DOCUMENT INSERT: 4/25/1940. New English Weekly, review of The Thirties, authored by ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR (reference file #FL2380) under the alias “GEORGE ORWELL.”
What a decade! A riot of appalling folly that suddenly becomes a nightmare, a scenic railway ending in a torture-chamber.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 10/21/2018. Retrieved from crazydaysandnights.net.
A crime novelist/journalist, best known for his books about the L.A.P.D., will release next year yet another doorstopper of perversion, violence, brutality, and racism, featuring his usual cast of rotating narrators, one of whom is, of course, a tall redhead. This one will be set in the first months of 1942 in wartime Los Angeles, and there most likely will be conspiracies, crime, and corruption around every corner. He’s recently been anointed as part of the American Canon of writers with a deluxe edition of his best works; has he still got the mojo with this one? Readers will find out soon enough.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 2/11/19. Electronic mail exchange between GRANT NEBEL (“WALLFLOWER”) and JOHN ANDERSON (“SON OF GRIFF”).
GN: An approach we can take for our review: do it as a conversation, but intersperse it with excerpts of news reports, history texts, our emails and texts, Hush-Hush parodies, like that--do something like one of Ellroy's "jump chapters." Make something multivocal and way too expansive, just like Ellroy [visual icon indicating ‘smirk’]
JA: I'm up for that!!
wallflower: The first thing to note about James Ellroy’s This Storm, a sequel to and improvement on Perfidia (which took place in the five weeks surrounding Pearl Harbor; This Storm covers early 1942), is that it’s a musical novel in at least two senses. Ellroy has always credited the Romantic composers with inspiration, and beginning, correctly enough, with White Jazz, there’s been a musicality to his prose, with short rhythmic phrases repeated like motives (often handed off between different characters like a Classical quartet), a sense of character across novels that favors the structure of variations-on-a-theme over continuity in a larger story, and both a large sweep and attention to detail that justifies novels of 500+ pages. (In these terms, the problem with Perfidia was that it was a prelude stretched to symphonic length; the material didn’t require the scale.) Ellroy continues to give himself over to musicality in This Storm; one way in which he does something different is that although he retains the same multiple-POV structure he’s used since The Big Nowhere, here, the POV characters are much more unified in their narration and what they know, so that a detail in one short chapter comes into play immediately in the next one. (There are fewer secrets kept here, and the ones that are kept become more devastating.) A musical model here would be my man Elliott Carter’s Penthode, with five groups of instruments each taking turns at a single melodic line.
More than that, though, and possibly for the first time since Brown’s Requiem, this is a novel about music. Ellroy’s characters have always interacted with the arts, and as of Blood’s a Rover, been fascinated by them (think of Joan Klein serenading Dwight Holly by playing Beethoven’s late quartets), but here he jumps it to the forefront, making it part of the characters and the plot. Conductor/composer Otto Klemperer is one of the featured minor characters, the journey of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to America is a featured subplot and gets the last scene, Dudley Smith falls in love with a cellist, performances of Medtner and Sibelius aren’t examples of name-dropping but defining moments for characters. Ellroy has never made his love of this material so obvious, and it’s something new in his fiction.
DOCUMENT INSERT: Sound recording. Excerpt, Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony #7 in C major, op. 60, “Leningrad,” first movement.
There’s something more tangled and more interesting going on here. In his introduction of L. A. Confidential last year at the Egyptian that we attended, Ellroy said “I don’t write noir, I write historical romances.” Which is quite clearly true after reading This Storm, but more than that, Ellroy wrote not just a historical romance, not just a romantic history, but a Romantic history, and all that implies. The major subplot of the novel is a Fascist/Communist collaboration that draws in artists, dreamers, and schemers of all kinds; more than anything, it feels Wagnerian, the attempt to realize a mythic world and impose it on everyone lesser: “I can tell you that the far Left and the far Right share a lot of spit, because what they really hate is the square white man’s U. S.” (There’s even a fascinating variation on the Rheingold.) Ellroy has used elements of this kind of attitude before, but here he steers dead center into it, the way that art leads some people to believe they are exalted above all others, and therefore deserve to rule them. He locates this at a moment of history when every category of gender, nationality, morality, and loyalty was completely up for grabs.
Son of Griff: As usual, you precisely zero (ahem!) in on the distinguishing feature of this second quartet. It’s a phantasmagorical variation of the hard boiled brutalism displayed in the first. This is less of a shift and more of an evolution. Since the 1990s Ellroy has deployed his trademark staccato sentence structure with syllabic rhymes, repetition, and alliteration. The guttural impact of profanity, casual racist invective and crude witticisms are detonations launched from his linguistic arsenal. The compactness of his sentences never stand in isolation from the surrounding paragraphs and chapters. Their structure draws readers into the narrative while challenging the complacency of their presumed moral superiority to the characters, provoking empathy, and even sympathy, for history’s devils and sinners. His writing is about getting the reader to experience moral ambiguity than merely reporting it.
