James Ellroy never does anything half way. He plunges you into the dark American soul to its twilight depths, reader be damned. At times his books can be disorienting, but they are never boring. No modern writer is ambitious as him. He puts all the chips in on his latest, This Storm, both a sequel to Perfidia and the second book in his second L.A. Quartet. At over 600 pages it is a mammoth story, sprawling on plot, cohesive on theme and character.
Ellroy said that he wanted to get across the idea of war as opportunity and we follow several home front opportunists at the beginning of 1942. Ellroy’s go to demon, Dudley Smith drives most of the entwining plot strands. The police sergeant, his cops, and his women are on lurid quests for a rapist, an old murder case, stolen gold, and fifth columnists in Mexico. All of them driven by ulterior motives or to cover up smuggling drugs or cheap labor.
Two other LAPD members figure prominently. Japanese American forensics expert Hideo Ashida returns under Dudley’s thumb to avoid an internment camp stay. Hillbilly cop Elmer Jackson takes on a larger role than he had in Perfidia, tracking down a case from a discovered decomposed body that could be tied to an old unsolved arson that killed his brother.
Ellroy also brings his female characters up to the forefront. Joan Conville, who played a part in The Underworld USA trilogy is a young Navy nurse forced to work with Ashida to avoid manslaughter charges from a drunk driving accident. Kay Lake, from The Black Dahlia, proves to be both enemy and ally to her. Even Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia herself, also makes an appearance.
Everyone is scheming, murdering, backstabbing, and forming alliances for profit, survival, and politics. Sex and desire also fit in. Many get caught up in their sins, even Orson Welles, but few are innocent.
Ellroy embraces the dark heart of his characters. He pulls us in through the heady seduction of their sins. They are addicts to their behavior. He takes it up a notch in this quartet to the turn on of fascism, something were fighting abroad, while many embrace at the home front. It is exemplified in Dudley Smith who has taken up a swastika embossed gold bayonet as a favored weapon.
This Storm is not for the timid, for both its violence and vision. Its staccato style burns through those 600 pages, outracing the reader at times. You don’t fully grasp the novel until days after reading. Ellroy takes us on a freewheeling rip through Hell brought to you by The Greatest Generation. Buckle up and trust no one.