This Storm

This Storm cover
This Storm by James Ellroy
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

James Ellroy’s noir-mystery novel, This Storm, is set in and around Los Angeles in the early days and months of World War II. It is a time of rainstorms, blackouts, fear, paranoia, murder, suicide, racial unrest, Nazis, fascists, European refugees, Japanese internment camps, police corruption, cover-ups, violence, prostitution, promiscuous sex, and Simons Drive-in, where you can get a fantastic cheeseburger and a pineapple malt served by a floozy carhop.

This Storm is a gargantuan novel, almost 700 pages. If you are familiar with James Ellroy’s writing style, you know he doesn’t write like any other writer. “If you want political correctness, you’ll have to go someplace else,” he plainly states. He uses racial epithets the way other writers use adjectives. In short, there is nobody else quite like him. His style is choppy, with lots of slang expressions, punchy chapters, lots of tough-guy language and hair-trigger violence. We see the bad-boy cops in The Storm kill “suspects” they are pursuing when nobody is looking or pound them in the head with the massive LA phone directory while they are “interrogating” them. The war has unleashed all of men’s (and women’s) worst instincts, it seems. Almost all the characters The Storm are horrible people. Some are worse than others. These people are beyond redemption, but they also make for entertaining reading.

Of all the many dozens of characters in The Storm, you might say that police lieutenant Dudley Smith is the principal character. He is an Irish immigrant who killed many British soldiers in his homeland before coming to America, a “shit-heel,” a self-serving, arrogant, corrupt, lying, cheating bastard with the looks and savoir faire the ladies toss their panties over. In Baja during the war, he’s involved in several nefarious and illegal enterprises, such as “selling” Japanese laborers to the highest bidder. If he was ever called to ground, he could be locked up in prison for many lifetimes for all his transgressions. Nothing seems to touch him, though.

Hideo Ashida is the most interesting character in the novel. He’s a Japanese-American, working as a forensic chemist for the Los Angeles Police Department. As a Japanese man, he is spit at and reviled in the days after Pearl Harbor. He is a homosexual and is believed to be in love with Dudley Smith, flaws and all. They have a special kind of man-to-man friendship, which Hideo knows will never be realized sexually.

There are many other characters, sometimes so many of them that it’s hard to keep them all straight and remember their names; some of them are, by necessity, one-dimensional. Barbara Stanwyck, Ellen Drew, Orson Welles and symphony conductor Otto Klemperer are real-life characters among all the fictional ones. (If these people weren’t all dead, they might have grounds for legal action based on the way they are portrayed here.)

This Storm is a follow-up to the earlier novel Perfidia. These two novels are the first two parts of James Ellroy’s Second LA Quartet. (You remember the First LA Quartet, don’t you?) We will be eagerly awaiting the third novel, which, we presume, will pick up where This Storm leaves off.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Entre Nous

Entre Nous image 2
Entre Nous
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

She spotted him in the park. He was a man of indeterminate age, dressed in a tattered green overcoat, badly in need of a haircut and shave. When he knew she was following him, he stopped and looked at her. She smiled. She had so many things she wanted to say to him.

“How are you?” she asked.

He shook his head and started to walk away.

“I saw you and I wanted to speak to you.”

“If you’re from the mission…”

“No. I’m not,” she said. “I was wondering if we might sit and talk a while.”

“No!”

She took hold of his arm, gently. He let her pull him to a bench. She sat on the bench and he had no other choice but to sit beside her. He looked at her apprehensively.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not the police or anything, and I’m not from the mission.”

Now that she saw him up close, she saw he was younger than she at first thought. His eyes were a startling blue. He had tiny lines around them, but except for that his face was unlined. His hair was prematurely gray, in need of a trim. He smelled of tobacco and alcohol.

“Just on my way,” he said.

“Where?”

He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said. “I only want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

She laughed and put her hands between her knees and looked up into the trees. “I guess you could say I’m a student of human nature.”

He shook his head and looked at his hands.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Knox.”

“Is that your first name or your last name?”

“Just Knox.”