Even though Ellroy’s stylistic sophistication has been fairly evident since the early 90s, audiences have continued to evaluate his works through the expectations of the crime fiction genre. This is understandable, as compact sentence structure, relentless narrative drive, and elaborate yet controlled plotting define crime fiction in both popular and academic criticism. Hard boiled crime stories, such as those published in the fabled Black Mask magazine, often mirrored the prose of “yellow” journalism, using blunt, precise language to reveal a clandestine underworld of social reality censored in the loftier realms of polite literary society. Ellroy has acknowledged this tradition. The titles L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid pay homage to this disreputable style of scandalous reportage. Gossip schmeerers like Sid Hudgens and Lenny Sands populate his pages. The complexity of Ellroy’s plots and conspiracies, and his frequent deployment of what Eddie Muller would call “Noir Apostle” character archetypes, have drawn comparisons to the novels of Raymond Chandler. Ellroy’s earlier books might accurately be described as an extension of a literary genre.
Yet, even in the 90s, Ellroy began describing his books as “transcendent” of literary categorization. His poetic literary technique illustrated this, but describing how the elements of style supported their content was a more daunting task than merely discussing genre. With This Storm, one feels the inadequacy of using genre to describe the totality of the text. Yes, there is a central mystery here (in fact, three interrelated quests pointing to the aforementioned fascist/communist cabal), but the book also swooningly evokes a grand surrender to the emotions of mass politics, sex, and substance abuse, and resistance to those forces in the form of moral rectitude. The single melodic line, I’d argue, is that the imperatives of tragedy, that action precedes consequence, is preserved here, but that the integration of its more profligate romantic opposite generates an unresolved tension that feels more modernist, more fluid and unresolved. As a result this novel expresses, in a single epic, the diversity of Ellroy’s image as both an artist and public intellectual. Dare I say, it synarchistically combines the concerns of his memoirs, journalism, public persona, with his professionalism as a novelist.
wallflower: Reading This Storm, it’s unmistakably and completely Ellroy, which is another way of saying that he loads it with his usual materials: language, events (there’s only one Russian roulette moment, though), and characters (Dudley Smith shifts into more of a Dwight Holly role with Hideo Ashida; Hideo himself has more than a little Danny Upshaw to him). This could be phrased as a complaint (oh, Ellroy is just up to his old tricks again, when will he do something new) but more than anything it reminded me of another favorite artist of mine, someone who’s received the same criticism but also has a vision as singular and as grand as Ellroy, Terrence Malick. With both, you pays your money and you gets what’s coming; with both, there’s a certainty that they write or film this way because there’s no other way they can do it. Both in their 70s, they make their art with the unselfconscious conviction of youth. For an even more musical analogy, Shostakovich’s middle seven symphonies, including the “Leningrad,” are all remarkably similar from technical perspective and wildly diverse from an emotional one.
Probably Ellroy’s most publicly successful work of his career will remain American Tabloid, with the (First) L. A. Quartet just behind it. In those works, he applied his mad skillz to foundational and defined moments in American history, really in world history. The ten years of the Quartet saw the creation of the modern city with its modern police force, and Ellroy gave us Dudley Smith as the presiding daimon of that moment, a force beyond a single person. The “reckless verisimilitude” of Tabloid mapped the collusions of, in the wonderful modern phrase, “non-state actors” and their state counterparts in creating epochal historical events. What he’s doing here is something different, and its impact will be different, because Ellroy has turned away from what those works did. This isn’t anymore what he called the concern of Tabloid and its successors, “the private nightmare of public policy”; this is the personal nightmare of public policy, largely apart from the world we live now, a fictional landscape where the real contours are those of Ellroy’s psyche. That’s the true Romanticism here, the will of Ellroy to shape his obsessions and name it history.
He can do it here in a way he couldn’t in the L. A. Quartet because he’s working at an essentially different moment of history. The two works This Storm most directly called to my mind were Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and James Jones’ almost-finished Whistle, and you nailed it with the description “phantasmagorical”; for all the attention to investigative procedure here, this is closer to the multidimensional reality of Pynchon than the straightforward (but, like Ellroy, multiplied) narrative of Jones. What all three novels hold as common knowledge and display on every page is the understanding that wartime had suspended the rules, and possibilities of every kind went to flood stage. What’s also common to the novels–and this is where Ellroy breaks with his earlier works–is the hard certainty that this is temporary, that the events of This Storm, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Whistle do not create a postwar order, that the characters who are lucky enough to make it will not live this kind of life again.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 5/18/2019. The Guardian, interview with JAMES ELLROY.
INTERVIEWER: The characters in This Storm are lurid, brash, vulgar. There is now an occupant of the White House who could fit that description. What’s your opinion of him?
ELLROY: I don’t talk about politics in any circumstances. The current day in America has nothing to do with my books.
