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Review | James Ellroy returns to L.A. with Hoffa, the Kennedys and Marilyn

The troubled specter of Marilyn Monroe haunts James Ellroy’s latest novel, “The Enchanters,” but its real star is Freddy Otash, the notorious Los Angeles police officer and private investigator who’s said to have inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown.” The fictionalized Otash plays the morally gray, unreliable narrator of a story that blends the real and imagined into the kind of atmospheric psychosexual spectacle fans have come to expect from the grand master of L.A.-noir.

Thoroughly crooked yet unexpectedly appealing, Otash — who last appeared in Ellroy’s 2021 novel “Widespread Panic” — is a fixer with an eidetic memory who operates in the shadowy fringes of the west coast glamour factory. Proud of his “hellhound who held Hollywood captive” label, he’s a part-time extortionist and gun for hire, who navigates studio back lots and mansions as well as he does the back streets and alleyways.

Otash’s clients are powerful and dangerous — no more so than in the spring and summer of 1962, when a trio of infamous adversaries line up for his very special services: Jimmy Hoffa, Robert F. Kennedy and LAPD Chief Bill Parker. Hoffa wants Otash to deliver dirt that he can use to destroy the Kennedys, who are targeting organized crime and threatening his livelihood and freedom. He offers deep pockets, no boundaries and a carte blanche budget in exchange for constant intrusive (and illegal) surveillance on Marilyn Monroe’s activities to establish a connection between the troubled starlet and the Kennedys. Meanwhile, a D-list starlet is kidnapped, and saving her is a strangely urgent priority for the police. The dynamics get slippery when Parker calls Otash in, first as a consultant on the sketchy kidnapping and then as a special Lieutenant in the LAPD, where his job is to dig up Marilyn dirt to protect the Kennedy clan after her death.

The plot of “The Enchanters” is sprawling yet intricate, a riveting series of events made all the more vivid by the precision of the details — the heavy wiretap surveillance opens up a prominent peripheral cast of hangers on, psychiatrists, pornographers and other petty criminals that swirl around the edges of the scene. Ellroy’s writing matches its sensational subject. Just a day into his kidnapping gig, Otash jumps off the sobriety wagon. Filtered through Freddy’s drug- and booze-addled but brilliant mind, the novel is vibrant and vivid, with a pungent whiff of decay.

Specific and creative, the ’60s jargon evokes both the Rat Pack and the nostalgia of “Mad Men.” Otash’s internal musings read like beat poetry or jazz, thick with mid-century terms of art. To drink is to “glug, glug” or take “two pops.” Otash uses the newly minted word “grok,” meaning understanding and seeing eye to eye on something. In 1962, grok was a hot new term favored by youth culture, who drew it from a popular science fiction novel.

The novel’s style also fits its mood — jumpy and nervy. Otash is a fascinating guide because he’s a judgmental voyeur subject to all the same vices as those he’s watching. While he digs through Marilyn’s troubled sexual liaisons, fantasist musings, ill-fated therapy sessions and drug taking, Otash is also navigating two affairs of his own, and admittedly “hopped up,” taking drugs round-the-clock.

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At times, the language slows down the proceedings, leaving readers to pause for context and meaning. Take for example: “My reverie unraveled. The dump job schizzed me. We’d waltz on it.” The dramatis personae and glossary are not quite enough to render all of it lucid. Mostly, though, the effect is carnivalesque — literary roller coaster meets Tilt-A-Whirl.

Carole V. Bell is a writer, critic and communication researcher focusing on media, politics and identity.

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