A superbly plotted, elegantly constructed, stark, powerful, novelistic peep at the dark machinations and criminal/political power plays leading from the JFK Assassination
to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr.
and Robert Kennedy
. Sequel to American Tabloid
and second in author James Ellroy
's projected Underworld USA
trilogy. Published May, 2001
As in all Ellroy's recent novelistic fiction, there's no line between the good guys and the bad guys. The cops
moonlight as mafia hitmen, run rackets, destroy evidence,
coerce witnesses (you'll have seen this operating
to some extent in the film of LA Confidential, but it's
a pale shadow of what goes on in the books in this respect.)
All this is just normal operating procedure.
Sometime during the writing of The Black Dahlia, the first of his acclaimed LA Quartet sequence of crime novels, set in 40's and 50's LA, Ellroy realised he'd discovered a new literary riff: the crime novel as social history. In American Tabloid, his canvas widened to include crime at the national (and international) level - carefully blending facts, near-facts and invention into a seamless picture of events leading up to 11/22/63 - convincing as social history
in its identification of the interests involved, the
hidden cultures it evokes, the forms of criminal life,
if not in all the details of the story. The Cold Six Thousand (the title is a reference to the sum of money given to a rookie cop for his first paid hit job) picks up the tale, starting in Dallas an hour or so after the assassination, blending FBI-run racist political factions, CIA drug wars, high-level mafia planning and operations, union corruption, into a coherent and frighteningly convincing picture of a nation run by criminals for criminals.
Shocking though this is, perhaps the most disturbing thing
about the book is the way it's actually written.
After the intense prose, compressed to the point of dislocation, of White Jazz, the fourth in the LA Quartet, Ellroy employed a more rounded and easier-going narrative voice in Tabloid. In Cold 6,000 he leaves that far behind, pummelling the reader relentlessly with sentences that are flat, short and direct to the point of absurdity. It's quite shocking in its apparent lack of artifice and ornament, as though it were a reading text from some depraved early-learning centre - Janet and John join the mafia, deal dope, and off RFK - but behind the moron-level syntax, a honed literary technique is at work, a precise control and facility, which carefully engineers the impressions of the reader.
Here's a little of the synopsis of Tabloid, from chapter 5 of 6,000, which shows this at work: 'Jack'
and 'Bobby' are JFK and RFK, Littell is a central fictional
character - a pinko ex-alcoholic, ex-FBI, turned mob-lawyer, 'Carlos' is Carlos Marcello, New Orleans mafia king; 'Mr Hoover' is of course J. Edgar Hoover, the highest ranked crook in the book.
Carlos hated Jack and Bobby. Jack and Bobby spurned Littell.
He built his own hate. He fine tuned the aesthetic.
He hated Jack. He knew Jack. Scrutiny undermined image.
Jack was glib. Jack had pizzazz. Jack had no rectitude.
Bobby defined rectitude. Bobby lived rectitude. Bobby punished bad men. He hated Bobby now. Bobby dismissed him. Bobby spurned his respect.
Mr. Hoover bugged Mob hangouts. Mr. Hoover picked up hints.
He smelled the hit. He never told Jack. He never told Bobby.
Mr. Hoover knew Littell. Mr. Hoover dissected his hatred. Mr. Hoover urged him to hurt Bobby.
Littell had evidence. It indicted Joe Kennedy for long-term Mob collusion. He met Bobby--for one half hour--just five days back.
He stopped by his office. He played him a tape. The tape nailed Joe Kennedy. Bobby was smart. Bobby might link tape to hit. Bobby might gauge the tape as a threat.
Do not talk Mob Hit. Do not stain the name Kennedy. Do not
stain sainted Jack. Feel complicitous. Feel guilty. Feel baaaad.
Your Mob Crusade killed your brother. We killed Jack to fuck you.
This relentless facticity
is implacably maintained throughout the 660 pages of the novel. Even its rare moments of tenderness and humanity are surgically incised, pinned back and displayed in the same way, as are the much more plentiful moments of violence and brutality. Here's Ward Littell, tidying up a problem with a witness (and remember, Littell, along with Pete Bondurant, is the nearest this book gets to a hero
The door creaked. The jamb snapped and sheared. Ward Littell
He was egg-spattered. He was blotto. He was non compos something. He put out booze breath.
Pete said "Fuck."
Wayne said, "Jesus Christ."
Ward turned the music off. Ward walked up to Chuck. Chuck shit his pants. Chuck dribbled teeth.
Ward said, "Wild Rabbit."
Chuck coughed. Chuck dribbled teeth.
"Wild Rabbit's got the federal pedig--"
Ward pulled his piece. Ward shot Chuck's eyes out.
The only respite from this pounding is in the dialogue, wonderfully crafted and naturalistic, and the 'documentary inserts' - headlines and memos; I think some
of the headlines are real - which serve as narrative accelerators and perhaps attest to a dim notion of mercy in the back of Ellroy's brain.
The narrative style derives perhaps from Ellroy's fantastic treatment of the repetition and details of police procedures in the LA quartet. It has something of the nature of an internal police report about it (just the facts, ma'am.) The normal literary/romantic gloss over events is just absent. The reader is given no cues about ethical and aesthetic aspects of what's described.
Here's a few quotes I transcribed from an interview Ellroy did for French TV about the book, which make abundantly clear what he's about--what his focus and intentions are with this novel, and perhaps some of his views on the society whose history he's describing. Pay careful attention. This man has something to say.
Out of obsession comes great work. I'm an obsessive fellow.
I wear obsession well. It's my natural state. I enjoy it. I started out obsessive. I remain obsessive. I am just as obsessed, if not more obsessed, now, than I was when I began my career 22 years ago.
The outline for this book was 343 pages. All of the action mapped out in minute detail: the result of much research. 200 pages of notes on the plot and the characters and the way that I would integrate the historical apsects of the
I hired two researchers to compile chronologies on the FBI's war on the civil rights movement, the Vietnamese War, and the lives of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and Howard Hughes' conquest of Las Vegas.
I knew in the end I would end up embellishing, and enhancing, and recreating history to my own specifications. It is my intention to give the reader a seamless evocation of the time and the place and when you weave real-life characters with fictional ones, it is better that the reader not know. [which parts are fiction]
I don't write crime novels any more. I think from American Tabloid on and with this book, I write historical novels and political novels where politics is crime.
It has been said that in my books crime is not an isolated incident, but is a continuing circumstance, and I believe that's true.
There are worlds that are non-criminal. Much of human existence is non-criminal. Those are not the aspects of the human condition that interest me.
Balzac said that behind every great fortune there is a great crime. I would amend that and say that behind any great movement of American history there is crime.
The conspiracies that boil at the heart of this book are overlapping, largely informal, and almost haphazard.
It is certainly a paranoid vision. Paranoia in this case is certainly justified.