The Enchanters by James Ellroy

The “demon dog of American letters” bounds back into view with The Enchanters, a follow-up to 2021’s Widespread Panic. Freddy Otash—ex-cop turned private eye turned extortionist turned violent goon turned informant turned cop again—is back. This time, James Ellroy’s burning spotlight falls on the death of Marilyn Monroe, the glamorous conspiracies around it, and the often-not-so-glamorous people who circled her.

There are no nice guys here, no heroes to support. Looking for a plucky underdog overcoming the odds and neatly saving the day, providing optimism and comfort? James Ellroy isn’t your man. Nothing so easy here. We’re all born sinners, every human soul full of stains that can’t be removed. Everyone exploits everyone else, plays angles, searches for advantages. Likability can be boring, and Ellroy is a modern master of making his characters interesting instead of nice.

Joseph Cotten and Monroe in Niagara.

The pace is hold-onto-your-hat fast. By the time we encounter the dead Miss Monroe on page 19, our narrator, Freddy O, has already launched a man off a cliff and into eternity. That distinct Ellroy style—staccato, slangy—can make even a slow plod through exposition seem like a harried sprint.

James Ellroy’s burning spotlight falls on the death of Marilyn Monroe, the glamorous conspiracies around it, and the often-not-so-glamorous people who circled her.

Leap back a few months from the legendary Hollywood star, dead in bed, to Freddy meeting with Jimmy Hoffa, the union leader seemingly determined to dig up dirt on the Kennedy boys, willing to pay his digger of choice well. So begins a summer of surveillance on Monroe, her terrible habits and worse friends.

Similarities flare in the lifestyles of the protagonist and the woman he watches. Sex, power, booze, pills, work, repeat. Dangerous obsessions with members of the Kennedy clan. Marilyn with J.F.K. and Bobby, president and attorney general, Freddy with their sister Patricia. Neither knows where to draw the line, but our narrator is at least furnished with moments of grisly self-awareness. He knows his moral limits are a long way into the dark.

It’s a big cast list, and there are plenty of characters to play the role of red herring, but the book avoids confusion. Unlike some recent Ellroy novels—Perfidia, This Storm—his latest, like its immediate predecessor, has the great benefit of being edited. There’s focus, getting in, telling a story, and getting out. Whether author- or publisher-driven, it’s welcome.

The room in Brentwood, Los Angeles, where Monroe died, on August 4, 1962.

Still, everyone of the era worth a name-check gets one. Some, such as Hoffa, have roles to play in the unfolding tale, but others seem like name-dropping for the sake of it. Frank Sinatra, Rex Harrison, and Jane Russell wander onto the page, briefly soak up a little spotlight, and disappear again—unneeded cameos in an already dazzling cast that doesn’t benefit from the distraction.

Likability can be boring, and Ellroy is a modern master of making his characters interesting instead of nice.

Ellroy has long been the finest tour guide of America’s most glittering gutters, ruthless in his examination of the muck on the floors of the golden cages. Contempt drips from most pages, not only for the characters but for the environments they created for themselves, and for any who would think them elite.

The world of The Enchanters slips seamlessly into the Ellroy universe, the smeared mirror of realities past. The cops are either corrupt or very corrupt, movie stars either sex-crazed drug addicts or drug-crazed sex addicts. Everyone’s up to something; it’s just a question of how objectionable their particular choice of something is.

Where some writers might light a match to illuminate their way through a chapter, Ellroy takes a flamethrower. Full on, all the time—a style that is intensely, unequivocally, unapologetically his. The commitment to it never wavers, so you either enjoy the ride or get the hell out. No allowances will be made.

Monroe’s bedside table at the scene of her death.

The place is L.A., and feels like it. The time is 1962, and feels like it. The scene is Hollywood—the stars and hangers-on—and feels like it. Many of the characters are scraped from the history pages, including narrator Freddy O, supposedly the real-life inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown character. Is The Enchanters anywhere close to the truth? Does it matter? A work of fiction needs to create a world that’s consistently convincing, and The Enchanters scores there, reality be damned.

The back end of the book hits its big-bang revelations and delivers in ways that make sense. If some of the wrapping-up lets some off the hook, lacks the neatness of more typical mystery fare, so what? Trying to write a version of reality means accepting the world’s messiness, its letdowns. With all good novels, the destination is only a small part of the whole—it’s the journey that matters.

The book is razor-sharp, rocket-fast, and always engaging. There’s a fatalism to it—everyone’s doomed and everyone deserves it—that could wear on an optimistic soul. Monroe and the Kennedys is hardly virgin territory, but Ellroy’s playing on the edges of it makes the novel a fresh read. The Enchanters serves as confirmation of elevation back toward past glories. After time spent nibbling at ankles, the demon dog is back ripping throats out.

Malcolm Mackay is the author of eight crime novels with a focus on organized crime, including the award-winning Glasgow Trilogy