Let’s look at some of those characters, the melodic material of the symphony that Ellroy organizes here. I’ll consider not the best or most complete characters (Hideo Ashida, here and in Perfidia, probably gets drawn with the most skill; the prose that depicts his arrival at Manzanar is Ellroy at his most beautiful and haunting) but the most memorable. Begin with “Whiskey Bill” Parker, who’s successful as a character in the way that A. I. was successful as a Spielberg movie: because he doesn’t fit into Ellroy’s universe. The back half of the first L. A. Quartet was dominated by the battle between two characters, Dudley Smith and Ed Exley, and both of them were icons; Exley in particular was the embodiment of ambition manifested as a rage for order. Parker, probably more responsible than any other one person for the shape of the modern LAPD, was never an icon on their level, and Ellroy wisely kept him in the background in the earlier novels. He implicitly rebukes the Great Man view of history with that and reminds us of something all historians discover: the people behind large historical events are only rarely large people themselves.
Parker is much more suited for the less epic, more novelistic treatment he gets in Perfidia and This Storm, and the current novel benefits by making him a less major character. In Ellroy, Parker’s defining quality is his guilt; where Exley took charge of leading the LAPD into the modern world, Parker can’t quite leave the old one behind, and can’t get himself fully into the new one. He deals and conceals and takes on the guilt of all of it, and like any addict, the guilt is part of the high, part of what he needs. (“He caroms between God and Old Crow bonded bourbon in the hope that the former will obviate the need for the latter.”) This kind of character can make for an insufferable protagonist–he’s defined by feelings rather than choices–but works great as a kind of ground bass in This Storm, a background that both harmonizes and contrasts with the other characters. Just about all Ellroy readers will know what becomes of Parker, and that’s another way in which he functions as a historical bassline. Whatever happens with the other characters, Parker will endure and he’ll make our world. In Gravity’s Rainbow terms, he’s the Captain Blicero/Werner von Braun figure–”if you’re wondering where he’s gone. . .Look high, not low.”
Dudley Smith was an unsolved problem in Perfidia, one that was emblematic of its problems as a whole: Ellroy couldn’t get all his characters operating on the same level of reality. To take one of many many examples, when the fictional Kemper Boyd pimps for the historical Jack Kennedy in American Tabloid, it’s believable, even unremarkable. In Perfidia, the fictional Dudley and the historical Bette Davis don’t feel like they’re part of the same world, and when Ellroy throws in walk-on characters from other novels (like Scotty Bennett from Blood’s a Rover or Ward Littell from Tabloid/The Cold Six Thousand), it’s even more jarring. As I said earlier, the continuity across novels is that of music rather than narrative, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the variation of Dudley in Perfidia, but Ellroy couldn’t harmonize all the different character melodies there.
This Storm, though, makes them all work. On a technical level, he’s cut down the number of walk-ons from earlier novels, and he has the advantage of having already introduced the major players in Perfidia. Also, he’s unerringly made the right choices of which characters to foreground and which to background (and that’s something that can make or break a composition, as any orchestrator/producer will tell you) and how much depth to give each one. In the case of Dudley, he does two things that make all the difference: where Perfidia’s Dudley was caught between a close-grained novelistic depiction and an icon, here Ellroy goes all the way in on the former; more importantly, he creates a plot for Dudley that he’s never done before: Dudley Smith Gets Totally Fucking Owned.
It’s different from L. A. Confidential/White Jazz, which was a full-scale Exley/Dudley battle that Dudley lost, a contest of strength against strength. In This Storm, Ellroy explores Dudley’s true weakness: women, and his simultaneous need to impress and succumb to them, with just a few grace notes of what his mother and childhood in Ireland did to him. In one subplot, he pursues a cellist who manipulates him into killing her brother, and it resolves without a payoff in a way that reveals just how thoroughly he got played. There’s no sense of determinism here, no David Chase-like feeling that Dudley couldn’t be anything else; he still makes choices, and those choices determine his fate. Here, he’s never been more like the great, iconic rogue cop of our era, Vic Mackey; and like Vic, the women in his life throw his failure in his face.
Early in This Storm, this happens: “Dudley plucked a Nazi hat and tried it on. It was too small for him,” and I laughed my ass off; I was ambivalent up until then but now I was fully on board for what Ellroy was doing: not a condemnation of fascism but an honest exploration of its appeal. Later, Kay Lake notes that Dudley isn’t a Nazi, he’s a fetishist, and it’s the balance between the two passages that show how Ellroy uses Dudley here: the man who goes fascist not out of conviction, not even out of hatred, but because it gives him a sense of grandeur that he doesn’t have for himself. Scaling down Dudley to a detailed, novelistic character makes him vulnerable to this; you could call this version of Dudley Smith The Conformist. Like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ellroy illustrates a true historical theme rather than portray historical fact.
DOCUMENT INSERT: Sound recording. Excerpt, Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony #7 in C major, op. 60, “Leningrad,” first movement.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 5/29/2015. Excerpt from L.A.P.D. ‘53, written by ELLROY.
There’s an upside to eras of stratification and repression. It’s this: People comported themselves in a more dignified manner. They believed in God and the rule of law and feared divine and civil censure. . . .Crime is a continuous circumstance. Crime is individual moral forfeit on an epidemic scale.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 1953. The Adventures of Augie March, by SAUL BELLOW (reference file #C98425).
Everybody knows that there is no fineness and accuracy of suppression, if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 2007. “Proverbs of a Teenage Witch,” conjured by NINA ANDERSON.
