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Widespread Panic


Widespread Panic

WIDESPREAD PANIC is not so much a reading experience as an immersion into a time (the 1950s) and place (Los Angeles). The events described by author James Ellroy become more real by virtue of his (occasional) exaggeration in a work that is ostensibly historical fiction. Even the prose that he spits out staccato-style is more than what it appears to be. His sentences are usually short and loaded with alliteration, even as they are cringe-inducing in content and description, designed to elicit enough cuts and bruises to exhaust a giant box of wholesale club bandages. In WIDESPREAD PANIC, they trample readers and then merrily drag them along.

"WIDESPREAD PANIC is just over 300 pages but seems longer and deeper (yes, I phrased it like that on purpose) in all of the best ways. No punches are pulled, and no literary expense is spared."

Those expecting the third volume of the Second L.A. Quartet (after PERFIDIA and THIS STORM) will instead find the posthumously written (and fictional) autobiography of Fred Otash narrated as the man himself resides in Purgatory, where he is intermittently visited and violated by those he wronged during his life. As with most of Ellroy’s characters, Otash actually existed in what we like to call our real world. He ran a detective agency that did investigative work for Confidential magazine, which printed tawdry and scandalous stories about the glamorous, rich and famous. Readers of Ellroy’s previous work will remember Otash from THE COLD SIX THOUSAND and BLOOD’S A ROVER, both of which were a part of his Underworld USA trilogy, as well as SHAKEDOWN, a novella that is the basis for the first third of WIDESPREAD PANIC. As expected here, Otash is given to full, ungoverned vent.

The book is written by Otash in 2020, but aside from a vignette on the day of his death in 1992, it takes place primarily between 1952 and 1960. We follow Otash as he demonstrates a proclivity for using virtually every illicit opportunity he can as an LAPD cop; he has a variety of outside income streams ranging from extortion and procuring to drug dealing and strong-arm robbery. Otash is ultimately bounced from the force by a new police chief who has vowed to clean up corruption, but is barely out the door before he acquires a private investigator’s license by using a shortcut. He then picks up where he left off before hooking up with Confidential.

However, Otash is haunted by a murder that he committed while with the LAPD, so much so that he anonymously pays the victim’s widow a monthly stipend while worshipping her from afar. When she is murdered and the case remains unsolved, Otash begins his own investigation, even as he digs up dirt on the rich, famous and worshipped in politics and show business, which causes the circulation of Confidential to reach stratospheric heights.

The stories --- particularly those that never saw the light of day --- are graphic, stunning and in many instances hilarious, especially if one is familiar with politicians and film stars of the 1940s and ’50s. There might have been a problem publishing these pieces when the principals were alive. As far as Ellroy and his book are concerned in the here and now, the stories appear in a work of fiction in which everyone mentioned is deceased, from John F. Kennedy to John Wayne, James Dean to Caryl Chessman. The language and topics seem shocking in this era of woke, but I doubt that Ellroy cares.

WIDESPREAD PANIC is just over 300 pages but seems longer and deeper (yes, I phrased it like that on purpose) in all of the best ways. No punches are pulled, and no literary expense is spared. Just to prove that too much of a good thing does not exist, Ellroy is working on a sequel to this book. Please, sir. Write quickly. And don’t forget Bob Crane.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 18, 2021

Widespread Panic
by James Ellroy