Since completing the quartet of LA crime novels that made his name, James Ellroy has left us in no doubt that he wants to be more than a genre writer, embarking on a series of books intended to rewrite the history of America between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. The title is a tribute to Sam Fuller, who directed the film of the same name, but the initial impetus came – as Ellroy frequently acknowledges – from Libra, Don DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald novel.
American Tabloid, the first of the new sequence, runs from 1958 to the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Like Libra, it tries to ‘follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows’. The tenebrous lives uncovered belong to ‘rogue cops and shakedown artists … wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge-entertainers’: the ‘bad white men’ Ellroy always finds.
Along with the Los Angeles setting, American Tabloid abandoned the police-procedural and psycho-killer conventions of Ellroy’s LA books. Jimmy Hoffa, Carlos Marcello and Sam Giancana took the place of Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen; the McClellan Committee, FBI and CIA replaced the City and County cops; and Nixon, the Kennedys and Castro took over from the DA and the Mayor’s offices. As for the public materials under investigation, they were the stuff of history: the 1960 election, the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy’s assassination. Beyond its lurid catalogue of scalpings, beheadings and Tommy-gun-toting shark-fishing jaunts, however, American Tabloid’s version of these events is a fairly conventional one, involving the usual constellation of rogue CIA men, angry Mobsters and disaffected Cuban exiles. After several hundred pages there’s a creeping sense that Ellroy isn’t all that interested in the history, however – or only as a pretext for the brutal clippings, racist outbursts, profane repartee and convoluted conspiracies he writes about so well. The Cold Six Thousand reinforces this impression.
It begins immediately after the Kennedy assassination with the arrival in Dallas of a young Vegas cop called Wayne Tedrow Jr. Wayne’s confused and taciturn character stems, we quickly learn, from his antagonistic relationship with his father, Wayne Sr, a Mormon bigwig, casino owner, FBI informant and purveyor of racist hate-tracts. Wayne is considered to be incorruptible – at least by the standards of the Las Vegas Police Department – and sympathises with the civil rights movement. Neither of these attributes makes him a suitable choice for the job in Dallas: he has been sent there by the Mafia-run Casino Operator’s Council to kill a black pimp who ‘shivved a twenty-one dealer’ back in Nevada. His unwanted hit fee is the titular ‘cold six thousand’.
Also in town are the two surviving members of the Tabloid troika, Pete Bondurant and Ward Littell. Pete is a French-Canadian immigrant of enormous size and strength whose former occupations include freelance entrapment and extortion, procuring girls and drugs for Howard Hughes, killing people for Jimmy Hoffa, and training Cuban mercenaries for the Bay of Pigs. Pete got in trouble with the Mafia in American Tabloid when he was caught stealing a shipment of heroin, and now has to work fairly hard to stay in their good books. In the last book he also put together a plan to kill Kennedy and, although his employers went with a rival contractor at the last minute, Pete now has to come in and help with the cover-up.
Ward Littell is a lawyer for both the Mob and Howard Hughes. He started out in American Tabloid as an FBI man and admirer of Bobby Kennedy, but was sacked by J. Edgar Hoover for showing a lack of interest in bugging harmless leftists. He then stole the Teamsters’ secret financial records and used them to feed anti-Mafia intelligence to the McClellan Committee, discovering along the way that old Joe Kennedy was an early investor in various illegal schemes. Rejected by Bobby after an intervention by Hoover, Littell turned against the Kennedys and went to work for the Mob. This new line of work brought him back into favour with Hoover, who has sent him to Dallas to ensure that the FBI investigation into JFK’s shooting comes to the right conclusions.
In The Cold Six Thousand, these exceptionally busy men get even busier. Wayne gives the hit fee to his prospective victim, Wendell Durfee, then kills a redneck cop and goes back to Vegas to lust after his stepmother. After quashing leads and silencing witnesses, Pete and Littell head to Vegas as well. Littell starts laying the groundwork for Howard Hughes’s acquisition of the Mafia-run casinos, while Pete seeks the Mob’s permission to start a local heroin dealership. Durfee turns up and ungratefully kills Wayne’s wife; Wayne develops a taste for racist violence. He throws his lot in with Pete, and the pair of them start refining heroin in Vietnam to sell to the black population of West Las Vegas. This is part of a CIA-backed operation ostensibly funding arms shipments for anti-Castro rebels in Cuba. Some of the personnel involved with the plan then defect to an FBI-run operation directed against Martin Luther King, which Littell is also unwillingly forced to join – and so on and so on and so on for 672 pages of murders, freak-outs, double-crosses, celebrity cameos and shifting power relationships between the three protagonists, eventually culminating in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
Ellroy has said in interviews that he now aims to avoid ‘psycho-sexually driven’ plots and ‘show a greater diversity of character and motive’. Well, it’s true that The Cold Six Thousand features some characters not familiar from previous Ellroy novels: a sympathetic black intellectual, a demented Mormon patriarch and a competent female criminal. A man and a woman also manage to have a continuing relationship in which neither is murdered, unmasked as a plant, driven half-mad by necrophiliac lusts or forced to jump the country with a shotgun and a bag of heroin. There’s a new location, Las Vegas, and a trip to Vietnam. Apart from that, though, it’s very much business as usual.
