"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, November 15, 2020

James Ellroy's treatment of homosexuals and serial killers in The Big Nowhere

The Big Nowhere (1988) is a ferocious novel. Part of it deals with a District Attorney's attempts to destroy the Hollywood labor union UAES using goon squads and a grand jury. Three cops are assigned to this: tyro Danny Upshaw of the sheriff's department, who is also trying to solve a series of brutal killings; Mal Considine of the D.A.'s detective unit; and Buzz Meeks, a former cop, now muscle for Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen.

*   *   *

Upshaw's work on the killings takes him into L.A.'s jazz and homosexual milieus. Since Upshaw is a closeted homosexual himself, the crosscurrents of his caseload bring up taxing memories:

....San Berdoo circa '39, him and Tim in a hot Olds ragger joy-riding to a hicktown prom, changing clothes at his place while the old lady hawked Watchtowers outside Coulter's Department Store. Down to their skivvies, horseplay, jokes about substitutes for girls; Timmy with Roxanne Beausoleil outside the gym that night--the two of them bouncing the Olds almost off its suspension. Him the prom wallflower, declining seconds on Roxy, drinking spiked punch, getting mawkish with the slow grind numbers and the hurt.

The momentum Upshaw puts into the murder investigation runs on a parallel obsession he explains to Mal over drinks:

....Danny paused, drank and sighted in on the mugboard around Jastrow's neck: Kern County Jail, 3/4/38. "Sometimes I think that if I know who this guy is and why he does it, then I'll know something so big that I'll be able to figure out all the everyday stuff like cake. I can get on with making rank and handling meat and potatoes stuff, because everything I ever sensed about what people are capable of came together on one job, and I nailed why. Why. Fucking why."

*   *   *

Homosexuality is a theme in most Ellroy novels. And it is not high-end Gore Vidal/Edmund White homosexuality; this is the caricatured pathology midcentury psychiatrists peddled, internalized at  character-level. 

In Killer on the Road (1986) it fuels the follies of killer Martin Plunkett. In the Underworld USA trilogy (1995-2009), homosexual blackmail is weaponized by J. Edgar Hoover as part of his Cointelpro war against the mass Black rights movement. And most recently in the novels Perfidia and This Storm (Ellroy's self-proclaimed Second L.A. Quartet), we have LAPD Nisei forensic specialist Hideo Ashida, infatuated and obsessed with his boss, the monstrous Dudley Smith.

Scholar Jim Mancall, in his James Ellroy: A Companion to. the Mystery Fiction (McFarland & Company 2014), sums up Upshaw this way:

....Upshaw is the most sympathetic homosexual character in the Ellroy canon. He denies his own sexuality, but the further he pursues the twin investigations, the more he will be forced to confront his own sexuality. His inability to manage his secret is suggested by his use of the "Man Camera." Initially, this is an investigative technique that "involved screening details from the perpetrator's point of view" (81). As the Man Camera, Upshaw re- creates crime scenes as movie scenes; his eyes becoming "a lens capable of zooming in and out, freezing close- ups, selecting background motifs" (81). But as Upshaw immerses himself in the murder investigation, he loses his ability to control his Man Camera visions. The Man Camera "malfunctions" (144); he begins to see "pictures that he wasn't making himself" (122). Eventually, Upshaw comes undone when "Red Queen" Claire DeHaven forces him to watch one of her "art films," a porn film that features a gay orgy (291). Upshaw flees from the screening room, terrified with the knowledge that DeHaven "KNEW WHO HE WAS" (294, emphasis in original).

     Eventually, Upshaw breaks down; accused of the murder of Gene Niles and about to be exposed as a homosexual, Upshaw commits suicide. But Mal Considine and Buzz Meeks realize that Upshaw's investigation was on the right track, and in honor of his memory, they pursue the investigation to its bloody end.

*   *   *

The Big Nowhere ends with Upshaw and Considine dead, and Buzz Meeks fleeing for his life. But as he flees, Buzz takes time to interview  dying CPUSA psychiatrist (and HUAC informer) Dr. Saul Lesnick. Lesnick provides a timeline and pathology of killer Coleman Healy:

Buzz let them come to him. The old man had a hand extended from ten yards away; his eyes were bright with sickness, his face was muddy beige and everything about him looked caved-in. His voice was strong--and the smile that went with it said he was proud of the fact. "Mr. Meeks?"

