Widespread Panic

Mysterious Book Report No. 453

by John Dwaine McKenna

In a departure of sorts from his usual crime thrillers, master wordsmith and MWA Grand Master James Ellroy takes a wiiiiiiiiild, wacky and wonked out trip down the paranormal rabbit hole, based on the schemes of a notorious real-life Hollywood fixer, PI and bent cop named Fred Otash.

Hot off the presses, (released June 15, 2021) Widespread Panic, (Alfred Knopf, $26.95, 336 pages, ISBN 978-0-593-31934-5), is Mr. Ellroy, writing at the top of his L.A. noir game, as he details the sins of Fred Otash, the “Scandal Rag Scoundrel” and “undisputed autocrat of abusive alliteration.” In the novel—as in real life—Otash dies in 1992.  Since then, he’s been locked away in cell 2607 of the Penance Penitentiary, where he suffers constantly at the hands of those whom he slandered or otherwise hurt in real life, as they drop by his cell with electric cattle prods.  But now, as the novel begins, Freddy O’s been offered a deal . . . confess all of your sins in exchange for being released from Purgatory.  It’s the proverbial ‘get out of jail free’ card and Otash goes to work at once, holding nothing back, nor leaving anything out.

The result is vintage Ellroy as the confessions and the capers start early, last long and never end.  Beginning in 1950, Otash goes from being a crooked LAPD cop to an even more disreputable Private Investigator who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.  And what he wants is sleaze, as he dishes the dirt for his other gig . . . gossip columnist for Confidential, a lurid, libelous and  licentious morally corrupt rag that exposes communist party members, interracial relationships and the goings-on after dark of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities.  No one is safe and no one is spared from burglaries, illegal wiretaps or stalkings as Freddy O. creeps, crawls and slithers his way into the most intimate and sordid details of celebrity lives, then publicly exposes them.  Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Nick Adams, Jack Kennedy and the infamous ‘Red Light Bandit’ and stone cold killer Caryl Chessman—as well as LAPD Chief William H. Parker and many others are all featured in this late night romp down the seamy side of the street as James Ellroy puts his incredible writing talent on full display for all noir enthusiasts to read and enjoy.  For those who do, it’ll be one of 2021s most memorable!


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