Dino’s Address Was Not 77 Sunset Strip

It is a common structural element in classical detective stories to gather all the persons involved in the narrative in a strategic room where the detective (Charlie Chan comes to mind, despite the ethnic controversy) and meticulously recreates the crime, often trapping the perpetrator who attempts to subvert the final solution, even if the final solution was not fully resolved by the detective’s recreation.

Then there was the Ellery Queen structure where the reader (or viewer) was invited to solve the mystery based on a clue Ellery hinted at but wouldn’t specify until the criminal was revealed (following the “suspects gathered in a room” formula).

The television show Murder, She Wrote often relied on the relevant clue theme used by Ellery Queen but in the Angela Lansbury program the clue was often obscure or too incidental itself to reveal the solution. Mrs. Fletcher’s explanation was necessary, again often presented to a room full of suspects.

James Ellroy, in his novel The Big Nowhere, uses a technique often seen in Japanese mysteries where an intriguing narrative is presented but it then requires a long and detailed explanation of the events in question, the suspects, and the revealed solution. Actually, the solution is usually revealed before the explanation. Ellroy’s summation was direct, complete, and satisfying but it did have that dues ex machina flavor that seemed a tad artificial.

The Big Nowhere is the second volume in Ellroy’s L. A. Quartet (you might be more familiar with the third volume from the movie treatment, L. A. Confidential). Although the four novels are only loosely connected, little things like recurring characters or common places and events give Ellroy’s four novels more glue than many other quartets. So it’s not a bad idea to read them in order.

I grew up in Southern California when much of the Los Angeles represented in the Ellroy novels was current. It’s one of the small pleasures I receive reading authors like Ellroy or Chandler: a nostalgic peek at the Los Angeles I remember from the 1950s.

A key character in Ellroy’s Quartet is Mickey Cohen. I remember Cohen but until Johnny Stompanato’s murder by Lana Turner’s daughter, I didn’t really understand the whole Los Angeles underworld scene. In 1958 it was all the news. I learned about the Sunset Strip and The Untouchables: I was now versed in organized crime.

Another theme in Ellroy’s novel is the communist scourge that supposedly had taken over Hollywood and the relevant labor unions. When I was in grade school this was the sub rosa topic of discussion amongst teachers (my Dad was a teacher). I don’t suspect I actually understood at that time the ramifications of things such as the California loyalty oath but I do remember the controversy over the Oath, the Communist Party, the ACLU, the John Birch Society and other grown-up hopes and fears.

Add the hydrogen bomb, Rock & Roll, and Richard Nixon and it’s a wonder I survived the decade. But then I became a surfer and everything was copacetic.

How did I forget the Columbo trope: show the murder and the perpetrator right up front and then allow the audience to gauge the success of the detective in solving the case versus the success of the murderer in obscuring the solution and escaping incarceration. I think fondly of Robert Culp, the nicest villain ever to match wits with Peter Faulk. Ah, those were the days.

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