It’s called the Jelly Donut Theory of Life: you press on the donut hard enough, the jelly has to come out at the end.
Son of Griff: Most historical romances, particularly those centered around crime scenarios, tell stories that run parallel to, but occasionally intersect, with real life events and personages. The first L.A. Quartet falls into this category by making Parker a powerful institutional presence relegated to the background. By establishing a regimented chain of command, fragmenting operations into varying bureaus, and disciplining his officers (during, for example, the “Bloody Christmas” fracas), the L.A.P.D. sets parameters constricting the actions of characters such as Ed Exley, Dave Klein, Buzz Meeks and Dudley Smith. These actions suggest that the police are controlling their excesses in the name of achieving “clean solves” and a more precise execution of law and order . However, the exercise of power dictates the clandestine application of sterner measures. The departments objectively quantified but racially specific “containment” of criminal activity to minority neighborhoods blocks significant social reform that would bring it under political oversight.
This attempt to apply pressure is grotesquely parodied by Smith’s conspiracy to corner and restrict the heroin trade to South Central L.A.. The deployment of the “Gangster Squad” and anti-communist intelligence units in White Jazz to smear politicians and housing activists further amplifies this rage for departmental autonomy. The ability to keep societal norms in line is intimately tied to law enforcement authoritarian independence from politics.
As demonstrated in Robert Towne’s Chinatown screenplay, subordinating historical details to context allows artists to foreground what Werner Herzog calls the “ecstatic truth”, that lends cathartic meaning to generic formula. For Ellroy, that truth starts on the notion that rights exist under the maintenance of social order. An “order before law” mentality is his default position, and his works have used violence committed by “bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority” to dramatize moral dilemmas pertaining to how far one can press badness to achieve good before an ultimate reckoning for these sins catches up with you. In a recent Q&A with The Guardian, Ellroy even states that he has no interest in setting any future novels past 1972, as our contemporary civil liberties oriented legal perspective wouldn’t sustain a narrative concerning the issues he wants to explore. The first L.A. Quartet and the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy operate in a universe defined by borders, institutional and racial hierarchies, and sexual repression in which crime serves as an escape valve for the pressures of conformity. They perfectly align with the values and traditions of 20th Century crime fiction.
In contrast, as you point out, both Perfidia and This Storm kick out any notions of society being defined by a fixed set of moral propositions. Characters are cast adrift in a delusional wave of mass political sentiment, and their sense of personal boundaries when it comes to sex, drugs and criminality vanish in the euphoric haze of social discombobulation and vacuous patriotism. Whereas the earlier books posed questions posed by the necessary fictions of social order, the latest volume emphasizes morality as it pertains to personality. If LAQ 1.0 asks at what point does maintaining order effect the guardians of social control, LAQ 2.0 asks how far does unleashing the harness on our personal license reveal the limits of our own nature, and what personal, as opposed to political, alliances might emerge from such existentially derived revelations.
As you point out, the Bill Parker and Dudley Smith of This Storm are different beasts whose actions provide a musical counterpoint to each other. Although both push themselves towards greatness on account of their inadequacies, their personal psychologies stand in marked contrast to each other. Smith sees the corruption embedded in the police and the Church as unalterable vices, and he finds no problem in resorting to Machiavellian power plays so as to best his advantage. Parker justifies his ambition in the belief that, by professionalizing the police, he can assuage the self loathing stemming from his alcoholism and adulterous urges through some form of compensatory social good. (The notion that the L.A.P.D. is a monumental embodiment of Catholic guilt is a marvelous Lutheran conceit.) Smith suborns men to amass power and authority in compensation for the loss of protective father figures. Parker suborns women to convince himself that he can exercise self restraint. Smith subconsciously thrives on the approval of powerful women, while Parker seeks to manipulate and judge them. The psychosexual components of Parker’s personality comprise more than a mere attempt to impose a “reckless verisimilitude” over a parallel narrative running in tandem with the known historical record. It creates a fabulist alternative history with Parker’s psychodrama a) providing a dramatic contrast to Dudley, b) a trajectory for understanding the future contradictions of the actions and policies of the L.A.P.D., and c) an allowance the book’s women to rise to the foreground as collaborationists and traitors whose actions are beyond the men of the book to control..
Up to this point we’ve discussed this book in grandiose, masculine terms. It strikes me that women have been playing a bigger role in Ellroy’s fiction since Blood’s a Rover. What do you make of women in This Storm?
wallflower: Helen Knode called The Cold Six Thousand Ellroy’s “women’s novel,” and given the central role that Janice Lukens Tedrow has in the plot, that makes sense. Ellroy advances that further in Perfidia, not always successfully, by bringing back Kay Lake from The Black Dahlia. She’s an almost mythical, talismanic figure, getting the opening narration of Perfidia and This Storm, lines like an invocation: “Reminiscenza. I wandered off in a prairie blizzard 85 years ago.” She’s a participant in the action but also a commenter, the Ishmael figure, and Ellroy nails her voice in This Storm in a way he didn’t in Perfidia; her earlier voice was too close to Blood’s Marsh Bowen. She’s much more distinct here, and much more moving; she gets to clash with the other women in This Storm in a kind of dance of multiple recognitions. Ellroy would never be so reductive as to write a novel where the women are Good to demonstrate that the men are Bad; they make choices and take the consequences because that’s what characters do, that’s who he writes about. The women are often caught between multiple loyalties and fulfill all of them, which means they also betray all of them. They’re agents, in both senses of the word, and that calls up another line from Gravity’s Rainbow that applies just as much to the Second L. A. Quartet: “everyone here seems to be at least a double agent.”