“All right. My name is Susan Morehouse. I believe in laying all my cards on the table. I’m forty-seven years old and not the least bit sensitive about my age. I live with my mother on Independence Avenue. My mother was over forty years old when she had me, so you can imagine how old she is now. It’s just my mother and me. My father died at age sixty of cirrhosis of the liver.”

He started to stand. She put her hand on his arm. He remained.

“Do you have family?” she asked.

He shook his head, which she took to mean no.

“Are you a mental patient?”

He smiled, for the first time, and shook his head.

Are you a drug addict?”

A shake of the head.

“Alcoholic?”

Another shake of the head.

“I won’t ask how you come to be an aimless bum in the park. We’ll save that one for another time.”

“I have to go,” he said, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder.

“Go where?”

He shrugged, meaning anywhere and nowhere.

“The truth is, I don’t think you have any place to go.”

“I don’t see it’s any of your business,” he said.

“Would you like to come home with me?”

“No!”

“I know it sounds terribly forward, but I don’t have a lot of time to waste on amenities.”

“No!”

“I wouldn’t expect anything of you. You wouldn’t have to do anything. You wouldn’t be bothered. Only my mother is there. She’s a very old lady, nearly ninety years old. You can stay as long as you want and leave whenever you say.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m not well.”

“Do you have anything contagious?”

He shrugged and looked up at the sound of a dog thrashing through the leaves, chasing another dog.

“I’ve never done this before, you know,” she said. “You’re the first man I’ve ever approached like this.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, but she could see he was softening.

“Nobody has to ever know about it. It’s just between you and me. Entre nous, as the saying goes.”

“No, I don’t want to go with you.”

“My car is just over the hill.”

He looked up the hill as if imagining the car on the other side.

“All you have to do is get in the car. I’ll drive. It’s just a few miles.”

“I’m not going with you,” he said.

He stood up when she did, though, and walked over the hill with her. She touched him on the arm and looked at him every few feet to encourage him. When they came to her car, she motioned for him to get into the passenger-side seat, reassuring him, once again, that she meant him no harm.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp  

Choosing the Right Kind of Poison

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Choosing the Right Kind of Poison
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

The shoes were on sale; he saved eight dollars. Instead of giving the eight dollars back to his father the way he should if he was completely honest, he would keep it. He would add the eight dollars to his growing savings. He was sure he would need it later on.

He left the shoe store with the bag containing the shoes under his arm. He was on his way to the book store when he saw, half a block in front of him, someone who looked familiar. She had her back to him, but he had seen her so many times, for so long, that he knew who she was. He half-ran to catch up with her before he lost her in the throng of pedestrians.

“Mother!” he said.

She turned and looked at him. He had startled her, he could tell.

“Anson!” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you here. What are you doing downtown?”

“Shoes,” he said, holding up the bag. “For school.”

“We’re just in town for a couple of days,” she said. “I was going to call you and ask you to come to our hotel and have dinner with us.”

“How’s Tony?”

“Who?”

“Your husband.”

“His name is Richard. He’s fine. He flew in for a conference at the university and I came along with him this time. It was a chance for me to see Dr. Spaulding.”

Dr. Spaulding? Are you sick?”

“No, just routine. Just a checkup.”

“Don’t they have doctors in New Mexico?”

“Of course they do. It’s just that I’ve been going to Dr. Spaulding for twenty years and I think he’s the only doctor in the world.”

“Are you going to have a baby?”

She laughed. “No. Why would you think that?”

“Isn’t that the way it is with newlyweds?”

“Not this newlywed.”

“I figured I’d have a half-brother or -sister by now.”

“Richard’s nearly fifty. I think he’s had enough of fatherhood.”

“I can’t say I blame him.”

“There’ll be no new offspring.”

“No! Really! Why did you see Dr. Spaulding? You can tell me the truth. I’m not eight years old.”

“I told you. Just a little run down. I’m anemic. Nothing too serious.”

“Is that all?”

“Nothing startling or dramatic, I assure you.”

“You look pale.”

“I stay out of the sun as much as I can.”

“You live in a state where there’s nothing but sun, and you stay out of the sun?”

“Well, tell me. How’s school?”

“Boring. It starts again in two weeks.”

“Are you excited?”

“I think mortified is more the word.”