              Buzz gave the hand a little tug, afraid of breaking bones. "Yessir, Doctor."

              "And what is your rank?"

              "I'm not a policeman."

              "Oh? And what were you doing with the grand jury?"

              Buzz handed the clerk a fiver and grabbed the beach chairs. The boy walked off smiling; Lesnick held Buzz's arm. "Why, then? I had thought Ellis Loew's minions were all policemen."

              Lesnick's weight on his was almost nothing--a stiff breeze would blow the fucker to Catalina. Buzz said, "I did it for money. You wanta talk on the beach?"

              Lesnick pointed to a spot near some rocks--it was free of glass and candy bar wrappers. Buzz shepherded him over, the chairs more of a strain than the man. He set the seats down facing each other, close, so he could hear if the Doc's voice went bum; he settled him in and watched him hunch into folds of terrycloth. Lesnick said, "Do you know how I was convinced to become an informant?"

              True snitch behavior--he had to justify himself. Buzz sat down and said, "I'm not sure."

              Lesnick smiled, like he was glad he could tell it. "In 1939 representatives of the Federal government offered me a chance to secure my daughter's release from Tehachapi Prison, where she was incarcerated for vehicular manslaughter. I was the official CP analyst in Los Angeles then, as I have remained. They told me that if I gave them access to my psychiatric files for evaluation by the 1940 State Attorney General's probe and other probes that might come up, they would release Andrea immediately. Since Andrea had a minimum of four more years to serve and had told me terrible stories of the abuse the matrons and her fellow inmates inflicted, I did not hesitate one second in agreeing."

              Buzz let Lesnick catch some breath--and cut to Coleman. "And the reason you didn't kick loose with Loftis' file from '42 to '44 was because Coleman was smeared all over it. That right?"

              Lesnick said, "Yes. It would have meant much unnecessary suffering for Reynolds and Coleman. Before I turned the files over in toto I checked for other Coleman references. Chaz Minear alluded to Coleman, but only elliptically, so his file I relinquished. I did that same sort of editing when I gave my files to the HUAC investigators, but I lied and told them the Loftis file had been lost. I didn't think Ellis Loew would believe that lie, so I just secreted Reynolds' file portion and hoped I would die before they asked me for it."

              "Why didn't you just chuck the damn thing?"

              Lesnick coughed and hunched deeper into his robe. "I had to keep studying it. It compelled me greatly. Why did you leave the grand jury? Was it moral qualms over Ellis Loew's methods?"

              "I just didn't think UAES was worth the trouble."

              "Your statement on the newspapers gives you credibility, and I find myself wondering exactly how much you know."

              Buzz shouted over a sudden crash of waves. "I worked the killings and the grand jury! What I don't know is the history!"

              The ocean noise subsided; Lesnick coughed and said, "You know all..."

              "Doc, I know the incest stuff, and the plastic surgery and all about Coleman tryin' to frame his daddy. The only other guy who knew was that DA's captain who was killed at the jazz club. And I think you wanta tell what you got, or you wouldn't of pulled that juvenile 'Trotsky' number. Make sense, headshrinker?"

              Lesnick laughed, coughed, laughed. "You understand the concept of subliminal motivation, Mr. Meeks."

              "I got a half-assed brain, boss. Wanta hear my theory why you held the files back from summer '49 on?"

              "Please expound."

              "The UAESers who knew were talkin' about Reynolds and Claire gettin' married and how Coleman would take it. That right?"

              "Yes. I was afraid the investigators would seize the Coleman references and try to locate him as one of their friendly witnesses. Claire tried to keep news of the wedding out of the papers so Coleman wouldn't see it, but she did not succeed. At a terrible price, as I'm sure you know."

              Buzz stared at the water, stone quiet: his favorite trick to open suspects up. After a minute or so, Lesnick said, "When the second two victims were reported in the scandal tabloids, I knew the killer had to be Coleman. He was my analysand during the SLDC time. I knew he would have to be living somewhere near the Central Avenue jazz clubs, and I located him. We were close once, and I thought I could reason with him, get him to a locked institution and stop his senseless slaughter. Augie Duarte proved me wrong, but I tried. I tried. Think of that before you judge me too harshly."

              Buzz looked at the walking dead man. "Doc, I'm not judgin' anybody in this fuckin' thing. I'm just leavin' town in a day or so, and I sure would like you to fill in what I don't know."

