Widespread Panic

Knopf. Jun. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780593319345. $28. M
Crime meister Ellroy (“Underworld U.S.A.” and “L.A. Quartet” series) returns to the familiar universe of Los Angeles in the 1950s with this title, which details the reminiscences of Freddy Otash, a former cop and P.I. He’s now an investigator and strong-arm thug for the tell-all magazine Confidential, for which he shadows, bugs, and entraps Hollywood notables—sometimes for stories, but just as often to shake them down. Freddy is open to anything, including murder, and he’s got the dirt on everyone: secretly gay and lesbian stars, hangers-on, a neo-Nazi director, randy politicians. The novel ends with Freddy’s attendance at the 1960 execution of the real-life Red Light Bandit (aka the rapist-murderer Caryl Chessman). This book’s plot—Freddy’s hunt for a couple of mystery women—is hard to pick out against the background of sleaze and nonstop violence. Freddy narrates the book in prime Confidential style: all alliteration and punchy sentences. Each time-hopping section starts with a blurb from Freddy—these he delivers from Pervert Purgatory, two decades after his death. A weakness in this book is Ellroy’s use of a single narrator, instead of the multiple narrators he uses in previous books; readers never get an escape from Freddy and after a while, it’s too much.
VERDICT There’s energy in this book, as in all of Ellroy’s fiction, but here it wears the reader down as much as it excites.
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