This Storm requires, by my count, 20 close-reading hours (abandon TV, all ye who enter here). And the novel is a mere foothill around the mountain of the two intermeshing “Los Angeles Quartets” of which it is part six. James Ellroy writes big... Ellroy disdains the apparatus of realistic fiction — plot work, character development, scene build-up, fine writing. He is disinclined to read other novelists lest they put un-Ellrovian ideas into his head. The narrative sprawl is held together by structural plot elements... Ellroy is undeniably one of the most influential crime writers of our time. But can the raw energy of his fiction outweigh the disgustingness and balderdash? Yes; if you see his novels as antidotes to the fake sunshine that Los Angeles, via the big screen, has blown in the world’s face for a century. But if you like your LA crime well-crafted stick to the ever rereadable Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley. Your choice.
This Storm isn’t a police procedural – it’s too sprawling for that – but interrogation is the basis of its narrative engine, with fog-clearing info-dumps delivered during grimly inventive torture scenes. The frequent bed-hopping does the same job: you suspect Ellroy sees the funny side when Jackson’s lover says: “You came here to pump me... And I’m not talking about in the sack.” Often, the novel reads like the result of a hyper-caffeinated storyboarding session, with characters that seem to matter less than the cynical, conspiratorial world they represent. It hardly helps that the vast cast is full of aliases and near-homophones, including a José Vasquez-Cruz who “was really Jorge Villareal-Caiz”, and a serial killer known as the Werewolf, who pops up alongside the Wolf, a separate, spectral apparition. Relentless and disorienting it may be, but Ellroy has never been a five-pages-before-bed kind of writer; his vision is more the fever dream after lights out.
The list of dramatis personae features the names of more than 90 real and invented characters, many having already appeared in Ellroy’s work. Hollywood stars and Jewish refugees rub shoulders with fifth-column fruitcakes and subhuman filth. Treachery, debauchery and depravity are the order of the day. Smith, wise to his own evil ways, puts it thus: “We’re the end result of our curiosities and the extent to which they’re sated.”... This Storm, a baroque and playful masterwork, is repulsive and propulsive, obsessive and compulsive. The juvenile delinquent has become nothing less than a giant of American literature.
Without a doubt, Ellroy aficionados will love This Storm. Others may baulk at its length and complexity, or at its headlong momentum. Possibly, in an era when many readers complain if they cannot find likeable or ‘relatable’ characters in a novel, there will be those who dislike the fact that everyone here could be described as morally wanting (to put it kindly). Yet surely it is one of the uses of fiction to explore, if not to rectify, the moral failures of any age...What Ellroy shows us, time and time again, is not only the ugliness of corruption but also the shame that infects an entire society when the guilty are permitted to go about their business so brazenly and with such a clear sense of entitlement that we no longer recognise what is right and what is most surely and inarguably wrong.
Whereas the teeming plotlines of American Tabloid build into something powerfully symphonic, in This Storm Ellroy seems in a rush; beyond the book’s primary mysteries – a triple homicide involving two policemen, the identity of a decade-old corpse found after a landslide, and the location of a hoard of Nazi and Soviet gold – subplots are resolved almost as soon as they come to light, and every obstacle that arises is hurriedly circumvented, usually with disappointing ease. It’s as if Ellroy, or his editor, is worried we won’t be able to keep up. The result is a lot of noise but little resonance: sound and fury signifying not exactly nothing, but nothing much...Elmore Leonard said of The Black Dahlia that “reading it out loud could shatter your wine glasses”, but repetition turns what feels fresh into schtick. With each overfamiliar phrase and recycled character trait, Ellroy’s dark world, once so vast and threatening, becomes smaller and more cartoonish.
For readers who keep track of these things, “This Storm” is the second volume, after “Perfidia,” of Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet. (For my money, the most notable novels in his great saga are “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A. Confidential,” the first and third books of The L.A. Quartet. But honestly, you can pick up the story anywhere.) Here the characters in those previous novels are younger and dangerously reckless. And this time we take a long look at Hideo Ashida, “crack forensic chemist and sly sleuth,” who barely escapes internment by covering up a bookie racket: “Great shame undermines his great luck.” Until it runs out, his luck is also ours: Of all the flawed characters caught up in the swirl of this epic novel, he’s the guy with the most heart.
There are a dozen other main characters and at least three main stories that dovetail at the end: clearly Ellroy is having a blast using wartime LA as his playground, with Nazi sympathisers knocking about with other diabolical and cynical grotesques. Ellroy remains one of the most exciting literary stylists in the English language... It’s been five years since the last novel from the self-described “Demon Dog” of American letters, but it’s worth the wait. Like all good jazzmen, Ellroy works very hard indeed to make his music flow so easily.
James Ellroy, once called ‘the American Dostoevsky’, is a great writer. His searing depictions of crime and punishment, corruption and betrayal in the LA police department during and after World War II are, quite simply, masterpieces. Who can forget The Black Dahlia or L.A. Confidential?... Using his sweeping, staccato style, and slang that can take time to penetrate, Ellroy paints a portrait of a city consumed by violence and greed — set against a backdrop of torrential rainstorms that sweep the city. If only the rain could wash away the ugliness, it suggests, but it cannot. Epic crime writing from a master.