              "And nobody else will be told?"

              Buzz threw Lesnick some crumbs. "You tried to spare your friends grief while you played the game, and I've pulled tricks like that too. I've got these two friends who'd like to know why, but they ain't ever gonna. So could you maybe just tell me?"

                                           o          o          o

              Saul Lesnick told. It took him two hours, with many long pauses to suck in air and keep himself fueled. Sometimes he looked at Buzz, sometimes he looked out at the ocean. He faltered at some of the worst of it, but he always kept telling.


              Wartime blackouts in LA, 10:00 P.M. curfew. Coleman was nineteen, living on Bunker Hill with his crazy mother Delores and two of his quasi-sisters. He used the surname "Masskie" because slave breeder mommy needed a paternal monicker to get Relief payments for her son and the seven letters jibed with Sister Aimee's dictates on numerology. Coleman dropped out of Belmont High when they wouldn't let him play in the school band; he was heartbroken when the band teacher told him the stupid saxophone flubbing he did was just noise that indicated no talent, only strong lungs.

              Coleman tried to join the army two months after Pearl Harbor; he flunked the physical on trick knees and a spastic colon. He passed out handbills for Angelus Temple, earned enough money to buy himself a new alto sax and spent hours running chords and improvisational charts that sounded good only to him. Delores wouldn't let him practice at home, so he took his horn to the Griffith Park hills and honked at the squirrels and coyotes and stray dogs that trucked there. Sometimes he walked to the downtown library and listened to Victrola records with earphones. His favorite was "Wolverine Blues," sung by an old coon named Hudson Healy. The jig mushed words, and you could hardly hear him; Coleman invented his own words, dirty stuff about wolverines fucking, and sometimes he sang along under his breath. He listened to the record so much that he wore down the grooves to where you could hardly hear anything, and he started singing a little bit louder to make up for it. Finally, the old biddy who ran the Victrola Room got wind of his lyrics and gave him the boot. For weeks he jerked off to fantasies of Coleman the Wolverine butt raping her.

              Delores kept bothering Coleman for Sister Aimee money; he took a job at the Joredco Dental Lab and gave her a percentage tithe. The work was pulling animal teeth out of decapitated trophy heads, and he loved it. He watched the more skilled workers make dentures with the teeth, fashioning plastic and mortar paste into choppers that could bite for eternity. He stole a set of bobcat plates and played with them when he honked his sax up in the hills. He pretended he was a bobcat and that Delores and his phony brothers and sisters were afraid of him.

              Joredco laid Coleman off when the boss found a wetback family who'd work for an extra-low group rate. Coleman was hurt and tried to get a job at a couple of other dental labs, but found out Joredco was the only one that made dentures with real animal teeth. He took to prowling around after dark--real dark-- everybody shut in behind blackout curtains so the Japs wouldn't see all the lights and do LA like they did Pearl Harbor.

              Coleman composed music in his head while he prowled; curiosity about life behind the curtains almost drove him crazy. There was a list on the wall at a local barber shop: Bunker Hill citizens who were good citizens working defense jobs. The list said who was working days, swing and graveyard. Coleman took the names to the phone book and matched them to addresses; from there he made phone calls--a phony census poll--and figured out who was married and who wasn't. Unmarried and graveyard meant a Coleman foray.

              He forayed a bunch of times: in through an unlocked window, busting open a woodbox door, sometimes chiseling a door jamb. He took little things and money to keep Delores off his back. His best catch was a stuffed bobcat. But Coleman liked just being in the empty houses best. It was fun to pretend to be an animal that could appreciate music. It was fun to be in dark places and pretend you could see in the dark.

              Early in June, Coleman was on the Hill Street trolley and heard two guys talking about a strange-o named Thomas Cormier and the smelly animals he kept behind his house on Carondelet. One man recited the names: weasels, ferrets, badgers, otters and wolverines. Coleman got excited, census-called Thomas Cormier and learned he worked nights at the Griffith Park Zoo. The next night, armed with a flashlight, he visited the wolverines and fell in love with them.

              They were nasty. They were vicious. They took shit from no one. They tried to chew through the front of their cages to get at him. They had a snarl that sounded like the high notes on his sax.