The real kicker of This Storm, the moral center and plot pivot, the most conflicted player in the game, is Joan Conway, the obligatory Ellroy tall redhead. In her first scene (the first hours of 1942), she kills a Mexican family while driving drunk, and Bill Parker covers it up. She spends the rest of her story running as hard as she can, away from guilt, and in This Storm’s most shocking and most powerful scene, it catches up to her. In between, she rotates between being Parker’s lover and Dudley’s (ain’t no love triangle like an Ellroy love triangle ‘cuz an Ellroy love triangle is equilateral), converses with Kay Lake, keeps an eye on Hideo, and gets caught up in a chase for both gold and revenge.
Joan’s chapters are the most energetic of the novel; what Ellroy gets here, the moral ambiguity that you so rightly note that he makes us experience, is the feeling that present action substitutes for past crimes. It’s a figurative skate on thin ice, where I can see the deaths just under the surface that she almost never mentions. Milan Kundera sez that “the struggle against totalitarianism is the struggle of memory against forgetting”; Joan captures the feeling, again, that the moral arc of the universe has momentarily broken, the sheer thrill of that, and the opportunity it gives for Fascism to well up in the break. (On a shorter time scale and for an intertextual connection, think of Guy Pearce in L. A. Confidential and Memento, both running away from past crimes.) Like everything else in This Storm, it’s a moment that cannot last; and even with my earlier comparison of Dudley to Vic, even with my oft-stated assertion that The Shield has an Ellrovian morality, there’s a fundamental difference: there is no such thing as “getting away with it” in an Ellroy novel. Joan pays her price, because everyone does.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 1995. Excerpt from American Tabloid, written by ELLROY.
It always jazzed him when women nailed his shit.
That morality is central to all of Ellroy’s books, and the man himself; he’s always made his worlds work through sheer force of conviction; what he achieves with these characters is that they’re all versions of him. Joan is the hard, stern, Lutheran morality, the belief that there is such a thing as sin and that the universe comes back on sin to punish it (it’s what he took from noir; in his words, the central theme of the genre is You’re Fucked) coupled with the need to push himself to the limits of that morality, in language and in life; Dudley is, in this book more than any other, his relationships with women, as anyone who’s read My Dark Places or The Hilliker Curse could tell you; and Parker is both the sweet desire for order and the guilt and ambiguity over what that order costs. Even now, Ed Exley’s comment in White Jazz “the public has no idea what justice costs the men who perform it” defines a world; Ellroy’s own morality is about the cost justice brings even to the imagination, and This Storm displays it from start to finish.
Expanding the scale, going from these particular characters to the Ellroeuvre, I dig very much your comparison of the two Quartets. The First Quartet launched with The Black Dahlia, which was also about “unleashing the harness on our personal license” and the “moral alliances” the come from that. There was a passion and mania in Dahlia that Ellroy openly acknowledges came from his obsessions over two murder victims, Elizabeth Short and his mom. What wasn’t there, what he really started to develop in The Big Nowhere and he’s improved on in nearly every novel since then, was the sure sense of large-scale structure, the craft that makes a story of multiple characters, plots, timeframes, backstories, and settings all hold together and keep me turning the pages. The level of craft here takes a big jump from Perfidia; for anyone who thinks Ellroy has lost his touch, dig this paragraph and watch how it collides all the major characters (including the narrator, Kay Lake), most of the subplots, and drags in a minor character for good measure:
Elmer evinced shocked outrage. He had brushed up against the events that Joan had described since New Year’s. HIs brother died in the Griffith Park fire and was surely involved with Karl Tullock and the summer ‘33 robbery spree. Elmer had been cuckolded. His friends Hideo and Joan told him nothing. They ran their rogue investigations and brought in Dudley Smith. Elmer was enraged. Two purported friends had betrayed him. Elmer feared and hated Dudley Smith. Dudley had facilitated Joan Conville’s and Hideo Ashida’s lies and omissions. Elmer’s hatred now burned that much more fearlessly and recklessly bright. Sweet Elmer, combustible Elmer. Now dangerously close with Buzz Meeks–who hated Dudley and did not fear him at all.
What gives This Storm its unique feel is that combination of personal, youthful obsession with a veteran’s craft. By placing all his characters at earlier stages in their lives, he plunges us into the chaos of their feelings but also sees them–and shows them to us–at a distance that’s admiring rather than ironic. Keeping the Romantic analogy going, This Storm is a rewrite of an earlier symphony, specifically The Black Dahlia; the style has evolved and transformed but the emotional core stays unchanged and as powerful as it was 35 years ago. I suspect that’s because the same emotions that drove him to Dahlia retain their power over him, and he makes sure they hold the same power over us.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 6/2/19. Electronic mail exchange between JOHN ANDERSON (“SON OF GRIFF”) and GRANT NEBEL (“WALLFLOWER”).
