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This is the new novel by James Ellroy, the final part of his 'Underworld USA' trilogy. It's been eight years since his last novel. It's about £5 on amazon.
Ellroy has carved out a fearsome reputation as an American crime writer. The LA Quartet, four novels about cops on the make in 50s LA, got crazier and nastier and better with each successive book. American Tabloid, the first of the current trilogy, was a hilarious and horrifying masterpiece, a macho, paranoid re-write of the history of the early 60s.
Unfortunately, the second book in the trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand, was substandard. Effectively a rerun of American Tabloid, but less good, it ended up trying my patience and is one of the more disappointing reading experiences I've had. Blood's A Rover is a return to form, but I guess nothing will ever quite recreate the giddy, savage absurdity that made American Tabloid so compelling. The three books are a lot like the Corleone brothers from The Godfather - American Tabloid is brash, promiscuous Sonny, eventually dying in a hail of bullets at a tollbooth. Six Thousand is lacklustre lounge lizard Fredo, contributing nothing and dying unmourned. Blood's A Rover is Michael, the last man standing, more precise and considered than Sonny, but lacking much of his likeability.
Is that too strained a metaphor?
Anyway, I don't want to talk about the plot too much, because doing so would reveal who is still around after the first two novels. Each book begins minutes after the previous one ends, and although Ellroy has claimed they work as standalones, I don't entirely believe him. But as with the previous novels, this is a smorgasbord of mob intrigue, race hate, ultra-violence, third world revolution, and obsessive concerns about penis size, and it's all anchored to real-life events of the era. The first book, of course, ends with the assassination of JFK (this isn't a spoiler; we know that's going to happen. It's the effect it has on the characters that's important). The second book, making the 'bigger is better' mistake all sequels make, ends with two famous assassinations, MLK and RFK (to be fair, history made the mistake too). There is no famous assassination to end on this time, as the book takes us through Nixon's first term as president, but there's plenty to keep us occupied. An unsolved emerald heist. A dismembered woman in an abandoned house. A Federal attempt to infiltrate a radical black power movement.
In a way, this is a bit of a greatest hits package from Ellroy. An awful lot of his recurring themes crop up here. Typically, he will have three anti-heroes between whom the story flips: the monster, the cynic, and the idealist. All will be compromised, all will be tempted, and at least some will find redemption. (Even if you've not read the books, think of Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce in the film version of LA Confidential.) So it is here, but this time the three feel almost like the same person at three different stages of life. The youngest, especially, pushes a lot of classic Ellroy buttons, being a peeping tom who runs shady sting operations for dubious private eyes and breaks into houses to steal women's underwear. Remarkably, you find yourself rooting for this man, a bit.
But there are other major characters, some of whom are surprising. Having a ferocious cop who likes winking at people and beating black men up is no great surprise; having a black homosexual as a major character is. Although the main chapters rotate through the main three dudes, we also get diary extracts from the gay character, and from one of the women. I don't think a James Ellroy novel has ever given us a woman's point of view before. Normally we only see the women as the men do. This is a quantum leap for him.
And as always the main characters are surrounded by celebrities. Howard Hughes, off his rocker in Vegas. Sonny Liston on a downward spiral. Three mafia crimelords acting as a sort of Greek chorus. And I can't imagine a better-written version of the ageing, spiteful J Edgar Hoover than the one Ellroy gives us here.
There were times when the book recycled some of the less interesting elements of the previous books in the series. I sighed wearily when suddenly characters were running heroin out of the Dominican Republic and launching night raids on Cuba. And I was unhappy that they set up yet another cab company. But otherwise it was good to be back in creepy Ellroy world after so long. A lot of the usual obsessions are present and correct. Golf. Dogs. Tattoos. Tattoos of dogs. Phone transcripts. Terrible, unfunny jokes. People getting beaten up so bad they have to spit out their teeth and 'bridgework'. People spying on lesbian couplings through windows. And so on.
The story is compelling, certainly more so than in The Cold Six Thousand. I wouldn't say that I necessarily cared a great deal about what happened to anyone, but the process of reading a James Ellroy story kind of sweeps you up and doesn't let you out until it's done (although it's not quite so intense towards the end as it needs to be). It's 600+ pages, and I got through it fairly quickly. The end was good - actually, surprisingly sad considering how difficult it is to empathise with any of the characters - but not as good as American Tabloid. Which is a shame, given that this is the final volume of the trilogy. But then I guess Lando dancing on Endor isn't as good as the Nazi rally stuff at the end of Star Wars.
The reason I didn't get through it more quickly is because, as with all Ellroy novels, the plot is complex. There are a lot of characters, and while it's not too difficult to follow, it isn't something you should rush through. Ellroy's prose style has become more and more stripped down over the years. It's like he includes certain key sentences but omits the ones that would link them together. All Ellroy's characters are far more intelligent than you or I, and they make insane connections between disparate events which we, the readers, are somehow expected to keep up with. While the book occasionally slows down to let us catch up, I was pleased to have kept everything reasonably in order in my head for this one. I even guessed the ending 50 pages before it happened. Yay for me.
But it did feel a bit tired. Perhaps the author's getting old. Perhaps I am. The prose is frazzled and ferocious, but not as taut as it seems to want to be. The humour of American Tabloid isn't quite there. There are bits that made me laugh, but previous books walked the tightrope between comedy and horror brilliantly, and this one doesn't do it quite as well. Ellroy's crazed hipster language doesn't quite feel right in an early 70s setting. And while his earlier novels have heavy mob and showbiz elements, that's missing here a bit. It's noticeable that the only celebrities he uses are safely dead and therefore unable to sue. But that does make it feel less tuned in to its time than his earlier books.
Ultimately, though, this is a good book. I guess the biggest disadvantage is that in order to properly appreciate it, you'll need to have read the previous two, one of which isn't very good. It's not American Tabloid, but it's a decent end to an up-and-down trilogy. I'll have to re-read all three at some point.
Hopefully Ellroy will do something a bit smaller in scale now. I don't think he can go much further with the epic, though I'm willing to be proved wrong...
Part of the American Underworld Trilogy.