All The Wrong Places

All The Wrong Places - Joy Fielding

If Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places reads like a Lifetime Channel movie turned into a novel, it does so in a good way. Clearly there’s a sizeable audience for this formula, as Fielding’s nearly 50-year career with just-shy of 30 novels indicates.

After spending days in the impressive but depressing milieu of James Ellroy’s epic This Storm where everyone’s evil or at least mildly crooked, I needed a break from mid-twentieth century gangsters, cops, junkies, pimps and blackmailers (to say nothing of fascists and fifth columnists). So a non-crime fiction novel came home with me (still reading that one) along with Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, its color-saturated cover literally reaching out to me from the shelf, flanked as it was by two comparatively dowdy looking trade paperbacks. (So think about that when fretting over your books’ cover art!)

To be clear: I don’t read a lot of so-called ‘suspense’, ‘thrillers’, ‘psychological suspense’, ‘suspense thrillers’ and whatever other monikers publishers’ marketing departments dream up. Yet, there are a lot to choose from. Given a choice between sadistic serial killers/tortured victims vs. something retro and noir-ish, I’ll always go with the latter. But I’m not completely out of touch with this category, even if some thriller writers adamantly disassociate themselves from the mystery/crime fiction genre, presumably leery of genre labels.

All The Wrong Places updates the familiar ‘lonely hearts killer’ for the 21st century with charming ‘Mister Right Now’ prowling dating apps for his prey. Now I’m not sure what alternate universe you need to visit to locate women who are foolish enough to go to a blind date’s home after only one get-acquainted drink, but in All The Wrong Places they succumb to good looks, a beguiling smile and the promise of a handsome bachelor’s home cooked dinner. No surprise that once the meal’s laid out and the wine is poured, they suddenly find their hands cuffed behind their backs, a noose around their necks, and a long night of unspeakable torture and death in store.

Scenes of this icky torture (mostly kept ‘off screen’ in a kind of PG-13 level of ick) are interspersed among the novel’s main narrative trail, in which thirty-something Paige gives in to her hip widowed mother’s prodding to surf the dating apps herself. Paige is bunking down with Mom after leaving her unfaithful live-in boyfriend and losing her ad exec job. Meanwhile, Paige’s bestie Chloe endures a philandering husband’s hellish abuse, while they all suffer through trickery and worse at the hands of Paige’s scheming near-twin cousin, Heather, the novel’s resident bad girl…and in some ways, its real villain. Frankly, the story could almost stand on its own without the sadistic serial killer at all, even if it wouldn’t have ever found its way onto my to-be-read end table. Some readers will complain that Fielding chickened out at the novel’s climax. There’s no amateur sleuthing, Paige doesn’t vanquish the killer (or even encounter him at all outside of texts) , and even the bad girl’s fate is only implied, not depicted. But I think it was a surprisingly brave choice on the author’s part, particularly in a category that relies on formula.

So I’ve read my serial killer thriller for 2019, though I can’t swear that another won’t sneak home with me from a bookstore visit. Formula can be a good thing, particularly in the hands a talented pro like Joy Fielding, and all the more intriguing when a skilled writer chooses to bend the rules even a little.

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

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.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

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.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

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.

Dodging And Burning

dodging & burning

John Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning is subtitled “A Mystery”, and it is, though this is no ‘whodunit’, and as the complex story evolves, told from multiple points-of-view and in different times, no less, it becomes as much a who-done-what as a whodunit. Like most of my favorite mystery/crime fiction tales, this is less about the mystery and more about the characters themselves, the setting their tales unfold in, and the events that lure us into unexpected situations, almost indifferent to anything so simple as a crime being solved in the end. Because with the really great books, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Reminiscent in part of novels as diverse as Peyton Place and To Kill A Mockingbird, Dodging And Burning begins as a coming of age tale in a small WWII-era town. At first it appears there’ll be a brutal crime to solve, but the small town setting starts to feel a bit like Twin Peaks as we start to have doubts about the nature of the crime…or if a crime occurred at all. In Copenhaver’s capable hands, that alone would’ve made for a wonderful novel. But he delivers something infinitely more complex, probing characters’ painful secrets and revealing the era’s exciting but dangerous underworld of hidden sexual identities that could never hope to survive in 1940’s small town USA. The novel’s conclusion is bittersweet – in the telling, but also in the reader’s realization that the book is over. The fact is, you’ll want more.

‘A Mystery’? Sure. But no locked rooms, no private dicks, cartoon femmes fatales or gunsels waving snub-noses around. Whether the author planned to write genre fiction that was ‘more’ or ignored genre conventions altogether and the publisher is responsible for that tagline on the book’s cover, who knows. But this is one one hell of good read, and I’ll keep my eyes open for whatever might come next from this writer. Like Dodging And Burning, I bet it’ll be a surprise.

 

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