James Ellroy’s rampage through American history continues, more furiously than ever, in “This Storm,” the second volume in a projected sequence titled the Second L.A. Quartet. The original quartet, which began with the 1987 publication of “The Black Dahlia,” offered interconnected accounts of crime and corruption in Los Angeles between 1946 and 1958. Ellroy followed this massive enterprise with the even more ambitious Underworld USA trilogy, which began with “American Tabloid,” one of the great fictional examinations of the JFK assassination, and ended with “Blood’s a Rover,” a jaundiced look at the Nixon years and the origins of the Watergate debacle. In these three novels, Ellroy raised the stakes considerably, using crime fiction as a vehicle to explore the public traumas — the war in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, the endless public unrest — that defined the era. In his new quartet, Ellroy moves backward in time to the opening days of World War II. The result is a portrait of life on the home front that only Ellroy, with his obsessive interest in the dark underside of the American story, could have written.
The current series opened in 2014 with “Perfidia,” which begins on Dec. 6, 1941, just hours before Pearl Harbor, and continues through 23 days of violence, virulent racism and rampant war fever. The novel’s central fictional event — the ritual murder of four Japanese American citizens — provides the armature for a scathing portrait of fear and hysteria, qualities that would lead to the forced internment of thousands of innocent Japanese. In the compromised world that Ellroy’s characters inhabit, the war represents chaos, destruction — and opportunity. For Ellroy, the war years become a kind of laboratory for a merciless examination of madness, corruption and unrestrained greed on the part of powerful white men “riding the zeitgeist for all it’s worth.”
“This Storm” begins one day after “Perfidia” and brings back a host of characters from earlier novels. (Many, we already know, will eventually come to appropriately bloody ends.) Returning characters include William Parker, alcoholic future chief of the Los Angeles Police Department; Ed “The Fed” Satterlee, a thoroughly dishonest FBI agent; Hideo Ashida, a brilliant forensic scientist caught between two warring cultures; and, of course, Dudley Smith, LAPD sergeant and emblematic villain of many Ellroy novels.
Three crimes — two of them old, one new — propel the narrative. It all begins when an incessant rainstorm dislodges a long-buried body in L.A.’s Griffith Park and connects two discrete events: the 1931 theft of a train carrying gold bullion and a 1933 fire that swept through Griffith Park. All of these crimes will ultimately intertwine; all are part of a single story. The quest for the missing gold — a quest that will involve many of the central figures and will assume obsessive proportions — dominates that story. As he did in “Perfidia,” Ellroy handles the criminal elements with flair and shows an impressive grasp of the investigatory and forensic techniques in use at that time. By the novel’s end, the interrelated mysteries have been resolved, and it’s exciting, page-turning stuff — but it’s only one aspect of a novel that has other, bigger things on its mind.
Ellroy is as much social novelist as crime writer. Even in earlier, more personal novels such as “The Black Dahlia” — which serves, in part, as a memorial to his own murdered mother, Geneva Hilliker — the social backdrop is meticulously drawn. The world Ellroy re-creates is filled with grifters, lowlifes of every stripe, corrupt politicians and police officers on the take. Most centrally, the world of these novels reflects a racism so profound that it comes to seem a fundamental aspect of the American character. There are few, if any, heroes in these books. In the moral universe Ellroy has constructed, the most irredeemable people run the world. Set against them are the occasional flawed individuals — “This Storm’s” Elmer Jackson, an LAPD sergeant with a distaste for needless cruelty, comes to mind — who learn that there are lines they can never cross, who somehow step back from the moral abyss that surrounds them.
All of this comes filtered through a lurid, instantly recognizable tabloid sensibility that delights in skewering the rich, the powerful and the pretentious. (For examples, see Ellroy’s near salacious portraits of Orson Welles, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, to name just a few. You will never view them — or their movies — in quite the same way.) And this, in turn, comes to us by way of the familiar staccato style that Ellroy first developed in 1990’s “L.A. Confidential.” It’s a style that utilizes fragments, truncated sentences, profane interjections and period slang to deliver large amounts of information in tightly compressed form. It’s not always an easy, reader-friendly style, but it effectively reflects the jangled, chaotic nature of life in L.A. in the early days of the war. With “This Storm,” Ellroy has reached the midpoint of his most ambitious undertaking to date. The final two volumes can’t come quickly enough.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By James Ellroy
Knopf. 608 pp. $29.95