Freddy O’s the Shakedown King. He’s the Shaman of Shame. He’s the Pervdog of the Nite.
For fans of 1950’s Hollywood, the name Fred Otash should ring a bell. While the former LA cop advertised his services as a licensed private investigator, his main hustle was digging dirt on Hollywood’s who’s-who and feeding it as scandal fuel to gossip publication Confidential.
Otash was widely thought to have been involved in some of the most infamous scandals of the time, including the one that involved Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, before he became an FBI informant. His career took a downturn when the US Congress started scrutinizing some of the tabloids for which he worked. Jack Nicholson’s character in the 1974 film Chinatown was partly based on Otash.
Confessions in Pervert Purgatory
The real-life Fred Otash died in 1992. In Widespread Panic, author James Ellroy tells a fictionalized first-person account of Otash’s career by way of a confession. The book’s narrative framework is set in 2020: Freddy has been stuck in “pervert purgatory” since his death, and only by confessing his sins will he be allowed to escape.
Freddy’s Los Angeles patois — the alliterative argot, liberally sprinkled with slurs that can get one “canceled” in today’s world — is the narrative vehicle that has its own rhythm and serves as the engine of the story. He narrates how he “alter-egoed” himself into becoming a P.I. by learning how to “think and talk like a language-lucid lawyer” within a week, of how he wiretapped celebrity apartments used his connections with actors such as pre-fame James Dean (among others) to get the goods.
“I’ll do anything short of murder”
In a 2017 interview, James Ellroy said that he’s done writing noir crime novels, yet here he is with one that’s all-but-in-name. And it’s a good thing, too: Widespread Panic has the hallmarks of a good noir — dirty cops, an amoral gumshoe, and a slew of femme fatales...even one or two murders. Even the infamous Red Light Bandit murders were folded into the narrative.
Widespread Panic’s first-person narrative created atmosphere and mystery, and the real-life connections added depth. You can almost hear a jazz trumpet playing in the background as Otash alliteratively narrates his exploits in the Hollywood underworld. Like a good noir crime story, everyone in the book has a secret and no one is innocent.
I have not read James Ellroy’s other works (I’ve seen L.A. Confidential, though; does that count?) but some of my favorite crime noir stories (Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’s The Fade Out, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and HBO’s recent Perry Mason adaptation, among others) are set in the same milieu. Widespread Panic would be a great addition to your crime noir shelf. Casual readers may find the Los Angeles lingo difficult to navigate — even I had to pause reading many times to look up unfamiliar slang — but once you get in deep into Freddy’s world, you’re in all the way.
Fred Otash followed a simple creed: “I’ll do anything short of murder. I’ll work for anyone but the Reds.” Widespread Panic is how he pushed its limits and made him one of the most notorious 1950s Hollywood figures.
Clifford is a content writer, musician, and caffeine fiend who co-hosts monthly comic book podcast Those Fcking Nerds (@thoseeffingnerds) on Facebook. As you can probably guess, he’s a big nerd. Clifford also posts book hauls, slipcase builds, and other stuff on Instagram (@tapsilogic). Follow him at your own peril.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]