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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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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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