A Reading Life

Forging history - one contract hit at a time

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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Popular American history generally embraces the “great man’’ theory of events, even more so now that the ranks of great men have expanded beyond white males of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish descent to include women and people of diverse racial and ethnic groups. You don’t have to accept this edifying view of things to be shocked by James Ellroy’s perversion of it, which, put bluntly, amounts to the hit-man theory of history. It’s a vision in which events unfold bump-off by bump-off, big hits and small, variously prompted by expediency, revenge, greed, delusion, and sheer hatred. It’s a world brought into being by strange bedfellows, literally and figuratively. Operations, operatives, and adjuncts of the CIA, FBI, metropolitan police, and political parties are all tangled up with those of the mob, Cuban exiles, white supremacists, black militants, drug runners, pimps, prostitutes, underground subversives, rogue mercenaries, celebrities, and millionaires. Crumminess and creepiness are the leitmotif. It’s an outrageous, exhilarating, unpretty sight, and it’s ingeniously plausible.

“Blood’s a Rover’’ (Knopf, $28.95) is the third volume of Ellroy’s Underworld Trilogy. It follows “American Tabloid’’ (1995), which ended just before the assassination of JFK and posited the involvement of the mob and Cuban exiles in the hit, and “The Cold Six Thousand (2001), which brings us the mob- and FBI-backed assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The present novel takes an introductory step backward to February 1964 and the heist in South LA of an armored car loaded with cash and emeralds: the scene, a holocaust of smoldering, blood-pooled bodies. The loot has never been recovered, and the emeralds serve as the book’s MacGuffin.

Like previous volumes, “Blood’s a River’’ proceeds as a growing dossier, the subject of which is the dark, deformed heart of America, in this case, as it pulsed from June 1968 to May 1972. Narrative sections are interspersed with supposed documents: transcripts of phone calls, memos, status reports, personal journals, and newspaper articles. Indeed, many of the characters spend a great deal of time working on their files, assembling and piecing together evidence, hypothesizing, intuiting, stumbling on connections and flashing to insight. The plot grows slowly, but the prose comes on full tilt, a 1950s-cadenced rat-a-tat-tat. Drenched in racial insult, passage after passage slams onto the page like a hail of bullets, and you’re often forced to go back to examine the blood spatter to take in what just happened. The plot is an ever-growing morass of fortuitous connections, double-dealings, reverses, switched and simultaneous allegiances, coverups, and, of course, “wet jobs’’ assigned, enacted, retracted, fouled up, and even, mirabile dictu, declined.

Many real people have set up shop in these pages, among them are J. Edgar Hoover (“the old girl,’’ senile and obsessed with race); Howard Hughes (called “Drac,’’ because of his penchant for blood transfusions, and nutsy in the highest degree); Richard Nixon and “First Friend’’ Bebe Rebozo; underworld bosses Sam Giancana and Carlos Marcello; and Sonny Liston, training on a regimen of booze, smack, and hatred of Muhammad Ali.

The cast of fictional characters is huge, a number having played parts in the preceding volumes. A central figure is Wayne Tedrow Jr., a chemistry whiz, son of a deep-dyed racist linked to the mob who coerced him into involvement in JFK’s assassination. Here we meet Wayne cooking heroin for his onetime lover, Janice, the dying widow of his father - whom the two murdered. The FBI wants to pin the rap on one Pappy Dawkins. Wayne warns Pappy, but shoots him when Pappy draws a gun, an errant bullet from which kills a preacher, Cedric Hazzard. Wayne proceeds to have an affair with Hazzard’s widow and promises to find her missing son, Reginald, who may or may not have been involved in the armored car heist.

Wayne’s kind of a good guy; he wants to make up for his father’s foul deeds; still he’s all mixed up with the mob and “Drac’’ and their big plans for turning the Dominican Republic into a casino resort. That brings up Dwight Holly, on the Dominican beat, too. He’s another Ellroy vet, an FBI adjunct. He’s also working with Wayne on a malevolent Hoover scheme, Operation BAAAAD BROTHER, to orchestrate mayhem and drug pushing in two black-militant outfits with the object of publicizing it as “a fully formed explication of Negro criminality and indigenous moral sloth’’ (in the words of “the old girl’’). The two are also connected to a speed freak called Crutch, kind of a good guy, too, except he’s a peeping-tom and a natural-born killer. Also at large and connected to everyone every which way are a Cuba-obsessed mercenary who was the shooter atop the “grassy knoll’’; a millionaire hate pamphleteer; three radical subversive women; an ex-Tonton Macoute thug; numerous voodoo adepts and drug fiends; a mobbed-up, FBI-backed, money-laundering banker; various agent provocateurs; and unsterling members of the law-enforcement community.

One thing, however, is missing. It sounds heartless to say so, but the novel lacks the gravitational pull of a major assassination around which, as in the previous two volumes, the welter of action, motive, and circumstance can coalesce, an act that distills the seething rot of the times so brilliantly evoked here. Toward the end, Ellroy stops to darn the fraying, flapping strands of the exploding plot, but rather than pulling things together, the exercise has the effect of reducing what was an immense and persuasive phantasmagoria to an implausible caper.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at

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