New Noir By James Ellroy And Denise Mina Is Daredevil Storytelling At Its Finest
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Two new novels of crime and suspense have our book critic Maureen Corrigan traveling to some dark places in her imagination this summer. Here's her review of James Ellroy's "This Storm" and Denise Mina's "Conviction."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the opening scene of the 1944 Billy Wilder film noir "Double Indemnity," made from the James M. Cain novel, a speeding car careens down the nighttime streets of LA. It erratically crosses traffic lanes, nearly crashes into a truck and just misses flattening a maintenance worker whose head pokes out of a manhole. The scene is so foggy, wet and dark. A viewer can barely make out what's happening.
Keep that scene in your mind because that's exactly the atmosphere and the reckless zigzag storytelling method of the two noir novels I'm about to highly recommend.
First up is James Ellroy's latest, called "This Storm." If you love Ellroy, I don't need to say anything more because you've probably preordered "This Storm" and already devoured its 600-plus pages of corrupt cops and crime bosses, Nazis and narcos, thinks and frails.
If you haven't read it, here's the dope. This Storm opens on New Year's Eve, 1941, a couple of weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A hard rain pummels LA, causing a fateful collision on Venice Boulevard, dislodging a corpse out of the muck of Griffith Park and drowning out the rhythms of Count Basie, who's been pressured into playing a New Year's gig for police brass. Fifth columnists have infiltrated Baja California, and Japanese citizens are being rounded up and interned.
Justice, such as it is, lies in the hands of antiheroes like the crooked but stubbornly nosy vice cop Elmer Jackson and Dr. Hideo Ashida, a Japanese American forensic police chemist who's understandably nervous about his status.
Ellroy splinters this massive crime story about wartime LA into well over a hundred jittery chapters filled with the "Ben-Hur" cast of thousands and bebop lingo that have become his signature. Suspects don't run away. They rabbit. Police don't steal stuff from suspects' cribs. They boot jack things. Ellroy's narrative and linguistic energy here is seemingly inexhaustible. Don't wonder so much what "This Storm" is about. Just dive in and wallow in the sordidness of it all.
There's LA noir, and then there's tartan noir. Denise Mina is one of the leading practitioners of this Scottish school of hardboiled fiction. Among other things, she's written three separate feminist-inflected mystery series set in Glasgow, including the acclaimed "Garnethill" series. But for my money, Mina's new standalone suspense novel "Conviction" nudges those albeit excellent earlier novels into the shade. "Conviction" is so different in tone and storytelling style, it seems to have been written by some genetically engineered composite of Mina herself, along with Daphne du Maurier for supernatural eeriness, fellow Scot Helen MacInnes for spycraft and, towards the end, Lisa Scottoline for spunky-woman-in-trouble humor.
The opening disaster that sets all the subsequent disasters in motion unfolds as follows. It's morning in Glasgow, and our narrator, a mother of two named Anna, pours coffee and begins listening to one of those true crime podcasts she relishes before the demands of the day take over. Anna Reilly (ph) says of her podcast addiction that there is a warmth and a comfort in hearing about people in worse situations than your own. I had not murdered my entire family or killed myself. This was good.
The podcast she's starting is called Death And The Dana, and it tells the story of an explosion aboard a supposedly haunted yacht named The Dana that killed a wealthy father and his two young adult children. Anna sits transfixed at her kitchen table not only because the true crime podcast is so disturbing but because in another life, when she was known by another name, Anna was friends with the father who died in the explosion.
Meanwhile, there's a knocking at Anna's front door. It's her best friend Estelle, dressed oddly, not for the yoga class they take together but for travel. In fact, Estelle is dressed to run off with Anna's husband, with whom she's been having an affair. Realizing this, Anna locks herself in a bathroom and turns the podcast back on for escape.
Be assured, I've only covered the plot highlights of the first few chapters of "Conviction." As much as it is a weird suspense tale in which both ghosts and bullets fly through the air, "Conviction" is a giddy celebration of the art of storytelling itself; every form of storytelling, from Anna's guilty-pleasure podcasts to books, alibis, horror and folk tales. Ultimately, we readers learn what really happened aboard the Dana and why Anna has been hiding under an alias for years. But it's a testament to Mina's gifts that by the end of "Conviction," I just wanted to go back and reread all those intertwined tales all over again.
Both Ellroy and Mina are dark, daredevil storytellers. What better way to spend some summer downtime than to settle in and let them each take you for a wild ride?
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "This Storm" by James Ellroy and "Conviction" by Denise Mina. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review Willie Nelson's new album. This is FRESH AIR.
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