              Coleman left; he didn't burglarize the house, because he wanted to keep coming back for more visits. He read up on the lore of the wolverine and reveled in tales of its savagery. He set rat traps in Griffith Park and brought his catch back for the wolverines to eat dead. He brought hamsters and fed them to the wolverines live. He shone his flashlight on the wolverines and watched them gorge on his goodies. He came without touching himself while he watched.

              Coleman's summer was marred by Delores pestering him for more money. Late in July, he read in the paper about a local bachelor who worked swing shift at Lockheed and owned a valuable coin collection. He decided to steal it, sell it and parcel the money out to Delores so she'd leave him alone.

              On the night of August 2, Coleman tried--and was captured inside the house by the owner and two friends of his. He went for the owner's eyes like a good wolverine--unsuccessfully--but managed to get away. He ran the six blocks home, found Delores and a strange man going 69 on the couch with the lights on, was repulsed and ran back outside in a panic. He tried to run for the wolverine house, but the coin collection man and his pals--trawling in a car--found him. They drove him out to Sleepy Lagoon Park and beat him; the coin collection man wanted to castrate him, but his friends held him back. They left him there beaten bloody, composing music in his head.

              Coleman stumbled over to a grassy knoll and saw--or thought he saw--a big white man beating a Mexican youth with his fists, slashing at his clothes with a razor-bladed two-by-four. The white man railed in a thick brogue: "Spic filth! I'll teach you to traffic with clean young white girls!" He ran the boy down with a car and drove away.

              Coleman examined the Mexican youth and found him dead. He made it home, lied to Delores about his injuries and spent time recuperating. Seventeen Mexican boys were indicted for the Sleepy Lagoon killing; a social ruckus over their innocence ensued; the boys were quickly put on trial and languished in jail. Coleman sent the LA Police Department anonymous letters during the trial--he described the monster he had come to call the Scotch Voice Man and told what really happened. Months passed; Coleman played his sax, afraid to burglarize, afraid to visit his wolverine friends. He worked skid row day labor and kicked back most of the scratch to keep Delores off his case. Then one day the Scotch Voice Man himself came walking up the steps of 236 South Beaudry.

              Delores and his half sisters were gone for the day; Coleman hid out, realizing what must have happened: he left fingerprints on the letters and Scotch Voice retrieved the notes and compared the prints against the prints in his Selective Service file. Coleman hid out all that day and the next; Delores told him an "evil man" was looking for him. He knew he had to run, but had no money; he got an idea: check crazy momma's scrapbook of old flames for men that he resembled.

              Coleman found four photographs of a summer-stock actor named Randolph Lawrence--the dates on the back of the pictures and a strongish facial resemblance said this was his daddy. He copped two of the snapshots, hitchhiked to Hollywood and told a fish story to a clerk at the Screen Actors Guild. She believed his abridged tale of parental abandonment, checked the Guild files and informed him that Randolph Lawrence was really Reynolds Loftis, a character actor of some note: 816 Belvedere, Santa Monica Canyon.

              The child showed up at his father's door. Reynolds Loftis was touched, pooh-poohed the story of the Scotch Voice Man, admitted his parentage and gave Coleman shelter.

              Loftis was living with a screenwriter named Chaz Minear; the two men were lovers. They were members of the Hollywood leftist community, they were party-hopping devotees of avant-garde cinema. Coleman spied on them in bed--he both loved and hated it. He went with them to parties thrown by a Belgian filmmaker; the man screened movies featuring naked men and snapping dogs that reminded him of his wolverines--and the films obsessed him. Reynolds was generous with money and didn't mind that he spent his days in the back yard honking his alto. Coleman started hanging out at jazz clubs in the Valley and met a trombone player named Mad Marty Goines.

              Mad Marty was a heroin fiend, a reefer seller, a burglar and a second-rate horn. He was a lowlife's lowlife, with a legitimate gift: teaching thievery and music. Marty taught Coleman how to hot-wire cars and really blow alto, showing him how to shape notes, read music, take his repertoire of noises and powerful lungs and use them to make sounds that meant something.

              It was now the winter of '43. Coleman was shedding his baby fat, getting handsome. Reynolds became demonstrative to him, physically affectionate--lots of hugs and kisses on the cheek. He suddenly credited the story of the Scotch Voice Man. He joined the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee--a hot lefty item now that the seventeen boys had been convicted--to prove his faith in Coleman.