JA: The big issue that drives me nuts is how Ellroy is measured against other crime writers so his more innovative stuff isn’t discussed or is seen as self indulgent. There is a real sense of non engagement with most reviews I come across.
GN: can I include this in the conversation?
Son of Griff: It’s interesting that you began this last entry talking about The Cold Six Thousand, which is perhaps the only post-Suicide Hill novel that Ellroy, to some degree, has expressed some ambivalence towards. In The Hilliker Curse, Knode, who was the author’s wife at the time, privately told her husband that she felt that the book was “too insular,” meaning, I think, that it was too wrapped up in the most repressive aspects of the male psyche. When speaking of the novel on tours prior to its publication, Ellroy spoke of wanting to explore the erotic possibilities of monogamy, a clear attempt to weave a redemptive thread, based on what, back then, seemed to be a happy marriage, into his dark work. That chronicle represents a lot of things, but it barely explores the liberatory aspects of sustained intimacy. Based on comments he’s made since, I think that he now sees the work as an expression of his toxicity at the time, and a sign of the onset of his nervous breakdowns and recurrent battles with addiction that he fought in the 2000s. Blood’s a Rover begins the process of integrating insights gleaned from this “fugue state” into the L.A. past that he now subjectively imagines.
That said, I do believe that The Black Dahlia serves as more of a prelude to this second quartet than to the first. The sexless domesticity of Kay Lake and Lee Blanchard’s relationship, based on the latter feeling haunted by the weight of responsibility for the death of his sister, seems eerily prescient in light of what happened to Ellroy’s own marriage after he re-investigated his mother’s murder. Perhaps more importantly, Lake, Elizabeth Short, and Madeline Sprague act on their own wills and agendas independent of servicing male authority. In hindsight, those characters are tightly fitted to standard film noir female archetypes, but Ellroy gives them major latitude and as much characterization as the strictures of the hard boiled romance allows.
As the L.A. Quartet, and the first two volumes of the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy explored the nefarious sides of serving as middle management to institutions of order, I do feel that, with the exception of “The Red Queen” Claire de Haven in The Big Nowhere, women serve to underscore the aims and personalities of the men in their orbit. Lynn Bracken and Karen Hughes are well drawn, but they don’t have the possessive will to act on their self-interest.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 9/7/2010. Excerpt from The Hilliker Curse, written by ELLROY.
My mother and I continue. The force of her–the pure, feminine, complex, ambiguous, bereaved force of her–drives me to this day.
The romantic turn in Ellroy’s last four books seem motivated by the author’s continued personal meditation on the impact that his mother’s murder exercised on his personality. In The Hilliker Curse, he attributes his excesses, and creativity, to the repression of his memory of her, and with it the contradictory feelings of lust and hatred he experienced under her matriarchal control. At the memoir’s end, Ellroy writes that he will cease writing biographical works related to his mother’s murder. Her continued presence manifests itself in his novels, in the return of female autonomy, the will to accept it, and a recognition that one always pays the costs and bears the responsibility that comes with freedom. In Perfidia, Kay Lake, like Parker and Smith, remain stuck in a Hamlet-like funk as to how to act in accordance to their convictions. Their choices ultimately boil down to “do everything, or do nothing.” Here, those actions emerge and alliances coagulate along moral fault lines found a state of licentiousness and mass delusion. More significantly, it also allows Ellroy to integrate the personal with the imaginary, which subsequently bridges the L.A. of history and memory. Destination: Morgue!, a collection of non-fiction articles and short stories attempted to fuse history and imagination, but in This Storm it all starts to connect through the delirium of repressed memory. Joan Conville dreams of suffocation, and Dudley converses with wolves and summons his deliverance through donning Nazi regalia. The relationship to the material and the psychic world of dreams is porous.
This is, nevertheless, an unflinching look into the male psyche, and Ellroy finds numerous ways to explore the mechanics of vision and desire as it pertains to controlling, or being controlled, by the romantic opposite. With Hideo Ashida, his “man camera” technique in reconstructing crime scenes, of isolating and focusing in on anomalous details to solve cases, stems from the secret, motion activated cameras he uses to spy on men he lusts over. A Pasolini-esque cinematic recreation of the Night of the Long Knives (directed by Orson Welles) instigates a Wagnerian bacchanal in the Hollywood Hills. Dudley relives memories of physical abuse at the hands of his mother in fragmentary opium induced flashbacks. Since the 1990s Ellroy has wanted to write a history of sexuality in tandem of that of the American underworld. Here he achieves it in the dialectic of male control and the transcendental female spirit, and in the synthesis of the two coming conjoining in alliance.
