The Los Angeles of James Ellroy’s latest historical thriller, THIS STORM (Knopf, $29.95), is the kind of place where rats as big as cats fearlessly scoot across the front porch, where lovers rendezvous in welcoming Tijuana, anonymous among the “child-beggar swarms” and “cat-meat taco vendors,” and where sentiments of pure, undiluted venom (“Hate, hate, hate. Kill, kill, kill”) express the prevailing state of race relations. We’re talking about the Los Angeles of January 1942, when a New Year’s Eve broadcast by Father Charles Coughlin laments that his war-battered listeners must stand shoulder to shoulder with the “rape-happy Russian Reds” in resistance to “the more sincerely simpatico Nazis.”
In such a soul-crushing environment, a simple murder comes as a relief. Or so thinks Dudley Smith, a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, currently working for Army intelligence and devising all kinds of war-profiteering hustles on the side. Torrential rainstorms have unearthed a corpse, washed up in its very own pine box on a par-3 golf course — a “long-term decomp,” in cop parlance, meaning the remains are sans flesh and all bones. By official guesstimate, man and box were burned in a fire, circa 1933. But the repercussions of the case will play out over the next several months. (“There was no better time to howl and throw parties.”)
For readers who keep track of these things, “This Storm” is the second volume, after “Perfidia,” of Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet. (For my money, the most notable novels in his great saga are “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A. Confidential,” the first and third books of The L.A. Quartet. But honestly, you can pick up the story anywhere.) Here the characters in those previous novels are younger and dangerously reckless. And this time we take a long look at Hideo Ashida, “crack forensic chemist and sly sleuth,” who barely escapes internment by covering up a bookie racket: “Great shame undermines his great luck.” Until it runs out, his luck is also ours: Of all the flawed characters caught up in the swirl of this epic novel, he’s the guy with the most heart.
If you’re going to be bludgeoned to death with a bottle of wine, it might as well be a vintage with a certain cachet. In Anthony Horowitz’s new mystery, THE SENTENCE IS DEATH (Harper, $27.99), a celebrity divorce lawyer named Richard Pryce is murdered with a 1982 bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, which is not too shabby. Classier still is the metafictional plot construction, which allows Horowitz-the-author to play Horowitz-the-character in his own novel. “I like to be in control of my books,” he says, explaining why he has positioned himself as the lead detective’s sidekick.