“You still don’t like school?”

“I can’t wait to be finished with it.”

“And then what?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to go live on Mars or, if that turns out to be a bad idea, I think I’ll probably join the circus and be a clown.”

“Whatever you do, it’d help to get a good education first.”

“That’s what everybody says.”

“Maybe you should listen to them.”

“I think I’ve had enough of school. I learned how to read and write. What else is there?”

“I don’t know where you get your cynicism. You don’t get it from me.”

“It skips generations.”

“Have you had lunch yet?” she asked.

“No.”

“There’s a good place to eat down in the next block. Let’s go have some lunch.”

They sat at a booth beside a window . She lit a cigarette and smiled. “How have you and your father been getting along?” she asked.

“He’s been in a bad mood with me all summer.”

“Why?”

“He signed me up for swimming lessons and I refused to go.”

“You refused? Don’t you want to learn to swim?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“I hate the thought of undressing in front of all those strangers.”

She laughed and blew smoke out her nose, a trick he had always wanted to master. “You’d better not ever go into the army.”

“I won’t. They wouldn’t want me.”

“I think swimming lessons would be good for you. You’d get plenty of exercise and you’d get out of the house and mix with people your own age.”

“When you were fifteen, would you have wanted to take swimming lessons?”

“Probably not. I would have avoided it like the plague.”

“Exactly! Don’t you think I ought to be able to decide for myself on a matter so important?”

“Fifteen-year-olds usually do what their parents tell them to do.”

“Not when it comes to swimming lessons.”

“I don’t think I should weigh in on that argument. That’s between you and your father.”

“I very subtly threatened suicide if he made me do it. Take the take swimming lessons, I mean. He’s been steering clear me of since then.”

Anson! You didn’t!”

“Yes, I did!”

“You shouldn’t threaten suicide. It makes people think you’re crazy. There’s insanity in the family, you know.”

“Yes, I know. So, if I did it, it shouldn’t surprise anybody too much.”

“You wouldn’t really kill yourself, would you?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a thought. There’s a new thirty-story building down by the park, with an observation deck on the top floor. It would be so easy to take the elevator to the top floor and take a dive. That’s three hundred feet. Nobody would even pay any attention to me until I was a pile of goo on the sidewalk.”

“Anson, that’s horrible!”

“So, how is that new husband of yours?”

“You already asked me that.”

“I’m asking again.”

“He has high blood pressure and eczema but except for that…”

“Does he still wear a suit all the time?”

“It’s his job.”

“Is he a model?”

“No, he’s not a model. He’s a businessman.”

“Oh, a businessman! I get it!”

“We’d love to have you fly out to visit us sometime. Maybe spend Christmas with us. You must see the desert.”

“I’ve seen the desert in Lawrence of Arabia.”

“The American desert isn’t quite like that.”

“Aren’t all deserts alike?”

“That I couldn’t say.”

“How are Richard’s daughters? Are they both still alive?”

“Yes, they’re still alive.”

“How old are they now?”

“Rachel is seven and Veronica is nine.”

“Oh, yes! Rachel and Veronica! They’re the reason I can’t come and live with you because the house you live in is too small.”

“Anson! We’ve been all through that! Your father and I decided it was best for you to keep on living with him. You wouldn’t want him to live all alone, would you?”

“I think he’d like to be rid of me.”

“When we move to a bigger place, we’ll talk about having you come and live with us. In the meantime…”

“It’s easy to keep putting things off, isn’t it? That way you’ll make sure it never happens.”

“Anson, that’s not true!”

“If Rachel or Veronica dies, you’ll be sure and let me know, won’t you? Then you’ll have room for me. I can come and take the place of the one who’s dead. Sleep in her room.”

“Anson, that’s not funny!”

“You could always poison one of them, you know. Your least favorite of the two. I can do some research on some poisons, if you’d like. You’d need to get a good non-traceable poison.”

“Anson, that’s enough of that kind of talk! Nobody is going to poison anybody!”

“Well, it’s a thought, anyway. You can mull it over and get back to me.”

“You seem preoccupied with death. Death should be the farthest thing from your mind. You’re still a child.”