              Reynolds told Coleman to be quiet about the Scotch Voice Man--nobody would believe him, and the important thing was to get the poor persecuted boys out of jail. He told him Scotch Voice would never be caught, but the evil man was probably still looking for Coleman--who needed protective coloration to remain safe from him. Reynolds took Coleman to Dr. Terence Lux and had his face physically altered to his own specifications. While recuperating at the clinic, Coleman went crazy, killing chickens in the hatchery, pretending he was a wolverine while he drank their blood. He got leaves from the clinic and pulled burglaries with Mad Marty, his face bandaged like a movie monster; he went to SLDC rallies with his attentive father--and against his wishes told the story of José Diaz and the Scotch Voice Man. Nobody believed him, everyone patronized him as Reynolds Loftis' nutty kid brother burned in a fire--lies his father told him to go along with. Then the bandages came off and Coleman was his father twenty years younger. And Reynolds seduced his own youthful mirror image.

              Coleman went with it. He knew he was safe from Scotch Voice; while recovering from the surgery he did not know how his new face would look, but he knew now that he was beautiful. The perversion was awful but continually exciting, like being a wolverine prowling a strange dark house twenty-four hours a day. Acting the part of a platonic kid brother was an intriguing subterfuge; Coleman knew Daddy was terrified of their secret coming out and kept mum--he knew also that Reynolds was going to rallies and donating money to causes because he felt guilty for seducing him. Maybe the surgery was not for his safety--just for the seduction. Chaz moved out--bitter over the horrific cuckolding--spurning Reynolds' offer to make it a menage a trois. Minear went on a sex bender then, a different Felix Gordean male prostitute every night--Reynolds lived in terror of his ex-lover telling them of the incest and tricked with a bunch of prosties himself, for the sex and to keep his ear down. Coleman was jealous, but kept still about it, and his father's sudden frugality and displays of nervousness convinced him that Reynolds was being blackmailed. Then Coleman met Claire De Haven and fell in love with her.

              She was Reynolds' friend and confrere in various leftist organizations, and she became Coleman's confidante. Coleman had begun to find sex with his father intolerable; he pretended the man was Claire to get through their nights together. Claire heard Coleman's horror story out and convinced him to see Dr. Lesnick, the CP's approved psychiatrist--Saul would never violate confidentiality with an analysand.

              Lesnick heard Coleman out--in a series of arduously detailed two-hour sessions. He believed the Sleepy Lagoon story to be fabricated on two levels: Coleman needing to justify his search for his father and his own latent homosexuality; Coleman wanting to curry favor with SLDC Latins by saying the killer was white--not the unfound Mexican gang members the leftist community asserted the slayers to be. That aside, he believed Coleman's narratives, comforted him and urged him to break off the affair with his father.

              Lesnick was also seeing Loftis as a patient; he knew Reynolds was guilt-crazed over the affair, giving more and more money to more and more causes--especially the SLDC--an adjunct of the lever of manipulation he had applied to get Coleman to consent to the plastic job. Coleman felt reality closing in and began visiting Thomas Cormier's wolverines again, feeding and loving them. One night he felt an incredible urge to pet and hold one. He opened a pen, tried to embrace the beast and was bitten all over his arms. He and the wolverine fought; Coleman won with a stranglehold. He took the carcass home, skinned it, ate its flesh raw and made dentures out of its teeth, wearing them in his private hours, pretending to be the wolverine--stalking, fucking, killing.

              Time passed.

              Reynolds, convinced by Claire and Lesnick, broke off the liaison with Coleman. Coleman resented his sex power being usurped and started hating Daddy outright. The boys convicted of the Sleepy Lagoon killing were exonerated and released from prison--the SLDC largely responsible for securing the piece of justice. Claire and Coleman continued to talk, but now sporadically. Coleman copped Southside heroin for her to dally with; Claire was more disturbed than pleased by the gesture, but she did give Coleman a two-thousand-dollar loan he asked for. He used the money to buy himself a second Terry Lux surgery, the doctor going at his face with weighted boxing gloves, then holing him up at the hatchery with morphine and syringes to keep himself painless. Coleman read anatomy and physiology texts there; he left the clinic, kicked the drug cold turkey and showed up at Claire's door black and blue, but not looking like his father. When he asked Claire to sleep with him, she ran away in horror.


