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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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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.”

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