‘A world of troubled men in extremis’ – Blood’s A-Rover by James Ellroy

In a recent (and excellent) interview in the Paris Review, James Ellroy explained why he dug Dashiell Hammett but didn’t have so much time for Raymond Chandler:

Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important to me.

If Chandler wrote ‘the kind of guy he wanted to be’ and Hammett wrote ‘the kind of guy that he was afraid he was’, then Ellroy, arguably, writes the kind of guy he maybe once was. At one point in Blood’s A-Rover, he refers to ‘A world of troubled men in extremis’ – this is Ellroy’s milieu.

Blood’s A-Rover (which takes as its title a phrase from a Houseman poem that very much reflects the thrust of the novel) is the third instalment of Ellroy’s Underground USA trilogy. There are people who would say you don’t have to read either American Tabloid or The Cold Six Thousand in order to ‘get’ this. After all, you didn’t ‘have’ to read The Black Dahlia to read LA Confidential. If the LA Quartet was a loose-y, goose-y Quartet, so isn’t the Underground USA trilogy a similar bag, Jack? No. You can read the books that comprise the LA Quartet out of order (I wouldn’t recommend it, though. White Jazz, the best novel in the Quartet, is immeasurably enhanced by a knowledge of the preceding books.) You cannot read the Underground USA trilogy in the same way. For a variety of reasons. Firstly, the books are denser. Secondly, each book lifts off from the moment the previous book ended. Characters continue from book to book. Ellroy’s prose over the last decade has become more rarified. His sentences are shorter. They are also far denser than ever before. Arguably, the sentences in Blood’s A-Rover are denser than the sentences in American Tabloid. Ellroy’s on a journey. As one of his readers it would be rude to duck into the car on the last leg of the journey and say, ‘What have I missed?’ It would be nigh on impossible to ‘bring you up to speed’. Better – if you haven’t read American Tabloid or The Cold Six Thousand – to go and play catch up. Better still. Go and read My Dark Places. Go and read LA Quartet. Play tres catch up. Only then, only then should you dabble with the Underground USA trilogy. These are books for grown ups. Committed – in every sense of the word – grown ups.

The novel kicks off with a heist. It is Los Angeles. 2 February, 1964. An armoured car is hit. There is carnage on a grand scale, including the chemical disfigurement and death of all but one of the robbers (or so we’re first told). We skip from THEN to NOW: someone (we don’t learn who until the very final pages, although you could be forgiven for hearing Ellroy himself) outlines what we’re about to read:

AMERICA: I window-peeped four years of our History. It was one long mobile stakeout and kick-the-door-in shakedown. I had a license to steal and a ticket to ride. I followed people. I bugged and tapped and caught big events in ellipses. I remained unknown. My surveillance links the Then to Now in a never-before-revealed manner. I was there.

With ‘scripture-pure veracity and scandal-rag content’, Ellroy whips us through his underground history, from 1968 to 1972. As in the previous outings there are three men (for almost the entirety of the novel) whose perspectives we inhabit from chapter to chapter: Wayne Tedrow Jr and Dwight Holly, familiar to readers of The Cold Six Thousand, and Don Crutchfield, a new character and (again, arguably) a sort of Ellroy manqué, given Crutchfield’s predilection for being a bit of a peeping tom and a housebreaker (as Ellroy was as a young man). J Edgar Hoover has Holly trying to infiltrate black militant groups. Don Crutchfield is in the employ of an LA PI, paid to carry out the hack work, following cars, photographing adulterous husbands and the like. Tedrow is cooking up ‘pain-grade’ heroin to help his father’s widow. (If you don’t know, Tedrow oversaw the murder of his father at the tail-end of The Cold Six Thousand (oh yes, and the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the set-up of James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan) in order to get himself shacked up with his father’s squeeze who is currently dying of cancer.) Crutchfield is hired by ‘the Hate King’, Dr Fred Hiltz, a purveyor of all manner of nasty, racial propaganda, to track down a woman who made off with a pile of his dough. Holly is trying to set up dual informants in order to infiltrate two up and coming, maybe-nothing/maybe-something black militant groups. Tedrow is circling Holly, doing jobs for the Agency, trying to keep his hand in the ring. We learn of a police called Scotty who is obsessed with the heist we were privy to at the beginning of the novel. The heist involved a load of stolen emeralds. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that

It began with the stones. “Green fire,” “Green Death.” Columbia, mid-15-something. Spanish settlers conquer the Muzo Indians and rape their emerald mines. The Spanish become Columbians. The Muzos become slave labour. The tradition extends to now. Mining companies rape the Itoco Mountains. They’re near Bogotá.