              Coleman moved out of Los Angeles, Claire's revulsion a hot wind at his back. He bummed around the country and played alto with pickup bands, taking Hudson Healy's surname. In '47, Reynolds Loftis went before HUAC, refused to inform and was blacklisted; Coleman read about it and was delighted. Coleman was living in a world of impacted rage: fantasies of hurting his father, possessing Claire, raping men who looked at him the wrong way and eating their flesh with the wolverine teeth he still carried everywhere. Composing music and playing it was the only thing holding him glued. Then, back in LA at the end of '49, he read that Daddy and Claire were getting married. His threadbare, jerry-built world crashed in.

              Coleman's fantasies escalated to where he couldn't even think of music. He knew he had to act on the fantasies and build a purpose around them, clear and precise like what his music meant to him. He found out about Reynolds' UAES membership and learned when the union held its Executive Committee meetings. He decided to kill sex partners of his father's--ones he remembered from the time of Daddy's breakup with Chaz. Coleman recalled George Wiltsie and Latin lover Augie by face and name, but they would never be able to identify him: at the time he was protectively colored as a lowly kid brother. He remembered other Reynolds conquests strictly by face, but knew the bars they frequented. Finding victims would be easy, the rest of it more difficult.

              The plan:

              Kill the Reynolds lovers on UAES meeting nights, disguised as Reynolds, spreading Reynolds' identical O+ seed, dropping clues to point to Reynolds as the killer, forcing him to--at worst--be implicated in the murders, or--milder punishment--cough up his treasonous UAES meetings as alibis. Daddy could be convicted of the crimes; he could be a suspect and have to admit his homosexuality to the police; he might get smeared in the press, and if he used his precious union soirees as alibis, he might ruin his newly resurrected movie career on grounds of Pinko associations.

              Coleman knew he needed money to finance his killing spree, and he was only making chump change gigging on Central Avenue. On Christmas Eve he ran into his old pal Marty Goines at Bido Lito's. Marty was surprised--and happy--it was the first time he'd seen Coleman post-bandages, years had gone by, the boy had become a man with a new face--and was not a bad alto. Coleman suggested they pull another B&E string; Mad Marty agreed. They made plans to talk after New Year's; then, early New Year's Eve, Goines saw Coleman outside Malloy's Nest and told him he'd called a Quentin buddy in Frisco, Leo Bordoni, and invited him to join their gang. Coleman, enraged at not being consulted--but not showing it--determined that Goines hadn't mentioned him or described him to Bordoni and decided that his old jazz mentor was prime wolverine bait. He told Marty to meet him at 67th and Central at 12:15, and to be quiet about it--there was a reason.

              Coleman went to his room and got the Reynolds gray wig and makeup kit he'd brought. He fashioned a zoot stick from a plank he found in the garbage and a Gillette five-pack. He snapped that UAES was holding a party/meeting that night, copped four H bindles and a hypo from his old source Roland Navarette, pegged an unlocked Buick on 67th as his wheels, played his last gig at the Zombie, walked into the men's can at the Texaco Station on 68th as Coleman, walked out as Daddy.

              Marty was right on time, but drunk--he didn't even blink at Coleman's disguise. Coleman coldcocked him on the sidewalk, slung him against his shoulder like a boozed-out buddy, got him into the Buick and hot-wired it. He geezed Marty up with a heavy junk load, drove him to his crib in Hollywood, shot him with the other three bindles and stuffed the hood of a terrycloth robe in his mouth so he wouldn't vomit blood on him when his cardiac arteries burst. Marty's heart popped big; Coleman strangled the rest of his life out, zoot slashed his back, pulled out his eyes like he tried to with the coin collection man back at Sleepy Lagoon. He raped those bare sockets; he put on his wolverine teeth and feasted, spraying blood on the walls to wild alto riffs in his head. When he was finished he left the eyeballs in the Frigidaire, dressed Goines in the white terry robe, carried him downstairs and propped him up in the back seat of the Buick. He adjusted the rear-view mirror so he could watch Marty with his eyeless head lolling; he drove to Sunset Strip in the rain, thinking of Daddy and Claire reamed to their teeth in every orifice. He deposited Marty nude in a vacant lot on Allegro, prime fruit territory, a corpse on display like the Black Dahlia. If he was lucky, victim number one would get just as much ink.

