James Ellroy shows us the Abyss of L.A.
Corruption is one of those everlasting concepts, seemingly about as old as the first society and about as enduring as the human race. Wherever there is a possibility for people to make great gains, even if at the detriment of others, you will always find a few willing to take advantage of it. At this point, many of us have even come to expect for a large part of authority figures to be corrupt, which is especially true for more turbulent places where inequality reigns supreme. However, I think we places can compare with abominable cesspool known as James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, a dark place we visit once again in his novel titled This Storm.
While this is where I would usually discuss the premise and plot of the book, in this case it will be a bit more difficult due to the very nature of the story and writing. Ellroy takes us to 1942 where the discovery of a body in Griffith Park jump-starts an underground war bound to spill over into the streets and wash away what little innocence is left in the city.
From there on out, the story takes on a rather episodic structure, following an incredible number of characters and different plot threads as they weave their way through the city. We have all kinds of actors on the stage, including police chiefs, politicians, opium den owners, Nazis, army profiteers, Japanese gangsters, the Mexican state police, Orson Welles… basically anyone and everyone who makes L.A. the city it is. While their stories might not always intertwine or even come to satisfying conclusions, they are here to present an equally compelling and wretched picture of true L.A. Noir fiction.
The Land without a Heart
In virtually any sort of novel, the author will always attempt to have at least one or two sympathetic characters, allowing the readers to relate with them and follow their adventures with pleasure. Forming a connection to those characters, it then becomes possible to root for them, cheer for their victories and feel saddened by their defeats. This Storm takes a different approach to this aspect of writing, presenting us with a world where I don’t believe a single sympathetic character actually exists, at least not without some Olympic-level mental gymnastics on the reader’s part.
Every person we meet, whether they are main characters or small players on the backstage, is in their own way self-serving and corrupt. I have to admit I had a bit of trouble with this particular aspect of the book because even though I don’t exactly need a good guy to be able to follow the plot, it does become a bit tiring to see every person being as corrupt as the previous one, if not moreso. While in my opinion it does take a bit of the heft out of criminal endeavours, I do recognize it as ultimately being an effective world-building tool, with the city of L.A. Becoming a character in itself, albeit one whose heart was torn out and replaced with a nebulous darkness.
It took me a bit of time to get used to this state of affairs, but once I readjusted my expectations for what this story was trying to do I had a much easier time enjoying each plot thread. Rather than seeing them as moving a story forward, I believe it’s better to interpret them as being brush strokes adding to the depiction of a dark city corrupt to its core. If this isn’t the pinnacle of what Noir literature is meant to be about (thematically-speaking), then I don’t know what is.
The Disorganized Structure
If there is one thing most readers will likely notice in the first few pages, it’s the extremely Noir writing style mastered by Ellroy. The sentences are all very short, direct and to the point, never delving into long descriptions or anything of the like. As a matter of fact, there are many cases where one sentence has virtually nothing to do with the preceding one, and if you aren’t used to this type of writing it can be quite difficult to follow. Personally, when I first got into Noir literature, I had to read books twice in order to actually understand them, so if you are new to the genre this is a real challenge you might have to deal with.
Is it worth going through with it? I would say it definitely is, for once you get used to this style it begins to reveal its very own charms to the reader. It actually makes for a fairly brutal and unrelenting pace and is quite suited for describing the dark and violent aspects of our world, giving us simple foundations to build upon with our imagination. It’s absolutely perfect for the seedy world Ellroy takes us to, characterized by dirty money, sexual scandals, prostitution, racketeering, drug trafficking and whatnot.
The one real challenge which endured for me throughout the book, which is about six hundred pages long, was keeping track of all the different characters and plot threads we were encountering. Because of the author’s style, he keeps jumping from one scene to the next almost without warning and it can get difficult to keep tabs on everything taking place and the implied consequences for other plot threads. While the author does include a Dramatis Personae at the end of the book to remind us of who is who, it’s still an incredible number of things to keep in mind.
The Final Verdict
This Storm demonstrates once again why James Ellroy is regarded as one of the most powerful and quintessential L.A. Noir writers of our time. It presents an unforgettable depiction of the dark, dirty and seedy side of humanity in Los Angeles, with enough interesting stories and diverse characters to keep you entertained for a long time. If you enjoy Noir fiction in general and/or Ellroy’s other works, I have no doubt you will absolutely love this book. If this is your first time entering the genre, I recommend you do so prepared to face a couple of challenges… but ones definitely worth overcoming.
James Ellroy, also known as Lee Earle Ellroy, is an American essayist and crime fiction writer who has written quite a few bestsellers in his time, including The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential, which was actually turned into a major motion picture. In 2015 Ellroy, alongside Lois Duncan, had the tremendous honour of serving as the Grandmasters at the 2015 Edgar Awards.