By James Ellroy
There is no American crime novelist who straddles the line between magnificent and ridiculous the way contemporary James Ellroy does. In his novels of the last 30 years, he has created a style at once staccato and baroque — often described as “jazzy” — with which at his best he tells stories freighted with real moral terror. Recently, though, his work has begun to feel slightly overripe: his plots growing ever larger, ever more Byzantine, ever more cartoonish, and his writing pruned further and further toward the gnomic. “This Storm” continues this trend.
The book is set in and around Los Angeles in 1942, continuing Mr. Ellroy’s obsession with midcentury life in this city. It features Nazis, the ethical and racial questions surrounding the internment of the Japanese, communists, stolen gold, submarines off the coast of Baja, and a man getting his feet burned off in a pair of deep-fryers, in addition to his usual collection of dirty cops (including his Miltonesque anti-hero Dudley Smith), prostitution rings, blackmail schemes, crooked politicians and appearances by Veronica Lake. And that’s only in the first 50 pages.
Mr. Ellroy is a terrific plotter and all of these lines, or most of them at least, find satisfying payoffs. He is equally good at portraying venality, and one never doubts that he has the minute details of the time and place down cold. But despite this skill, there is increasingly in his work a feeling of indulgence, as if the things that were once most alive and stimulating in his writing have become calcified, matters of ego.
His style, comprised of minimally phrased sentences, feels at times like an avoidance of writerly engagement, instead of an intensification. He has begun to struggle to convey character, falling back too often on what feel almost like parodies of his earlier work. Where once he was able to successfully convince the reader that his world was the dark underside of our own, his events the hidden foundation of our reality, now it feels as though he’s hectoring us about how we must accede to his paranoid landscape. This makes numerous elements of the novel feel overstated, exaggerated and ultimately false. There is a great deal of entertainment in these pages still, but there is also now a fair degree of silliness. And that, given Mr. Ellroy’s many past accomplishments and terrific skill, is a tragedy.