As I indicated in my opening salvo here, This Storm constitutes an attempt to collapse the boundaries separating his non-fiction and short stories from his novels. The personal toll of revisiting his mother’s murder has pushed Ellroy’s representation of history from journalism towards metahistory, where memory and psychology redraw time and place into something less realistic and more fabulistic. In this novel, the stylistic jocularity induced of the Dick Contino and Danny Getchell stories returns, although thankfully with reduced consonance and alliteration. Ellroy is clearly working on a personal synthesis of his creative output, and the contours of history, as it is publicly monumentalized in museums and scholarly tracts, is willfully and unapologetically contorted to fit that project.
wallflower: In the First L. A. Quartet, Ellroy threw in every kind of history, from documented, agreed-on fact to the rumors he picked up from his dad and Confidential magazine. Gravity’s Rainbow played a similar but more expansive strategy, where Pynchon broke the accepted distinction between fact and fantasy and instead employed the sliding scale of probability of Roger Mexico (and Bruno Latour), constantly shifting between the two points. This Storm inherits from both: historically, because we’re at the moment when History comes into being, where artists imagine that reality itself can be shaped to their will, when reason has indeed gone to sleep and monsters are birthed everywhere; but also personally, because Ellroy’s obsessions have pushed him to the point where they can’t be contained by a realistic framework any longer–like, let’s say, a melody that starts quietly and innocuously and develops into something absolutely terrifying.
DOCUMENT INSERT: Sound recording. Excerpt, Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony #7 in C major, op. 60, “Leningrad,” first movement.
Style is the thing you can’t help doing, and Ellroy’s style is a biography of the man; it’s gone retrograde in a historically fascinating way. Beginning with The Big Nowhere, the language was unmistakably modern in its tone and function, post-Hemingway and post-Hammett, sentences that could be broadcast over the radio or narrated in a noir. That language got tightened with L. A. Confidential; it was one more version of the modernist project of taking art back to its materials, Ellroy reducing the language so far that the punctuation carried a narrative (and therefore a moral) force with it. The highest expression of this modernist language came with American Tabloid. Ellroy has never written a book so certain, where every line (and therefore every event) feels necessary. That’s why it functions as his strongest version of an origin story for America; it’s not so much written as transcribed. Morton Feldman, one of the great modernist composers, called this the dream of every artist: to create a truly anonymous work, to create (in my words) as God creates.
The Cold Six Thousand proved to be a dead end for that kind of style, and Blood’s a Rover shifted Ellroy into something older. I called it Mahlerian, and he’s continued with that style through Perfidia and here. Ellroy has moved backwards, but not so much into Romanticism as to Mahler’s moment, the early 20th century, the fracture point between Romanticism and modernism, when the the complexity of the systems and the will of the artists started to fracture both of them. It’s the moment of Mahler, of Arthur Schnitzler and Traumnovelle, a point when art started to rip away from its traditions, which is to say its rules. Ellroy’s style has transformed because he has transformed; he’s no longer working in history, not even the compilation of fact, rumor, and mythology of the First L. A. Quartet. The risk of personal obsessions subordinating history is that of losing the stability of history, or perhaps confronting the instability of it. For all the repetitions in characters, language, and incident here, Ellroy has been working without a net from Blood’s onward, and that he’s hit twice and missed once in this style should come as no surprise.
Great artists trip up our sense of time; Feldman made a distinction between the artists of their time and those who “rise above it.” What has thrown critics about Ellroy, methinks, is the way that his development has gone counter to history in several senses. It’s not just his fuck-you to progressive political sensibilities, it’s also his open and sincere embrace of older forms of narrative and language. One of the many weaknesses of progressivism is its refusal to understand history, its assumption that whatever Good Thing of the moment isn’t just good but an ideal, something eternally true (which gets shot down with the next Good Thing); Ellroy’s life and career is made up of a merciless understanding of how much we’re made by the past. It’s no wonder, then, that he would discover himself in a music and a language that predates his birth by a generation and a half; like Pynchon with Mason and Dixon, what he’s doing now isn’t affectation or parody, but the truest expression of who he is.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 1891. Excerpt from “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” by FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER (reference file #W544).
The aim of History is to know the present by understanding what came into the present from the past. For the present is simply the developing past, the past the underdeveloped present.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 1/30/1987. Excerpt from The Legacy of Conquest, by PATRICIA NELSON LIMERICK.
When academic territories were parceled out in the early twentieth century, anthropology got the tellers of stories and history got the keepers of written records. . . .When anthropology and history moved closer together, so did their subjects of inquiry, tribal people or nationalists, tellers of stories or keepers of account books, humans live in a mental world in which reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.
Son of Griff: For all that this novel presents in the form of a irreducibly personal direction for Ellroy, I think that there is also a thread of continuity that one should not dismiss. Throughout his literary career, Ellroy has treated historical fiction as an antidote to sentimentality, both in detective fiction and in American exceptionalism, the notion that America’s instincts are good because they derive from our essential nature. American Tabloid famously begins with the lines, “America was never innocent. We broke our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.” The power in that line rests not only with the bluntness of its expression, but in the Anglo-centric centeredness of its image. That “cherry breaking” involved stratifying the diversity of the American populace to the will of economic of political imperatives initiated by English (and to some degree, Spanish and French colonists) and their descendents. His novels insist that the past consists of boundaries, borders, and racial and moral hierarchies established by powerful interests, not popular consensus. The implementation (and subsequent abolition and reconstruction) of slavery, the establishment of borders between nationalities by conquest, the de jure and de facto distribution of opportunity and wealth on the basis of race, class and ethnicity, and the shifting definition of whiteness form the stress lines leading to recurrent cycles of historical conflict and change. We are not a nation whose values stem from the organic consensus of Rousseau’s general will, but a network of neighborhoods to which power is unequally distributed. The political awareness of any given era is a recurrent echo of this inherent, and unalterable iniquity, and Ellroy’s chronicles dramatize the jelly getting squeezed out from the legacy of these conditions.
