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Engrossing obsessions

With Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy finally finishes his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy.

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy

Century, pp.627, 18.99

With Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy finally finishes his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy.

With Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy finally finishes his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. It’s been eight years since the second volume, The Cold Six Thousand, written in a staccato shorthand prose that seemed always about to veer out of control, marked the apotheosis of Ellroy’s feverish and frenetic style. Something had to give, and at first it was Ellroy himself, who suffered a breakdown and eventually quit Middle America to return to his spiritual home of Los Angeles. Reviewing The Cold Six Thousand back in 2001 I called Ellroy either our greatest obsessive writer or our most obsessive great writer, and although this novel is far more approachable than his last, the evidence of obsession is even more marked.


After a brief flashback to an armoured car heist central to the plot, Blood’s a Rover opens in the summer of 1968. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are already dead, and we play plot catch-up with Wayne Tedrow, Jr., who ended American Tabloid, the first of the trilogy, in Dallas for the JFK assassination. Ellroy’s Underworld is a confluence of gangsters, cops, politicans, and what we call politely the ‘intelligence community’. Tedrow, fallen into that life as a solider of fortune, has killed his right-wing father and is maintaining his dying step-mother with heroin smuggled by the CIA from Vietnam. Ellroy structured each part of the trilogy around three men, introducing new characters, like Tedrow, as apprentices to the existing leads. Thus Tedrow and FBI thug Dwight Holly are here joined by Don Crutchfield, abandoned by his mother years before, a part-time skip-tracer and tail man for sleazy Hollywood private eye Fred Otash, and an accomplished peeping Tom addicted to the windows of older women.

The story shifts between the mob’s trying to replace their Cuban casinos with new ones in the Dominican Republic and the FBI’s war against LA’s black power movement, tagged Operation Baaaad Brother. Cuban exiles, Haitian voodoo priests, the Mau-Mau Liberation Front, mysterious emeralds, and striped taxis known as Tiger Kabs mix with Howard Hughes’ Mormons, junkie Sonny Liston, gay hustler Sal Mineo, mafia dons Carlos Marcello and Sam Giancana and Richard Nixon’s White House. Presiding over it all, as in the previous novels, is J. Edgar Hoover, increasingly demented but holder of the files that could bring down everything and everyone. Ellroy adds transcripts of Nixon’s conversations with Holly to counterpoint Hoover’s ranting comic relief; sometimes it seems as if what he wants is to provide straightforward narrative for the straight reader. The straight reader needs it; these are complicated books, and this one, big as it is, rushes to its conclusion, Ellroy’s potted history of FBI repression and Crutchfield’s uncovering the back story of the Red revolutionary Joan Rosen Klein crammed into a frantic finish.

As if to offer more comfort for the straighter reader, Ellroy takes unusual voices in two journals, one written by a gay, black LA cop assigned to infiltrate the Mau Mau, the other by Karen Sifakis, a pacifist Quaker activist involved in an unlikely affair with Dwight Holly.

Karen is potentially Holly’s saviour, a typical role for Ellroy women; Holly’s name suggests Bud White in LA Confidential, who was redeemed by the lover of a hooker. But in a major departure, Ellroy doubles Karen with the more violent side of Sixties protest, her best friend, Klein, as much a player as any of the men. Yet even Klein remains defined primarily by her relationships, including one with a major character who remains mostly off-stage. This highlight the other central difficulty with the ‘Underworld’ trilogy.

Because the theme of corruption is so encompassing, the plot so labyrinthine, Ellroy uses troikas of lead characters and persistently doubling of others to avoid slow-building development. Thus the black cop, Marshall Bowen, is defined more by his relation to his opposite, the crew-cut white bruiser Scotty Bennett, than by his own journal, which itself is paired with Karen’s, and which Wayne is also forging, in an echo of the journals of Sirhan Sirhan and Arthur Bremner. Wayne is defined by two mother figures, first his step-mother and then by his affair with the widow of a black man he’s killed. He becomes obsessed with finding her missing son, who leads back to our LA story. And of course Crutchfield is obsessed with finding his mother, and finds much more instead.

‘It’s pure arrogance,’ Ellroy writes. ‘We’re self-absorbed and confuse our lives with history’. No one more than Ellroy himself. Aware of those dangers, he still plays with them. For in the end, Crutch is just what his name implies, the ultimate stand-in for Ellroy himself. The core of Ellroy’s best work has always been his own demons, his best writing brings them into sharp focus. The title Blood’s a Rover comes from A. E. Houseman, and the stanza from which it’s taken finishes, ‘Up lad, when the journey’s over/There’ll be time enough for sleep’. One can’t help but hear those words echoing in its author’s mind as this engrossing novel reaches its exhausted finish.


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