“The maximum maw of madness” – Widespread Panic by James Ellroy

IMG_2022-5-29-192441“Oh shit, it’s Freddy O!” say a handful of characters throughout Widespread Panic. Freddy O is Freddy Otash – ex-cop, “sleazoid private eye, a shakedown artist, a pimp – and most notably the head strongarm goon for Confidential magazine.” Seasoned Ellroy readers will know Ellroy has been drawing down on the staccato Confidential stichomythia for decades now. The rat-a-tat, machine-gun alliteration is his benchmark. And Freddy O – we’ve also heard from Freddy O before too. In The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover. (Those in the know will also probably be aware that Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown is based upon the real-life Freddy O too.)

Which may make you think – ok then, this is Ellroy Redux. Ellroy as usual. Which it is – because Ellroy can’t help but be anything but Ellroy – but it’s also not. It’s not because, in the wake of those aforementioned novels starring Freddy O, but also in the wake of both Perfidia and This Storm, it’s started to feel like you can’t read a single Ellroy without reading all of Ellroy. You can’t read the Second LA Quartet without reading the first, without also reading the Underworld USA trilogy, without devoting your life to reading Ellroy and nothing but Ellroy.

In that sense, Widespread Panic is a step off the train. This is Ellroy playing the hits. Which isn’t to say that Widespread Panic is easy. Ellroy never plays easy. But it feels, at least to this reader, like it’s Ellroy having fun. The book kicks off in 2020, some 28 years after Otash died, living in Pervert Purgatory. “Baby,” he tells us, “it’s time to CONFESS.” We skip back to 92. We skip back to 49. Hopscotch to 52. And away we go.

Otash was a cop who quit the force after being told to do away with a cop killer. Otash struggles with the guilt. But it doesn’t stop him from doing some shady shit. The shadiest of shit. Procuring girls for Jack the K. Bugging just about every hotel in Hollywood or so it seems. Helping Rock Hudson set up a sham marriage. It’s Hollywood Babylon-tastic.

James Dean (the old human ashtray) is here. A significant portion of Widespread Panic concerns itself with Otash’s on-again, off-forever friendship with Dean and the shenanigans that occurred on and off the set of Rebel Without a Cause. There are burglaries, murders, love triangles – “it’s a colossal convergence of the gilded and the gorgeous, the defiled and the demented, the lurid and the lowdown.”

There are times when it feels a little threadbare (the Pervert Purgatory thread just seems to be abandoned after a point) and much of the set up of part two (“the tricky troika: Operation Rock Wife / the Cochran gig / my Horvath crusade”) seems to be put to one side for part three. You could read Widespread Panic as three loosely connected short stories. I’d also half suspect that this was written over a long period of time, in between/alongside the other longer, more serious works (this is Ellroy light relief, in some senses). But even Ellroy half cocked, running on bennies, frothing at the mouth (“marching into the maximum maw of madness”), is better than most.

Any Cop?: Defiantly not for everyone, certainly not for the easily triggered, but very definitely one for Ellroy fans to lap up like warm milk.

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