Widespread Panic by James Ellroy

Widespread Panic

He may be 73, but James Ellroy keeps cranking out wonderful hard-nosed LA Noir crime novels. For a few years he seemed to have lost his edge, but this 3rd installment of his 2nd LA Quartet is a wonderful read, a book that is hard to put down and for fans of his style of writing it makes us look forward to his next effort.

            Once again Ellroy features infamous LA cop Freddy Otash to give us the scoop as to the happenings in the early 1950’s in this fictionalized look at varied topics. We have politicians, movie stars, wannabe actors, Communists, pornography, murders, muscle, drugs, and so much more. But much of this book is built around the Caryl Chessman kidnapping/rape/murder trials that rocked Los Angeles for a few years.

            Otash tells his story as a confession as to his part in much of this, since the book begins over 20 years since Freddy has died and he is in Purgatory and has been told he can move on from there if he tells the truth about what really happened in these affairs. In real life Otash was a fixer, and with that background it allows Ellroy to spin story that is part fiction, part Otash memoir and is able to give us a lot of “dirt” on what really went on in LA. We meet a young James Dean, aspiring actress Lois Nettleton, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Senator Jack Kennedy. All come in Freddy’s orbit and each has as part to play in this saga, one in which Otash makes things happen and is there when things fall apart.

            Being close to Ellroy’s age, I know the names, the movie scandals, the tattler sheets that Freddy helps along the way. Younger readers might not know the names, but his style of writing will keep one and all burning the midnight oil to keep up with the action as only Otash can tell it in a slang/hipster voice. A voice of one who was not at all adverse to doing bad deeds himself, and then using his ill gotten money to try and make things right if that is possible.

            Freddy Otash is a complicated person, a person who knows evil when he sees it and acts on it (sometimes for tabloid magazines and other times for personal reasons). It is the heyday of the hard-boiled LAPD. Movie studios demand results (can’t let public know Rock Hudson is gay), tabloids pander to readers who love the lurid tales that only Hollywood seemingly can provide, and Freddy Otash was there, was a part of it, made a lot of it happen and gives us a first-hand, birds eye look at one the most corrupt yes fascinating periods in the history of Los Angeles. Hold onto your seats, James Ellroy takes us for one wild ride, yet again, thanks to Freddy Otash’s desire to free himself from Purgatory!

This review was first published on www.mysteryandsuspense.com

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