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Ellroy’s Vision

Conspiracy theories told the hard-boiled way.

Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Blood’s a Rover
by James Ellroy
Knopf, 656 pp., $28.95

Ellroy’s Vision

Because he writes books laced with profanity and graphic descriptions of violence, James Ellroy isn’t a writer to everyone’s taste. He is nonetheless the most intellectually ambitious writer of crime fiction in our time.

With the publication of Blood’s a Rover, Ellroy has completed what he calls the Underworld USA trilogy: three massive, complex novels that paint a haunting and horrifying picture of recent American history (1958-72). The books focus on the malign role played in that history by organized crime, rogue elements of the CIA, and (above all) J. Edgar Hoover, who is the central character of the trilogy. To my mind the books’ politics are repellent, but they are still very much worth reading—in particular the first volume, American Tabloid.

So what are the books’—and their author’s—politics? That question is disputed. In 2005 Ellroy was the subject of an admiring interview in which he stated bluntly “I’m not a liberal” and noted approvingly that “most cops are conservatives.” In other interviews he has gone further, describing himself as “a Tory by nature” who is “conservative by temperament.” Furthermore, Ellroy is clearly not an admirer of either John Kennedy or Bill Clinton: In the brief prelude to American Tabloid, speaking in his own name for the first and last time in the trilogy, he memorably declares that JFK—whom he depicts as a charming but shallow sexual athlete—was “Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab.”

But is Ellroy really a conservative? If we follow D. H. Lawrence’s advice and trust the “tale” rather than the artist, a different picture emerges. Ellroy’s books suggest that he is on the left and, in fact, the rather hard left. As it happens, the artist himself has lent support to this conclusion, in a statement in yet another interview: “America itself as an entity was founded on a bedrock of racism, slavery, land-grabs, and the slaughter of the indigenous people.” 

That judgment furnishes an interpretive key that helps make sense of the politics of the trilogy. All three novels explore vicious American racism—Mafia chieftains and J. Edgar Hoover being among the most vicious racists. All three novels indicate that American involvement in undeveloped countries (Cuba in the first book, Vietnam in the second, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the third) consists largely of support for Third World dictators who brutalize and oppress their impoverished subjects. Ellroy does not romanticize communism, but all of the books’ anti-communists are either far-right fanatics or greedy businessmen. Admirable, principled opponents of Communism on moral grounds are nowhere to be found.

Finally, the books embrace conspiracy theorizing in a big way. American Tabloid culminates in the assassination of JFK—murdered at the behest of organized crime, which was angered by Castro’s expropriation of its Cuban casinos (and then by Kennedy’s unwillingness to continue to try to oust Castro after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion), and by Robert Kennedy’s crusade against organized crime. (The assassination is given tacit permission by J. Edgar Hoover, who refers to it obliquely as a measure “of great boldness.” Lee Harvey Oswald was a fall guy; the real assassin, we learn in the next volume, was a rightwing French extremist.)

Mutatis mutandis, the next volume, The Cold Six Thousand, tells a similar story. This book culminates with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Both of these assassinations again receive tacit permission from Hoover: King’s assassination is an offshoot of an FBI campaign (orchestrated by Hoover) to discredit the civil rights leader; Mafia leaders are responsible for the RFK—as for the JFK—hit, because they know of (and fear) his intention to fight organized crime if he is elected president in 1968. (James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan are, like Oswald, patsies, made use of by the actual assassins to obscure their own guilt.)

In short, the trilogy displays all of the nuanced political sophistication that we’ve come to expect from the musings of Gore Vidal. James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution might have been written with Ellroy in mind: The books manifest precisely the conspiratorial thinking and loathing for America whose post-1963 origins were so brilliantly explored by Piereson.

And yet—in spite of all that, American Tabloid is an excellent crime novel, and the two subsequent books are well worth reading. They convincingly portray an alternative-universe America, thankfully different from the real one but still believable in some respects. Ellroy draws on enough real historical facts—e.g., Robert Kennedy’s fixation on convicting Jimmy Hoffa, Joseph Kennedy’s early years as a bootlegger—to make for a credible portrait of an America dominated in important ways by organized crime. In short, Ellroy facilitates the willing suspension of his readers’ disbelief.

Furthermore, Ellroy excels at constructing extremely complex plots that fit together. In this context it’s worth noting that, before he writes a novel, Ellroy produces a detailed plot outline. The outline for The Cold Six Thousand reportedly came to 350 pages—more than half the length of the finished book. Ellroy’s characters are also believable: The plot of American Tabloid is advanced through a kaleidoscopic shifting of alliances among the three major characters, in which a different one of the three is, from time to time, at odds with the other two. These shifts are always believable, as are the characters themselves: a charming, amoral, greedy, and ambitious FBI agent who worships the Kennedys and is undone when they reject him; a guilt-ridden, moralistic FBI agent, fiercely opposed to organized crime, who—after Robert Kennedy, influenced by J. Edgar Hoover, refuses to hire him to work in the Justice Department—does an about-face and goes to work for the mob; and a brutally immoral rogue ex-cop, who develops something like a conscience after he falls in love.

Finally, in his own way, Ellroy is a master stylist. He employs several different styles, each to good effect. The books are narrated in an extremely stripped-down manner that makes Ernest Hemingway sound like late Henry James: Adjectives—let alone subordinate clauses—need not apply. The books’ extreme graphic violence is conveyed in this style.

Here’s an example from Blood’s a Rover, describing the punishment meted out by the Dominican secret police to youthful protestors who oppose the government’s razing of houses in order to facilitate the mob’s building of casino-hotels:

Three kids ran out of the brush. They wore masks and Uncle Ho shirts and carried flame-topped bottles. Get it? Molotov cocktails. .  .  .