When invoking his demon dog jive, Ellroy has expressed a nostalgia for the repressive proactiveness of mid century progressive policing espoused by Parker and Dragnet. Yet in his fiction Ellroy goes beyond this schtick. In this new series the mass internment of the Japanese and the importation of labor from Mexico during the Second World War illustrate an era’s particular restructuring of the meaning of race, borders, and the privileges of citizenship. Likewise the privilege of self-policing bestowed to Chinatown’s Tongs constitute a form of segregation. The periodic reframing of issues pertaining to the unequal distribution of power are the stuff of history. As you pointed out several years ago in your overview of the books now collected in the Everyman Library omnibus volumes, Ellroy accepts these inequities as the cornerstone upon which the morality of crime fiction is built. A permanent basis of iniquity begets criminal collusion, but never justifies it. It sets the stage for the justified interdictment by authority. Power must give rise to, “acts of individual moral forfeit” so the punishment of these acts can be pursued. An innocent society cannot produce criminal intent, or the moral imperative to suppress it.
This Storm thus countermands a particular nostalgia in contemporary World War II remembrance; the notion that “good” men fought a unified war to fight an unjustified attack on their values from outside forces. Ellroy does not shy away from condemning the aggression pursued by the forces of imperial Japan and its allies, but he does refocus the direction of his gaze towards the original sins of American history. This is not a war in which the viability, and rightness, of competing political systems, are determined by military outcomes. The novel interprets “the good war,” in short, not in terms of an aggrieved affront by a foreign power on American territory, and by extension, its values, but as a civil war that affirms the will to affirm control over the the personal abuse of power embedded within the confines of the homefront.
DOCUMENT INSERT: 12/17/1941. F.B.I. surveillance tape, subversive public gathering, Pershing Square, Los Angeles, California. Speaker: KAY LAKE (reference file #L12533).
We live in a time of the vile act justified. Vile acts spawn immediate and reactive injustice. Such reaction is obscured in righteous intent. The empathetic bond of shared catastrophe creates an unshakable will to power that each and every one of us to a world outside of and most deeply within ourselves. . .History is this moment and at this moment we are charged to love and hate on a mass scale, and we act as individuals called to the best within ourselves, as we react to atrocity by emphasizing atrocity, for atrocity assumes forms both subtle and strident and obliterates everything within its path, and as individuals we are thus charged to the near impossible tasks of enacting love that much more ruthlessly, and with a self sacrifice that would have been unknowable if History had not summoned us.
One form of criminal malfeasance that Ellroy indicts are forms of of authoritarian mass politics that advocate some form of an end to history, be it in the form of fascism or communism. He mocks the fantastical cosmologies that seek to vanquish the materiality connecting people and society to the past. This suspicion of extremism implicitly evoked in much of Ellroy’s earlier work is much more explicit here. All of the major crimes in This Storm revolve around a motley assortment of communists, nazis, Mexican synarquistas, and gold seekers, whose stated ends profess advancing a revolutionary overthrow of the social order, but whose actual agenda is more prosaic and cynical. They are criminals well aware that the moral forces of American history, unleashed by the furiousness of war, foreshadows the collapse of their respective utopian orders.
For their adversaries, the will to achieve justice isn’t based built on abstract philosophy, but through an alliance of people with complimentary aims guided by their own experience. Fate, as it circulates in the delirious ether of early WWII, chooses which characters will ally with each other in fighting criminality. Ultimately, this is why Hideo Ashida, the reticent yet brilliant coroner introduced in Perfidia, emerges as the most significant character in the sequel. At the beginning of This Storm, fears of internment (and the exposure of his homosexuality) draw him towards the protective cloak of Dudley Smith, who soon initiates his protegé not only to the more aggressive side of police work but also into his criminal enterprises involving heroin smuggling. As the novel progresses, he even falls into an unrequited romantic reverie with his protector, yet his conscience remains ill at ease with the illegalities he is asked to perform Gradually he is drawn into the orbit of an anti-Dudley alliance led by Kay Lake, and in the final chapters his ambivalence drives a grand bargain for the Dudster’s future that Hideo spends an heroic degree of energy to uphold. Hideo exemplifies what, in his introduction to the Everyman editions, Thomas Mallon distinguishes as Ellroy’s greatest attribute: his novels don’t have detectives; they have protagonists. In This Storm the furies of war drive the characters to a fated destiny towards salvation or perdition. It details a great moral struggle entangled in the whirlwind of indeterminacy that leads to a grand and satisfying reckoning.