In the midst of life we are in death.”

“Anson, could we talk about something else, please?”

“What else is there?”

“I’d like to buy you something while I’m here. Do you have everything you need for school?”

“Yes, mother, I do.”

“How about a winter coat?”

“It’s August, mother! Nobody thinks about a winter coat in August.”

“Winter will be here before you know it.”

“I might be dead by then.”

“How about a suit? Do you need a new suit?”

“I have two new suits that I’ve never worn.”

“Socks? Underwear?”

“I have plenty as long as I remember to do the laundry.”

“You can’t think of anything?”

“I would like to have a cell phone, but your former husband says I can’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“Too much of a distraction, he says.”

“I think he has a point.”

“I wouldn’t let it distract me! Honest! Everybody I know has a cell phone. I’m the only one without one.”

“Do all the poor kids in school have one?”

“Of course they do! They might not have any money for lunch, but they all have their cell phones.”

“Things have certainly changed since I was in junior high school.”

“I don’t need any clothes, but I do need a cell phone. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

“Anson, I don’t think you can honestly say you need a cell phone! I think you can go on living without it.”

“There’s an electronics store just a couple blocks from here. They have lots of cell phones to choose from and I’ll bet they’re not as expensive as you think!”

“Do you want me to give you the money to buy it?”

“No, I want you to go with me. We’ll pick it out together.”

“Would it make you happy?”

“It would make me so happy!”

When his father came in from work at six o’clock, Anson was sitting at the kitchen table, learning how to use his cell phone.

“What do you have there?” his father asked.

“A cell phone.”

“Whose is it?”

“Mine.”

“Where did it come from?”

“The electronics store downtown.”

“I told you you’re too young for a cell phone. It’s too much of a distraction from your studies.”

“I know, but I met mother downtown…”

“You met who downtown?”

“My mother. Don’t you remember? The woman you used to be married to?”

“You just happened to meet your mother downtown?”

“That’s right.”

“And she bought you a cell phone.”

“Yeah. She asked me if I needed anything for school and when I said I needed a cell phone, she bought me one.”

“I told you I didn’t want you to have a cell phone.”

“I know, but mother was going to buy me one, so I couldn’t exactly turn it down, could I?”

“I want you to take it back to the store, get the money back for it, and send the money to your mother.”

“I won’t do it!”

“And tell her not to interfere again!”

“I’m keeping the phone!”

“No, you’re not!”

His father reached across the table, grabbed the phone out of Anson’s hand, and smashed it against the wall.

“What did you do that for?”

“I told you ‘no cell phone’ and I meant it! This is not going to be like the swimming lessons! If you want to go on living in my house and expect me to support you, you cannot openly defy me. I won’t allow it!”

“I know why mother left you! You’re an ogre! She couldn’t stand being married to you! She told me so! I don’t know why people like you become parents in the first place! You’re a terrible father!”

“That’s enough, Anson! Go to your room!”

“I want to go live with my mother. I can’t stand living here with you any longer!”

“Suit yourself, you ungrateful little…”

Anson didn’t hear what his father was going to call him because he ran into his room and slammed the door. He wouldn’t leave his room again. He would go to bed and stay there. He wouldn’t eat any dinner. If he never ate again, he wouldn’t care.

He had some sleeping pills he had been saving that he filched from his mother before the divorce. He poured them out onto his palm and counted them. There were twelve. He took two and after he got into bed, he took two more and then two more. He turned off the light, got into bed and kept taking the pills until there were none left. He didn’t know if it was enough to kill him, but he could only hope.

He pulled the covers up to his chin. It wasn’t even all the way dark outside. Soon he began to have a funny feeling in his head and a sick feeling in his stomach. He hoped it was the beginning of death and that it would be quick.

Before he drifted off—maybe for the last time—he saw his mother’s face with the little wrinkles around the eyes, the orange-colored lipstick, and the hair tinted the color of a red fox. At first he didn’t know where he and his mother were, and then he saw they were in a high place. Yes, they were together on top of the new thirty-story building over by the park. They smiled at each other and joined hands and jumped. The best part was they never fell to the ground but floated off together into the infinite sky, and they were so happy.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp