the men was assigned to watch them, but Gianaclis caught him off-guard, took his weapon and called the police.

Gianaclis’ story was complete hokum. Gianaclis and Davis, who could have given acting lessons to Jussie Smollett, had staged the crime by inflicting minor injuries on each other, to wreak a terrible revenge on Meredith. Meredith was arrested and held without bail. She was in jail for a full eleven months before she was found guilty at trial. She was sentenced to five years to life and began her sentence at the dreaded California Correctional Institution, which is now a Supermax, in Tehachapi. Meredith also lost her Hollywood home to Gianaclis during her incarceration.

Pitts had been following the case in the news and had her doubts about Meredith’s guilt. According to Haffner, it came to Pitts in a dream that Meredith must be innocent. She visited Meredith in prison, bringing with her a bag of toiletries as a gift, and came away convinced that she was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. Pitts agreed to do what she could to secure Meredith’s release. She contacted lawyer and author Erle Stanley Gardner who began pro-bono work on Meredith’s case. Meredith was extremely grateful to Pitts, especially as she felt she had not had adequate legal representation at the trial. LA historian Joan Renner also identifies Herbert Schofield (a retired banker) and Charles E Wilson (a real estate businessman) as two men who worked diligently on Meredith’s behalf, interviewing witnesses and putting pressure on the authorities to reopen the case. In 1954, almost five years after she had been found guilty, Meredith’s sentence was commuted to time served by the Governor of California Earl Warren who called the case ‘a mockery of investigation, of defence counselling, of trial procedure, and of justice itself.’

Meredith was released from prison. She regained her house from Gianaclis who, it seems, never did prison time for perpetrating a serious miscarriage of justice. He did, however, have his application for American citizenship denied. Meredith and Pitts became friends for life, and unlike several of Pitts’ actress friends, Meredith was blessed with longevity. She died at her home in Hawaii in 2017, at the age of ninety-six.

Aside from her successful part in securing Meredith’s release from prison, the 1950s would be a quieter decade for Pitts. Her career began to wind down as her health began to fail. But this would not prove quite the end of Pitts life of mystery. While recovering from an operation, Pitts was visited at home by a nurse who helped her to change bandages, dispense medication and generally check up on her. The nurse was a woman who had cared for Pitts at St John’s Hospital, and was someone the actress liked and admired.

Her name was Jean Ellroy.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Mr Campion’s Visit – Review

July 18, 2019

It’s 1970 and an aging Albert Campion is appointed Visitor to the newly constructed University of Suffolk Coastal. Campion finds the role of Visitor as baffling as the murky world of academe itself. It’s not clear what his employers expect him to do, except give the occasional speech to oversexed undergraduates. The campus has been built on the site of Black Dudley, the stately home which, forty years earlier, was the setting of the very first Campion novel. It’s tempting to say Campion hasn’t changed much over the intervening forty years even if the architecture has. Medieval cloisters have been swept away in favour of modernity and the Brutalist architecture which was popular in 1960s and 70s Britain. Campion himself is still urbane, flirtatious and masking a sharp mind behind his other-worldly manner. That said, the excellent Mr Campion’s War revealed the murky acts of espionage Campion committed for Blighty during the war have hardened his soul, and the rapid changes happening in post-war Britain have given him reasons to become more cynical with age. Despite this, he still lights up at the thought of a good lunch and a mystery to be solved.

It’s not long before a death on campus gets Campion back to his more natural role as a sleuth. Professor Pascal Perez-Catalan is a geochemist whose brilliant career is cut short when he is found with a knife in the back. The Latino Don was noted for his fiery left-wing views (he supports Salvador Allende in his native Chile), and his unparalleled skills of seduction. So was his murderer a right-wing fanatic, a rival colleague, spurned lover or a jealous husband? Campion must get to the bottom of it all. On his way, he stumbles across the mysterious ‘Phantom Trumpeter’, who plays the Last Post every midnight without fail, and wrestles (almost literally) with giant outdoor chess pieces. Budding chess players on campus can play a game against one of those newfangled computers, an invention which Campion’s loyal manservant Magersfontein Lugg confidently predicts will never catch on.

Mr Campion’s Visit is another triumphant addition to the Campion series by Mike Ripley. It’s both engrossing as a mystery and frequently very funny in its depiction of academe. This reviewer has visited the campus on which the University of Suffolk Coastal is based –trust me, Ripley nails it! In fact, one might say that Mr Campion’s Visit has all of the elusive qualities of an ideal academic– it’s eccentric, effortlessly witty, detached (in the best possible way) from the real world and fizzing with great ideas.

Campion

Ten Years of the Venetian Vase

July 6, 2019

Ten years ago this week Chris Routledge and I began the Venetian Vase blog. At the time we were working together on the book 100 American Crime Writers, and Chris thought we should set up a website to either directly promote the book or one that would look at crime fiction more broadly. I favoured the latter option as I thought it would give the site more longevity. Chris has since moved on to his own projects, but I remain eternally grateful to him for helping me set up this blog and, as a Raymond Chandler fanatic, coming up with the name.

It took some time, and a lot of hard work, but I think the Venetian Vase found its voice as a blog which publishes in-depth research on genre fiction. Oh, and if you enjoy the work of James Ellroy then this is the blog for you.

I owe a big debt of gratitude to everyone who has contributed to this blog – Diana Powell, David Hering, Chris Pak, Steve Hodel, Craig McDonald and, most recently, esteemed Ellrovian Jason Carter.

Thank you to all past, present and future readers, and a big thank you to the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.

Here’s to the next ten years.

Ellroy Ravenswood

When I interviewed Ellroy at his home in LA in 2009, the year I started the blog

Ellroy Powell

Meeting Ellroy ten years later in Manchester 2019, while he was on tour promoting THIS STORM

THIS STORM: Ellroy comes home

June 24, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. 

It’s the summer solstice, and it’s shitting rain.

Normally I hate storm clouds and rain during summertime, but today it’s rather appropriate.

Under a water-logged and overcast sky on Earth’s longest day, I entered the Tattered Cover, an iconic Denver literary institution. Nearly a decade ago, (October 22, 2009) I met James Ellroy for the first time at this boss bookstore on Denver’s Colfax Avenue, often regarded as the longest street in the U.S., and the annual locale for a badass Denver marathon. It seems appropriate then, that the Dog would return to this same location in his now hometown to introduce his new literary symphony, the ravishingly raucous and rain-reamed This Storm.

I’ve heard Ellroy’s “Peepers, prowlers, panty-sniffers” schtick plenty of times (it never gets old) but it’s always enjoyable to watch the shocked and astonished responses from people whom have never experienced an Ellroy reading.  Typically, these unlearned ones are quiet, conservative little old ladies, and there were quite a few in attendance.

Beyond that, the audience—pock-marked with refugees from the sunken Alamo Drafthouse—was much more diverse this time than in 2009, and I’d like to think there were plenty of new and potential Ellroy fans present. Right from the start, Ellroy told the double-digit crowd to refrain from asking him any questions pertaining to contemporary American politics and/or the current occupant of the White House.  “I live history, I breath history.  It’s not 2019. I pay no attention to what some people have called a tumultuous political climate.” This Storm and only This Storm was the star of the show.

This Storm and Perfidia celebrate the hard-charging, shit-kicking World War II America,” Ellroy began, calling his new novel “an instant American bestseller published to thunderous acclaim.”

Regarding the novel’s incendiary cover art, Ellroy bludgeoned any ruffled sensitivities.  “Dig it, it’s a Swastika—can ya dig it?” the Dog taunted.  “Live with it, it’s ok, calm down right now.”

tattered cover ellroy 2

Ellroy’s trademark profanity was a dynamic and conspicuous no show throughout the night, and there was a respectful and dignified reason for that: Tattered Cover’s presentation dais just happens to be in the middle of the children’s and young adult literature, so in a display of his copious morality and empathy, the Demon Dog went fuck-free, and even refused to read any passages from the book in regards for the numerous young children there. It was absolutely the right call. “There’s nothing I can read in this book that doesn’t have any reference to sex or pornography or profanity, so I’m not going to,” Ellroy told us.

“I expanded the text to enhance the emotional lives of the protagonists,” Ellroy said of the book’s production, launching then into brief summaries of most of This Storm’s major characters. “I live with their eyes.  I breathe with their soul… I loosened the constraints of my admittedly sometimes constricting staccato short sentence style in order to give you intimate access to my protagonists, who are the wildest bunch of mofo’s I’ve ever written in one book.”

Plenty of patrons asked Ellroy questions, though most of them weren’t about his new book. Helen Knode, the Demon Dog’s second ex-wife and current girlfriend, was seated directly behind me, and asked most of the Storm-specific questions.  “Helen’s read the book,” Ellroy said, pointing at her.

I asked Ellroy whether he felt Joan Conville was the novel’s conscience, and even quoted how the red-headed army nurse admonished Whiskey Bill Parker just like a guilty conscience would. He seemed to like my idea, somewhat. “No, Kay Lake is the conscience of the novel, but yeah…”

Always a master of nuance, the Demon Dog also threw his loyal readers a bone that may just explain his endearingly contradictory ways: “I’ve got the twin influences of my life in my head at all times: One, the Lutheran church, two, Confidential magazine: the moral vision and the sin at full blast, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the definition of an artist is someone who can hold concurrently two diametrically opposed points of view and retain their sanity… that’s me.”

Before closing out his speech with his standard recital of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft, or Sullen Art,” the Demon Dog left us in no uncertainty about his historical impact: “Who’s the greatest artist ever spawned by civilization? To me, it’s Beethoven, and if I am indeed the American Beethoven, I would call Beethoven the German Ellroy.”

It’s quite common for successful writers to be asked “what advice would you give to aspiring writers?” Most get away with “write what you know,” but Ellroy has for many years delivered a far more personal and pertinent instruction: “Write the kind of book that you like to read.” Tonight, he expanded on the genesis of that wisdom. “I was always looking for a giant book that would hold me longer than four or five days… Nobody was writing these books, and so many, many decades later—now—I don’t write what I know, as much as I write the books I wish I could’ve read as a kid that nobody else was writing.” I can relate to that. I waited years and years for a writer to directly explore Ellroy’s countless contradictions, and it never happened… until I did it myself.

Watching the Demon Dog interact with his fans afterwards gives you the sense that anyone who has ever accused Ellroy of being a pessimist and a misanthrope would stand severely corrected if they ever attended the autograph component of an Ellroy book reading (try it out sometime, Mike Davis). Ellroy was in great spirits this evening, and his enthusiastic gratitude seemed to pervade the whole room. In short, whomever said you should never meet your icons, has clearly never met James Ellroy.

When it came to my time, Dog signed both my hardcover and uncorrected proof of the book, and though we didn’t have much time or room to talk, the Reverend Ellroy endowed me with an august benediction: “Keep reading, big Jason”.

Yes sir, I certainly will.

Welcome home, Dog.

 

Jason Carter

This Storm third

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     

this storm 4

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

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.

Ellroy

James Ellroy at Waterstones in Manchester

 

 

 

 

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