The Don of Destruction: James Ellroy’s ‘Widespread Panic’

We explore the brutality of the L.A. writer’s latest offering.

Like many terms these days, noir could be considered stained. Over the years it seems just about every writer in the realm of crime has tried their hand at noir. Once niche and capsule-sized, now a free-for-all for those in the world of crime writing.

As is the case in all art forms, there are good, bad, and just the plain ugly.

Noir forefathers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler wrote with such rhythm and panache that proved timeless. Hammett in particular, parting with the kind of street argot that was so ahead of its time, it would have flown over Al Copone’s head.

Generations on, and their work has been used as a critical reference point. A shifting paradigm for both aspiring and established writers; most of which have paled in comparison.

Like always, though, there are exceptions. Enter James Ellroy. The proclaimed Demon Dog of American crime fiction.

Ellroy has bastardised noir much like Black Sabbath did the blues. From his stunning ’80s output which featured the genre-defining L.A. quartet, Ellroy deconstructed noir brick by brick. Spending years shadowing local law enforcement and feverishly reading until finding his own voice, through his protagonists Ellroy revels in the chaos, dispensing an unhinged malice-hearted core that isn’t just borderline psychotic. It transcends the notion.

Predominately using Los Angeles as a sordid backdrop, his characters navigate through a world after being spat out onto the sidewalk after a tainted past filled with trauma and despair. (Perhaps there’s no better example than one of Ellroy’s earlier protagonists, Lloyd Hopkins).

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Ellroy has spent a career entwining fact and fiction with fearless aplomb. Like a fruit punch laced with psychedelics, his characters are malevolent, dripping with bastard savagery. This includes America’s cultural references points, national icons, and heroes, all of whom are soiled with utter contempt. Ellroy doesn’t believe in self-censoring. It would tarnish his end game. After all, this is individual who still writes his drafts with pen and paper. A true believer in the freedom of fiction, Ellroy’s modus operandi is unwavering, seemingly frozen in time.   

Whilst Ellroy has always dealt heavy with a unique brand of staccato prose, it’s fascinating just how much he shifts the needle throughout his works. In particular the Underworld USA trilogy, which stylistically moves drastically from one novel to the next, with 1995’s American Tabloid, and 2001’s Cold Six Thousand vastly different in approach and execution. By doing so, Ellroy explores the depths of his characters’ psyches. Dialogue that switches between verbose and brevity, bringing to life the manic chaos his characters not only create, but revel in.

James Ellroy - Widespread Panic

That manic chaos reaches the summit during Ellroy’s latest novel, 2021’s Widespread Panic. A book akin to trying to force down a glass of whiskey peppered with rusty nails.

Reading Ellroy is a jazz-like experience. There are gritty tones, sharp rhythms and blinding shifts in pace. Some may suggest there are superfluous passages too, but these are intentional; a ceaseless effort to humanise his characters.

A James Ellroy novel also requires a period of adjustment. Again, from Ellroy’s perspective, it’s intentional. A ruse, even. Like all high watermark pieces of art, it demands our undivided attention, and while this wasn’t immediate during his earlier works, it most certainly is now. Like many of his characters, there’s an egoism at play. It would be brave to suggest Ellroy hasn’t earned it.

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Many would consider Dudley Smith -L.A.’s Machiavellian overlord and chief puller of strings who has dominated many pages of Ellroy’s works – to be the author’smost unbalanced character. It’s a fair opinion, however Freddy Otash may just give him a run for his money.

Otash is the voice of Ellroy at his most unsettling and deranged. No-holds-barred and too far gone with little disregard for anything, including himself. Some have called Widespread Manic macho noir. In many respects it is punk played out on the page. Through the prism of originality, it’s next level Ellroy and, as the title suggests, no one’s safe.

In many ways, Widespread Panic is all Ellroy’s most disturbing traits and labours rolled into one. Freddy Otash, a wild concoction of Smith’s wilful cruelty and the bravado of David Klein and Hopkins. Ellroy has spent years working up to produce a character as self-destructive, narcissistic, and as vile as this; for a writer who has nurtured the pen and ink for decades, bringing to life some of L.A.’s most gruesome individuals in the process, it really is a defining moment.

Granted, Widespread Panic might not be Ellroy’s finest moment – some passages like being subjected to claws running down a chalk board – however (once again) there’s an intention to cause disruption and discomfort. As far as his standalone oeuvre is concerned, there’s an argument that Widespread Panic is his best. It embodies the chaos of Ellroy’s work in fearless new ways. The kind of ways that many modern-day writers wouldn’t dare explore. And that’s why Ellroy is at the zenith of noir. The don of self-destruction. A destruction that has no currency.

And that’s why we keep coming back for more.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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