Damaged, guilty, compromised men still grid-search sleazy pads containing varying combinations of hate tracts, pornography, Nazi paraphernalia and artfully stashed paper-trails. When tailing cars, these men still count to ten before following their quarry’s aerial through the traffic. Pulling a piece, dumping some rounds and playing Russian roulette with the head of a recalcitrant goon are still the best ways to ensure co-operation or give vent to emotional distress, while the stuffing of shotgun shells in the victim’s mouth remains an important corpse-disposal technique. White racists still supply the ghettos with heroin in the name of ‘containment’, and the police still cover up murders to save themselves from embarrassment. There are sex-snuffs and quasi-incestuous feelings, X-ray eyes and comic riffs on sleaze. Redheads, dogs and golf all put in appearances; the passive voice does not.
Sentences are short. Commas are used only in dialogue; slashes, colons and en-dashes do the rest of the punctuation. Characters ‘spritz’, ‘plotz’, ‘crave’, ‘vibe’, ‘dig’ and probably ‘hink’, but there is one change: when people procure things they are now said to have ‘shagged’ rather than ‘glommed’ them. And, of course, both dialogue and narrative are bespattered on almost every page with ‘coozes’, ‘cunts’, ‘fags’, ‘queers’, ‘gooks’, ‘shines’, ‘dagos’, ‘pork-dodgers’ and ‘camel-jockeys’. The opening paragraph runs: ‘They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee. He wasn’t sure he could do it.’
Ellroy defends his use of this kind of language on the grounds of verisimilitude; but he clearly loves its shock value too. This sometimes makes for deeply uncomfortable reading (‘Nigger Heaven: Four spooks/four capsules/one spike’), but in general the prose is so stylised and over-the-top that the relentless will-to-offend becomes comic rather than sinister. Casual prejudice is so deeply embedded in the characters’ idioms that even their pets pick it up (‘The cat hated fags. The cat hated wops’). At times the calculated obnoxiousness approaches brilliance:
A fag redid the ranch house. He added ice-sculptures and snow-flocked walls. He hired elves and nymphs. The elves were wetbacks. They slung hors d’oeuvres. They wore mock-rag coats. The nymphs whored at the Dunes. They served cleavage and drinks. The fag brought a bandstand. The fag added a dance floor. The fag hired a bumfuck quartet.
With the exception of the dialogue and the frequent ‘document inserts’ (newspaper headlines, phone-call transcripts), the book is written almost entirely in three or four-sentence paragraphs, and only a minority of the sentences have more than four words. The endless reiteration of proper names in particular soon begins to irritate. Deliberately or not, many of the best lines play off the ludicrously hard-boiled idiom against such mundane subjects as fast food (‘The cheese fucked up his teeth’), carpet static (‘Sparks shot off his feet. His socks bipped and buzzed’) and television (‘A cartoon ad blipped on. Bucky Beaver yap-yap-yapped. The fuck hawked Ipana toothpaste’).
The Cold Six Thousand is also less taut than Ellroy’s previous novels. The book juggles a dizzying number of plot-lines without losing control, but the contrivances are more visible than usual. Ellroy hires researchers to assemble his timelines, and it shows: the historical exposition is often flat-footed, and at times the cast seem to be taking part in a relay race through the notable events of the 1960s. One character, Chuck Rogers, is required to shoot JFK from the Grassy Knoll, knock off several conspirators, smuggle Vietnamese heroin for the CIA, maintain a nationwide network of Ku Klux Klan connections and bomb a black church in the Deep South – exhausting work for a man who lives with his parents, even though Mom’s head ends up in the vegetable bin. A huge number of plot twists derive from the apparently insatiable bloodlust of Carlos Marcello; Wendell Durfee’s motive for killing Wayne’s wife is never explained; and Ward Littell’s political reversals are so schematic that Ellroy has to fall back on an uncharacteristic generosity with adverbs (‘It felt morally and hatefully correct’) to explain their inner logic.
Ellroy’s counter-history of the 1960s isn’t particularly surprising: Vietnam is ‘Cuba with gooks’, Cuba ‘Saigon with sand’. A ‘staged naval event’ helps LBJ to escalate the war. J. Edgar Hoover is rabidly hostile to Martin Luther King. King – who is mostly kept offstage – has sexual escapades and a radical political programme. His murder is engineered by rogue cops and FBI men; Hoover is complicit, while LBJ takes the Henry II role (‘Do what you can on this, all right?’). Bobby Kennedy is murdered at the behest of the Mob, who also offer Nixon financial backing. The biggest surprise, in fact, is Ellroy’s continuing attachment to RFK. According to Henry Kissinger, the historical Bobby ‘personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro’; in Ellroy’s version of events, though, he is a clean-handed paragon whose death, rather than King’s, provides the novel’s climax.
Ellroy’s LA novels begin with crimes and work towards the revelation that they are all somehow connected; his recent books take the connections as their starting-point and build towards the crimes. In order to compensate for the resulting lack of suspense, the action has become increasingly frenetic, and there’s more emphasis on character. Unfortunately, character still isn’t Ellroy’s strongest point; he’s good at fucked-up hardcases, but everybody else is two-dimensional. Despite its bloated size, repetitive riffs and overblown ambitions, however, The Cold Six Thousand is still an impressively deranged performance.