I met James Ellroy when purchasing this book at a book signing. I was nervous, having heard plenty of stories about his uncouth behavior in public. But he was actually quite nice and gracious with his time. It seems to me that once he rides out his initial wave of anxiety and gets comfortable in a situation, he’s fine. Both of us being Lutheran, we joked about the great Martin Luther; he of course appreciating Luther’s vulgarity towards the Pope.
Ellroy makes it clear that he lives in the past. He lives a monastic existence of no TV or much external stimuli, save books. For him, human history ended in 1972 and World War II is forever going on. Don’t ask his opinions on Donald Trump and modern politics.
All that to say, it is tempting to look at This Storm, which traffics at length in fifth column and saboteur plots, as a screed on current events. But that’s not Ellroy and it never will be. For good and for ill. Ellroy is less concerned about what’s going on in the present than how the past impacted America.
To this extent, he does a decent job. His characters frequently mingle with aspiring fascists and Nazi sympathizers. Ellroy’s books are basically about the horrors you see once you lift the curtain from the American facade and nowhere in our cultural history has that stage been more beautifully dressed than WWII. There are no heroes here; everyone’s an enemy and everyone’s out to screw each other, both in a sexual and non-sexual way. It’s typical Ellroy.
But that’s also the driving problem with the book. I’ve read this story so many times, especially in the Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy seems to be trying to fuse that with his LA Quartet with these books. But they read like an author who has run out of creative ways to tell this story. Bringing back all the old favorites makes the book feel uninspired, unlike say Perfidia, which introduced us to the great Hideo Ashida and gave the anti-Japanese sentiment of immediate post-Pearl Harbor LA feel real and earned. It’s impossible to latch onto any of the characters or care much about their circumstances, especially the implacable Dudley Smith, Ellroy’s personal Randall Flagg. This book is more of a mess than most of his and the deeper it goes, the less interested I was.
Also, I was disappointed at how poorly Ellroy covered wartime LA. Maybe this felt under done because so much of the book was focused in Mexico as well but LA is usually a staple in his books and with few exceptions, this felt like the characters were scampering around in a studio backlot designed to simulate LA.
The brilliant dialogue is still there and if it were my first Ellroy, I’d see it as a novelty. But now…eh. I was just glad to finish it.