Saturday 19 October 2019

This Storm: White knight of the far right's new examination of powerful and corrupt

Crime: This Storm,

James Ellroy, William Heinemann, €22.99

This Storm
This Storm

JP O'Malley

In June 1958, the body of James Ellroy's mother was found on a football field in Los Angeles after a vicious sexual assault and strangulation. The killer was never brought to justice, but the traumatic event left Ellroy with a gruesome vision of humanity. In Ellroy's fictional underworld, cops and clerics, whores and hustlers, and pimps and politicians all cross paths in a murky milieu where power and pleasure always collide.

If James Joyce's Dublin acts like a metaphor for western civilisation and the chaotic curve of history, Ellroy's Los Angeles, you could say, symbolises the United States's historical lust for violence masquerading as morality.

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Like Tolstoy, the American crime writer's novels are big and bold affairs; forensically examining society as if it were a series of Matryoshka dolls: with each layer that is peeled back we learn that corruption and vice is like a rampant virus. In his philosophical and literary vision, however, Ellroy is probably closer to Dostoevsky: whose work consistently exposed the darker side of human nature and the perpetual temptation between good and evil.

Some knowledge of Ellroy's previous books are needed to understand this current novel, his 15th to date. His mainstream breakthrough came in the late 1980s with the LA Quartet: this included The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz: two of these novels became major Hollywood motion pictures. Ellroy's USA Trilogy then followed.

Perfidia, published in 2014, was the first book in the Second LA Quartet. Set in LA in December 1941, just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it placed real-life figures - such as young Jack Kennedy, the first-ever FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, and the actor, Bette Davis - alongside fictional characters from Ellroy's two other book series.

This Storm, Perfidia's follow up, begins just as 1941 is coming to a close. The torrential rain storms hitting Los Angeles make the city look more like Noah's Ark: here nobody can be trusted, least of all the cops with fascist sympathies who are supposed to be protecting the country's borders from turncoat wartime saboteurs. As the narrator aptly puts halfway through the narrative: "Fifth Column hoo-ha's [all] the rage now."

At nearly 600 pages and with a cast of over 90 characters, Ellroy sticks to what is now a tried and tested formula that works: a body is discovered, but the killers are connected to a larger conspiracy that links the local to the international. Ellroy's cool-cat bebop groovy prose seem to almost slide onto the page like a Coltrane record on repeat. This repetitive style can feel contrived and style trumps substance at every hurdle. It's not that the continual racism and misogyny from Ellroy's 2-D cartoon-like protagonists is terribly shocking, but just a tad dull, unimaginative, and unconvincing. None of this will put the loyal Ellroy cult off one iota. The so-called white knight of the far right has a fan base numbering in the millions who would follow him past the gates of hell.

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