But in order to discover that the stones are at the centre of things we have to wade through ‘Political files, criminal files, civil rights. Informant files. Surveillance files, gossip files and general sleaze files. 600,000 files in total.’ There are ‘Files, graphs, lists… Teamster Fund book loan defaulters. Deadbeats and stiffs. Transaction files and credit sheets. Debit-projection files and cost-analysis studies.’ There are ‘Voodoo rites, voodoo rituals, voodoo curses, voodoo priests. Mind-blowing voodoo liquor and voodoo herbs.’ There are ‘Station-house tune-ups. Panthers waylaid and shit-kicked. Trumped-up dope busts, trumped up drunk rousts, trumped up warrant checks and -’ as one character says ‘It was all dizzying. It was re-situating, re-wire-all-your-circuits shit.’ Wayne has files. Crutch has files. Holly has files. Certain files are ceded from one to the other. There are journals. Diary excerpts. File excerpts. Phone transcripts. Wayne and Crutch become involved with the Mob, setting up casinos in Santo Domingo, buying casinos for Howard Hughes in Vegas. There is a Frenchy guy called Mesplede who teaches Crutch how to wage war by executing insurgents on the Cuban coast, bombing, shooting, scalping. There is a guy called Marshall Bowen, a gay black police who is ‘sacked’ from the LAPD in order to better pose as a genuine black militant. Holly eventually inveigles Bowen in a plot to assassinate Hoover. And all the while, ‘Wayne linked boxes. His wall graph was Op Art. Boxes and arrows off at odd angles.’ And we haven’t even thought to mention Comrade Joan, quite possibly Ellroy’s finest, most complex female character, a woman who joins Wayne and Dwight and Holly (and the revolution in Cuba, and black militancy and the emerald heist and every other aspect of the novel).

Parts of Blood’s A-Rover feel strangely self-referential, as if Ellroy is having more fun than he has ever had before. You see it in the character of Don Crutchfield (Ellroy writing a character that reviewers such as myself will link back to him). You also see it in comments like ‘Yet another part of me,’ Marsh Bowen writes in his journal, ‘was off at another level of bifurcation, directing the performance and goofing on the whole thing.’ Characters who appear briefly in the first chapter we see Crutch have a vitally important role in the denouement of the book – so if you don’t read carefully, you’ll be flicking back to the beginning trying to ascertain why the hell they were. At one point, Karen says to Dwight, ‘It’s all a little convoluted to me.’ Towards the end of things, Holly considers writing a book about what he knows:

A detailed operation. A multicontext design. An explicative scenario. Tell it like it was then and how it is now. Mr Hoover’s racial lunacy. The FBI’s war on the civil rights movement. Its calamitous faux pas with the black-militant groups. A huge feat of exposition. A densely packed indictment. A treatise on the collusive mind-set. JFK, RFK and MLK are dead. Let me tell you how. A big social document with key players brightly lit.

Blood’s A-Rover, then, is not the easiest of books to summarise or review. Imagine going twelve rounds with a fighter twenty times more experienced than you and gifted with the added benefit of a pile of telephone directories that he’s pounding your head with. Imagine reading a book that feels like a rollercoaster, a rollercoaster you haven’t been tied into, a rollercoaster (furthermore) that by the 400 page point you may feel like you’re holding onto by the tips of your fingernails. It’s exhausting, confusing, bewildering, no doubt. Ellroy uses language like the proverbial bitch. Here is an example, drawn at random from its almost 650 pages:

‘He got AN IDEA. He didn’t hex it by stating it, inside or outside of his head. His chemical shit was stashed at pad3. He Walpurgisnacted it and worked till he dropped.

Ellroy has Nixon (‘the new Prez’) say relatively early on ‘We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimmness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.‘ Coming to the end of Blood’s A-Rover feels like coming to the end of that long night of the American spirit. And if we know that Ellroy’s end isn’t necessarily the end (that America’s long night seems to be stretching on right to the very present moment), we can at least urge ourselves to gather whatever light is available to us.

Any Cop?: Ellroy fans will lose themselves in Blood’s A-Rover, may come to feel like men in extremis themselves (irrespective of gender). No doubt it’s way too hardcore for the casual reader (or even the less than casual reader or even the reader who imagines themselves to be hardcore but in fact is not). Ellroy has no time for any other than the most commited. But for the most committed there is everything you could possibly want from an Ellroy novel. The only question is: where the Hell does he go from here?

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