Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.
This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.
If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.
Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.
This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.
Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.
A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.
Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.