About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Shaky "Shakedown" from James Ellroy

By James Ellroy
413 KB, 66 pages
Byliner Inc. , Oct. 1, 2012
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

It was "The Wonder" that sucked me into the twisted universe created by L.A.-based crime novelist James Ellroy.

I began reading Ellroy's stuff when I picked up a copy of Clandestine in the early 1980s, not long after it was first released. I loved that book so much I read it again years later just to recapture my original rush of pleasure.

In Clandestine, LAPD Patrolman Freddy Underhill and his lover, assistant District Attorney Lorna Weinberg, are both well-drawn and believable and the other characters in the novel are equally vivid and unique. The plot is complex, the dialog tight and well-written. The novel has a refreshing moral complexity, playing hard against the question of whether a person can do good by violating his or her own moral code and the law.

Best of all, the entire novel turns on "The Wonder," the epiphanic sense of amazement that sometimes occurs when you unexpectedly learn somebody else's deepest, darkest secret. Protagonist Underhill first uses the term while describing how he bonded with his partner, the doomed patrol officer Wacky Walker:

"With Wacky it was poetry, wonder and golf; with me it was women, wonder and golf.  'Wonder' meant the same thing to both of us: the job, the streets, the people, and the mutable ethos of we who had to deal daily with drunks, hopheads, gunsels, weinie-waggers, hookers, reefer smokers, burglars and the unnamed lonely detritus of the human race."

The search for that electric moment of knowing, as raw and intimate as breaking into a stranger's house to rifle through the drawers and cabinets, looking for whatever might be hidden there, was why I had become a reporter. The "Wonder" was what it was all about.

I found myself an Ellroy fan, much as I already was a Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard fan, and began eagerly looking for each new book he published.

James Ellroy: Many hits, but a series of recent misses. . . 

Unfortunately, Ellroy began to lose his grip on me in 1995, about the time he wrote American Tabloid, the first of his "Underworld U.S.A." books. Ironically, what I most admired about his earlier works, including the so-called "L.A. Quartet" consisting of Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, was their structure and tight writing; Ellroy rarely wasted a word in those earlier novels, which were constructed as straightforward third-person narratives told from the point of view of an omniscient fly-on-the-wall. 

The new books, on the other hand, were more stylized, with passages of bebop language inserted here and there, high-flying hophead riffs in which Ellroy's exaggerated writing and feverish, drug-addled pace tried to capture the edgy undercurrent of the 1960s.  A lot of the new stuff seemed to me to be a waste of time -- a use of overwrought prose to disguise the fact that Ellroy was running out of story, of fresh new things to say.

I made it through American Tabloid but when I finished, I asked myself why I had bothered. I got two thirds of the way through The Cold Six Thousand before I put it aside, bored by the way its hyperbolic style overpowered its thin content. I got a copy of Blood's a Rover for a Christmas present the year it came out, but never even opened it.

I didn't like the change in Ellroy's material much, but I accepted it; after all, a writer has to write, even if he has run out of things to say.

Then a few weeks ago, I got a message from Amazon booming a short story by Ellroy called Shakedown that was being offered as a Byliner Original, a collection of terse tales published by Byliner.com. I could give Ellroy another chance for a measly $1.99.

I figured, "why not?"

As P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute and two to take him."

Shakedown purports to be the recollections of sleazy private eye Fred Otash, a real-life Los Angeles character who appeared in two of Ellroy's "Underworld U.S.A." books and reportedly served as the model for Jake Gittes in the movie, "Chinatown."

Otash, who conveniently died in 1992 (dead men file no libel suits!), was a one-time LA cop who set up his own bent detective agency to feed hot celebrity gossip and scandal to the cheesy rags like Confidential that sprouted from the soil of the Southland after World War Two like fungus following a summertime rainstorm in Los Angeles. 

The story in Shakedown is that since his death, Otash has been hunkered down in purgatory, suffering vengeful indignities visited on him by those he pilloried in his gossip rag items before his death. That comes to a substantial amount of vengeful indignities because Otash threw dirt on a lot of L.A. society types and movie industry figures.

"Purgatory is shitsville," Otash tells us. "You're stuck with the body you had on earth when you died. You eat nothing but coach-class airplane food. There's no booze, no jazzy intrigue, no women. My earthly victims visit my cell unpredictably. They remind me of my misdeeds and jab me in the ass with red-hot pokers."

Ellroy -- yes, the author himself appears in the tale -- has contracted with Otash beyond the void to buy his memoirs. Based on the raw material alone, this sounds like a promising if unlikely set-up for an actual full-length novel. 

But Ellroy doesn't really develop any of this material. Instead, he strings together a number of loosely related episodes into a jumbled patchwork that substitutes for a coherent narrative, laced with jive passages like:

"I laffed, I roared, I howled. My gut bounced and banged the table. Ellroy wrote a check and dropped it on my plate. Ten G's -- va-va-va-voom!"

It seems to me that Ellroy had enough material in the 66 pages assembled here to actually write a book. All he had to do was pad the stuff out and give it some sort of narrative flow -- one of the back-plots that drives his other novels for example: for example, an attempt to blackmail a fictional starlet or studio head that takes a bad turn and forces Otash to actually uncover a murderer.  

Such a plot device wouldn't force Ellroy to rehab his bad-boy private eye very much and would actually give the story the coherence it lacks as a short subject.

Unfortunately, it appears that Ellroy took the easy route, scraping together a pile of raw notes trimmed out of his "Underworld U.S.A." series and kludging it into a "novella" offered strictly for laughs -- and an opportunity to see how many dopes would plunk down two bucks on an obvious scam.

Much as I hate to admit it, I was one of those dopes. Thinking back, I wonder why I went for it.

It's the only "Wonder" that I managed to eke out of Shakedown.

(Next week: Joyland, Stephen King's new thriller. . .)

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