Tiger Kart [the car transporting one of the book’s main characters, who is working with the mob to build the casino-hotels] cut back and rolled northbound. They saw the Molotov kids, dead in a ditch. They were head-shot point-blank. Their Uncle Ho shirts were slashed. Their hands and feet were severed. A La Banda guy [a secret policeman] stepped out of the brush and waved.

A second style, found in American Tabloid but not the subsequent volumes, mimics the alliterative prose that used to be found in scandal magazines—full of dirt about both showbiz personalities and politicians. Consider this supposed 1958 assessment of JFK:

U.S. Senate cloakroom wags say he’s far from being the most dedicatedly demonic Democrat dallier. No, Senator L.B. (Lover Boy?) Johnson probably tops political polls in that department, with Florida’s George F. ‘Pass the Smackeroos’ Smathers coming in second. No, Senator John F. Kennedy is rather a tenuously tumescent tomcat, with a tantalizingly trenchant taste for those finely-furred and felicitous felines who find him fantastically fetching themselves!

A third style is used for J. Edgar Hoover’s dialogue, most of which is taken from what purport to be transcripts of telephone calls. Hoover is depicted as a brilliant strategist and tactician who is also a racist. Both his brilliance and his racism come across nicely in this statement from The Cold Six Thousand, in which Hoover comments wryly on his limited mandate to fight the Ku Klux Klan: “God will punish [the Klansmen] for lynchings and castrations, should He lapse on the side of compassion and find them unjustified. I will punish them for Federal Mail Fraud.”

A fourth style, providing much-needed comic relief, is reserved for the speech of the mobsters—think of Damon Runyon characters who are foul-mouthed racists, and you’ll get the idea. Thus, in The Cold Six Thousand, one of the mob bosses complains about RFK: “That c—ksucker used us. He put his faggot brother in the White House at our expense. He f—ed us like the pharaohs f—ed Jesus.” A colleague then corrects him: “The Romans, Santo. The pharaohs f—ed Joan of Arc.”

A fifth style, introduced in Blood’s a Rover, consists of confidential diary entries penned by extremely thoughtful and introspective people: two leftist women who, for reasons of their own, act as informants to an FBI agent working (at Hoover’s instigation) on a plot to discredit black militants; and a black Los Angeles cop, who goes undercover as part of this plot and acts as an agent provocateur, trying to get the militants to sell heroin. Here’s an excerpt from the cop’s diary, describing the aftermath of a beating administered to him by a few white Los Angeles policemen:

My unlikely rescuer was Jomo Kenyatta Clarkson, Propaganda Minister for the preposterously named Mau-Mau Liberation Front, along with his friends Shondell and Bobby. Jomo is garrulous and recognizably psychopathic and continues to break the world’s land speed record for use of the word “motherf—er” in a single sentence.

As that quotation suggests, Blood’s a Rover is the most politically balanced of the three Underworld USA novels. It is genuinely critical of the self-styled black revolutionaries of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Thus, one of the main characters, an FBI agent, persuades his lover, one of the leftist women, to inform on black militants. She agrees to do so because she accepts his claim that they’re

out to sell dope and cash in on social protest. Because they’re s—birds who abuse women. Because they’ll get a lot of very impressionable young black men fired up to do crazy s— that will derail their f—ing lives forever, and the overall social benefit that they’ll create from being in business will be down around zero.

Furthermore, the black undercover cop voices contempt for the radical-chic white liberals who support black militant groups that 

front programs to feed wholesome breakfasts to impoverished ghetto children. White liberals find this fetching and donate money that the MMLF [Mau-Mau Liberation Front] and BTA [Black Tribe Alliance] spends [sic] on hate-lit supplies, guns and dope. The breakfasts are homey affairs, often written up and photographed by a doting media. The breakfast food is extorted from local merchants. .  .  . Sunday breakfasts are often followed by “media mixers,” featuring Bloody Marys, soul food, and reefer. These are hilarious, mixed-message, mixed-race moments. Yeah, we wants to kill all de pigs and destroy de white power structure, but we thinks you cool.

That said, Blood’s a Rover remains a leftwing book. It portrays a left that’s pathetic—compared with a right that’s vicious and dangerous. It also bears noting that the book’s plot largely consists of the success of the two leftwing women in moving the three main male characters—the FBI agent, a former Las Vegas cop who now works for the mob, and a young private eye who’s involved in the mob effort to build the Dominican casino-hotels—sharply to the left.

Unlike the first two books in the trilogy, Blood’s a Rover suffers from its lack of an obvious climax—recall that the two earlier books conclude with the 1963 assassination of JFK and the 1968 assassinations of MLK and RFK. One might have expected this final book to culminate with Watergate, but Ellroy chose not to pursue that obvious path, declaring, “I don’t give a s— about [Watergate]. Nobody got killed and it’s been done to death.” So Blood’s a Rover culminates instead somewhat anticlimactically with the 1972 death—more or less natural, but read the book to find out more—of J. Edgar Hoover.

Blood’s a Rover is hardly Ellroy at his best, but it is still very much worth reading. Its plot is complex but well thought out, and the characters are nicely developed. Much of it is frightening, but much of it is also very funny. And notwithstanding the foulness of the books’ politics, I marvel at Ellroy’s creation in the trilogy of his alternative-universe America. To explain this seeming contradiction, I refer to W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” in which Auden came to grips with his admiration for writers whose (conservative) views he disliked. “Time,” he declared,  

Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives;

Pardons cowardice, conceit,

Lays its honours at their feet.


Time that with this strange excuse

Pardoned Kipling and his views,

And will pardon Paul Claudel,

Pardons [Yeats] for writing well.

In a strange and idiosyncratic way, James Ellroy also writes well. And his books are so ambitious and so imaginative that I can overlook their seriously wrongheaded politics.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. 

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