Only James Ellroy could take an unscrupulous scandal-monger like Fred Otash and make him an entertaining character. For those familiar with Ellroy’s decadent dialect, this book serves up a fictionalized version of history. Fascinated with the sleaze of 1950s Hollywood, Ellroy uses Shakedown to plum the same territory as his most famous novels. It’s scandal rags, salacious behavior, and smutty situations. It’s also a good read with the kind of characters one can be simultaneously repulsed by and engrossed with.
One of the joys of reading Ellroy is his language. The man adores alliteration. Ellroy’s verbose vernacular almost begs for vocalization. Otash uses language in much the same way Ellroy envisions all his prime characters use it, with an eye for saying harsh words in eloquent ways. The language is coarse and bawdy, frank and obtrusive, a literary device with the subtly of a sledgehammer.
Fred Otash sits in Purgatory and is given the chance to come up to Heaven if he purges his puerile soul on paper. Ellroy writes himself into the story as the chronicler of Otash’s numerous sins. Right off the bat, it should be noted the salacious details presented are certainly fictitious, to some degree. Tawdry scandals were apparently happening all the time in Hollywood, if the book is to be believed. At the center of many a dirty deed is Fred Otash, a crooked cop who knew graft and corruption like nobody else. Ellroy spins a tale of a cop who made his bones killing an alleged cop killer and made money knowing who was slipping the salami to whom in Tinseltown.
Real life intersects with fiction in Shakedown, which makes for a more interesting tale. Otash did become a private investigator after he stopped being LAPD. It’s also true that he worked for Hollywood Research Inc., which supplied the juiciest, most tawdry gossip to Confidential, the preeminent scandal rag of its day. Much of what is in the novella could be considered libelous if it weren’t for the fact all the celebrities named are dead. Only the living care about defamation of character and Ellroy doesn’t hesitate throwing the likes of James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Liberace, even Jack Kennedy into the muck. He makes Otash seem to be a despicable, yet charming rogue. To give you an idea, Otash (in the novella) has a business card that reads “Mr. Nine Inches”.
The problem (and it’s a minor one for me) is that this isn’t new ground for Ellroy. The Demon Dog of publishing has laid this asphalt before and travelled this road many times. The L.A. Quartet as well as American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand are the best examples of Ellroy in this medium. For long-time fans, Ellroy’s prose still crackles with life. For the author’s critics, they’ll see more of the same, which is not a bad thing for an author of Ellroy’s abilities.
I enjoyed the novella, mostly because that timeframe in Hollywood is mesmerizing. Old Hollywood had the glamour, in more ways than one. Ellroy taps into the outrageous possibilities of Old Hollywood. Vulgarity and slang abounds and Ellroy’s Shakedown revels in the nearly ubiquitous sin-uendo. If you can handle harsh activities, you will have a great time reading Shakedown.