              Coleman went back to his music, his other life. The Goines kill did not reap the publicity he hoped it would--the Dahlia was a beautiful woman, Marty an anonymous transient. Coleman rented U-Drive cars and patrolled 2307 Tamarind at odd times; no cops showed up--he could use the place again. He got George Wiltsie's address from the phone book and decided that Wiltsie would be victim number two. He spent nights cruising queer bars near the pad, saw Wiltsie at the dives, but always in the company of his squeeze, a guy he called "Duane." He almost decided to let the bastard live--but thinking of the possibilities a duo kill presented made him tingly and reminded him of Delores and the man going 69. Then Duane mentioned to a barman that he worked at Variety International--old Daddy turf.


              Coleman approached George and Duane, carrying a little kill kit he'd concocted: secobarbital caps bought from Roland Navarette, and strychnine from the drugstore. Two to one, barbiturate to poison--pinprinks on the capsules for a quick effect. Coleman suggested a party at "his place" in Hollywood; George and Duane accepted. On the ride over in his U-Drive, he gave them a pint of rye to slug from. When they were half gassed, he asked them if they'd like to try some real Spanish Fly. Both men eagerly swallowed death pills; by the time they got to Marty's dump they were so woozy Coleman had to help them upstairs. Lindenaur was DOA, Wiltsie in a deep slumber. Coleman undressed them and went to work zooting the dead guy.

              Wiltsie woke up and fought to live. Coleman slashed one of the fruiter's fingers off defending himself and killed him with a knife thrust to the throat. With both men dead, he zooted, wolverined, raped the standard way and drew music pictures and a trademark W on the walls. He put Wiltsie's digit in the icebox; he showered Duane and George free of blood, wrapped them in spare blankets, carried them down and drove to Griffith Park, his old sax-honking territory. He stripped them and carried them up to the hiking trail; he 69'd them for the world to see. If he was seen, he was seen as his father.

              Two events coincided.

              Dr. Saul Lesnick, near death and wanting to somehow recoup his moral losses, read a scandal tabloid account of the Wiltsie/Lindenaur murders. He recalled Wiltsie as a name bandied in a Reynolds Loftis psychiatric session years before; the zoot slashing reminded him of Coleman's fantasies regarding the Scotch Voice Man and the weapons at Terry Lux's hatchery. What finally convinced him that Coleman was the killer was the hunger behind the obliquely described bite marks. Coleman was hunger personified. Coleman wanted to be the most vicious, insatiable animal on earth, and now he was proving that he was.

              Lesnick knew the police would kill Coleman if they caught him. Lesnick knew he had to try to get him to a locked-ward institution before he killed anyone else or took it in mind to go after Reynolds and Claire. He knew Coleman had to be close to the music, and found him playing at a club on Central Avenue. He regained Coleman's confidence as the one person who had never hurt him, secured him a cheap apartment in Compton and talked, talked, talked to him, hiding with him when a friend in the leftist community told him Reynolds and Claire were also seeking Coleman out. Coleman was experiencing moments of clarity--a classic behavior pattern in sexual psychopaths who had succumbed to murder to satisfy their lusts. He poured out the story of his first three killings; Lesnick knew that chauffeuring a dead man in the back seat and the second two victims brought to Tamarind Street were a pure subconscious attempt to be caught. Psychological craters existed for a skilled psychologist to drive wedges into--Saul Lesnick's redemption for ten years of informing on people he loved.

              Coleman was fighting his urges inchoately, with music. He was working on a long solo piece filled with eerie silences to signify lies and duplicities. The riffs would spotlight the unique high sounds he got with his sax, loud at first, then getting softer, with longer intervals of silence. The piece would end on a scale of diminishing notes, then unbroken quiet--which Coleman saw as being louder than any noise he could produce. He wanted to call his composition The Big Nowhere. Lesnick told him that if he got to a hospital, he would survive to perform it. The doctor saw Coleman faltering, clarity gaining. Then Coleman told him about Danny Upshaw.

              He'd met Upshaw the night after he killed Marty Goines. The detective was on a routine canvassing assignment, and Coleman brazened him out with his "I was in plain view all night" alibi, knowing Upshaw believed it. That belief meant Goines had kept mum about meeting him, and Coleman took the opportunity to lie about Marty being fruit and drop clues on tall, gray Daddy. He put Upshaw out of his mind and went on with his plan, killing Wiltsie and Lindenaur, wavering between Augie Duarte or another Daddy squeeze he knew as victim number four. But he'd started having dreams about the young detective, steamy stuff that said he really was what Daddy tried to make him. Coleman made a decision to murder Reynolds and Claire if he couldn't smear Daddy to the rafters--he thought that potential added blood to his stew would spice him up and make him dream about the women he once loved.

