Under the shadowy umbrella of crime fiction, James Ellroy has spent decades rewriting America’s history. From the glamour of classic Hollywood to the rise of the Kennedys, he’s scraped off the glitz to reveal the maggots writhing underneath. Steadily his prose has evolved (or devolved depending on your tastes) from a lugubrious evocation of Chandler into a telegraphic rat-a-tat that reinterprets Mickey Spillane as a free jazz maverick. The prose doesn’t so much jolt as skitter to a machine gun pulse, each short sentence a different little snapshot of horror that, laid together, comprises the hellish zoetrope of Ellroy’s America. For nearly a decade, the eccentric author has been working on the follow up to his classic L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), with the Second L.A. Quartet a four volume WWII-era prequel to his densely interconnected literary universe. However, clearly the self-appointed ‘Dean of American crime writers’ has been chafing under the restrictions of writing prequels, as his new novel is a stand-alone narrative. Indeed, the newly released Widespread Panic has all the hallmarks of an artist blowing off some steam with a quick and dirty novel that revels in its own sordidness.
Our questionable hero is Freddie Otash, a cop, private eye, Hollywood fixer and the sleazy real life inspiration for Chinatown’s Jake Gittes. For a stretch in the 1950s Otash was the beating heart of the infamous scandal sheet Confidential, using a combination of violence, wiretapping and plain extortion to get the dirt on any number of Hollywood celebrities. It’s in his voice that the novel is written (there’s an original conceit of him telling the story in Purgatory but that withers away to nothing fairly quickly), and it’s that voice that’s probably the litmus test for any prospective readers. Here’s Otash describing a porn premiere: “It’s the egalitarian epicenter of postwar America. It’s a colossal convergence of the gilded and gorgeous, the defiled and demented, the lurid and the low-down. This seedy summit set the tone for the frazzled and fractured frisson that is our nation today.” Ellroy’s best work throws ugly racism and horrific violence at the reader in a savage refutation of the myth of the innocence of the past. It’s often hard going and shocking, but surprisingly Widespread Panic’s endless hepcat alliteration is a million times harder to wade through. Ellroy has long been a fan of this 50s tabloid affectation and it’s definitely enjoyable in small to medium doses, but here he’s let it consume him.
Stripped of the Japanese Internment backdrop that so vividly underlined his last two books, Widespread Panic comes across as an explosion of cheap thrills. Whilst Ellroy’s such a stylist (even through the alliteration) that the whole thing is still far more fun than it has any right to be; there’s no getting around the fact that this is a lesser, even slightly self-parodying, work by a great author. It’s hard to begrudge any writer as good a time as Ellroy seems to have had with this (the enthusiasm fairly drips through the paper), but for anyone other than committed Ellroy fans, you’d have a better time with L.A. Confidential and a bottle of bourbon.