              The plan didn't work. Coleman had more Upshaw dreams, more Upshaw fantasies. He was Daddy--garbed and in the process of staking out Felix Gordean's office for leads on old Reynolds lovers when he spotted Upshaw holding down his own surveillance; he was nearby when Upshaw phoned the DMV Police Information Line. He caught the gist of his talk, and tailed Upshaw in the Pontiac he'd stolen--just to get close to him. Upshaw spotted the tail; a chase followed; Coleman got away, stole another car, called the DMV and pretended to be the deputy's partner. One of the names the clerk read back to him was Augie Duarte; Coleman decided it was providence again and settled on him as victim four then and there. He drove to Gordean's beach house, spotted Upshaw's car, hid and listened to Gordean and one of his musclemen talking. The pimp/queer expert said, "That policeman is coming out of the closet. I know it."

              The next day, Coleman let himself into Upshaw's apartment and savored it. He saw no mementoes of women, nothing but a too-tidy, impersonal pad. Coleman knew then, and began to feel a complete identification with Upshaw, a symbiosis. That night, Lesnick left the apartment to get medicine at County General, thinking Coleman's Upshaw fixation would break him down on his homosexuality, stymie and stalemate him. He was wrong. Coleman picked up Augie Duarte at a downtown bar, sedated him and took him to an abandoned garage in Lincoln Heights. He strangled him and hacked him and ate him and emasculated him like Daddy and all the others had tried to do to him. He left the body in the LA River wash, drove back to Compton and told Lesnick he had finally put Upshaw in perspective. He was going to compete with the man, killer against detective. Saul Lesnick left the apartment and took a cab back to his rest home, knowing Coleman Healy would wreak slaughter until he was slaughtered himself. And the frail old headshrinker had been trying to get up the guts for a mercy killing ever since.

                                           o          o          o

              Lesnick ended his narrative with a deft storyteller's flourish, pulling a revolver from the folds of his robe. He said, "I saw Coleman one more time. He had read that Upshaw died accidentally and was very disturbed by it. He had just purchased opiates from Navarette and was going to kill another man, a man who had been an extra on one of Reynolds' films, an opium dabbler. The man had had a brief fling with Reynolds and Coleman was going to kill him. He told me, like he thought I would do nothing to stop it. I bought this gun at a pawn shop in Watts. I was going to kill Coleman that night, but you and Captain Considine got to him first."

              Buzz looked at the piece. It was old and rusted and would probably misfire, like the shrinker's nutso take on Sleepy Lagoon as a fantasy. Coleman would have slapped it out of his bony hand before Pops could pull the trigger. "You pleased the way it turned out, Doc?"

              "No. I am sorry for Reynolds."

              Buzz thought of Mal shooting straight at Daddy--wanting Coleman alive for his career and maybe something to do with his own kid. "I've got a cop question, Doc."

              Lesnick said, "Please. Ask me."

              "Well, I thought Terry Lux hipped Gordean to all the stuff Gordean blackmailed Loftis with. Your story makes me think Chaz Minear told Felix some details, details that he put together when he blackmailed Loftis a second time just lately. Stuff that made him think Coleman was killin' people."

              Lesnick smiled. "Yes, Chaz told Felix Gordean many things about Coleman's clinic stay that could be construed as clues when put together with newspaper facts. I read that Gordean was murdered. Was it Chaz?"

              "Yeah. Does that please you?"

              "It's a small happy ending, yes."

              "Any thoughts on Claire?"

              "Yes. She'll survive your grand jury pogrom like a Tigress. She'll find another weak man to protect and other causes to champion. She'll do good for people who deserve good done for them, and I will not comment on her character."

              Buzz said, "Before things got out of control, it looked like the UAES had some kind of extortion scheme brewin' against the studios. Were you playin' both ends? Holdin' back stuff you heard as a psychiatrist to help the union?"

              Lesnick coughed and said, "Who wants to know?"

              "Two dead men and me."

The Big Nowhere is a rich, brawling novel. The psycho killer and schemer Coleman Healy's spree also puts it in the serial killer genre, outstanding competition for two other 1980s classics: Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988).


15 November 2020

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