In Cold Blood

Novelist James Ellroy reshapes America's ugly history in his own image

The new book begins where 1995's American Tabloid left off: with John Kennedy's assassins--mobsters, G-men, bagmen, lowlifes--waiting for the "big fucking scream" that would, soon enough, rip through the streets of downtown Dallas and far, far beyond. A Vegas cop named Wayne Tedrow Jr. has been sent to Dallas to off a black pimp. Tedrow doesn't think he can carry out the hit. He's a good cop born from a bad seed: His father is a violent racist, tight with powerful men. In time, Junior becomes a more vicious man than his father, because he knows better. Junior's a small-timer whose actions have enormous ramifications, but those are the kind of men who fascinate Ellroy: the insignificant men who shape and control our history. They carry out what the author calls his theme of "the private nightmare of public policy"; he also refers to it as "the human infrastructure of public policy."

There are other small men in The Cold Six Thousand, which moves from Dallas to the casinos of Las Vegas to the bushes of Vietnam to bombed-out churches in Birmingham to the waters off Cuba's shores to dark offices in D.C. FBI man Ward Littell, who first appeared in American Tabloid, works for Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover. Last time around, he had been blackmailed to safeguard the Mob's interest in Vegas. But he's always been a liberal with a conscience, a smart and civilized man among the thugs of power. In The Cold Six Thousand, he tries to manipulate Hoover into aiding the civil-rights movement. Like all of Ellroy's heroes who realize their sins too late, Littell is doomed. So is Pete Bondurant, the casual racist who does shitwork for the Mob, sells smack to blacks and wanders too deep into the muck. All three men pay to play their roles in history. They lose their souls, and if they find them at all, it's usually too late--for them, for the country.

Ellroy's books don't just present an alternative history; they don't take place in make-believe parallel worlds that merely resemble our own. They proffer instead a secret history made up of whispers, shadows, all the dirty shit you suspect but never mention out loud, maybe out of fear it will take shape and kill you in your sleep. His are the novels of the profane and paranoid: Don DeLillo's J.F.K. conspiracy-fiction Libra (Ellroy's inspiration for the first two books of this so-called Underworld U.S.A. trilogy) taken to its wildest extreme. If his earlier books were an attempt to answer what he called "the fucking why"--Why was his mother killed? Why is there such corruption and evil in this world?--then American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand wonder only about the hows: How did we get here? How do we move beyond our sins?

James Ellroy at 53: "Perspective comes," says one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th--and 21st--century.
James Ellroy at 53: "Perspective comes," says one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th--and 21st--century.
James Ellroy at 53: "Perspective comes," says one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th--and 21st--century.
James Ellroy at 53: "Perspective comes," says one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th--and 21st--century.

"I accumulate the detail toward answering the why, but there will never be an answer to that question for me," Ellroy says. "When I talk about the wake of my mother's death and becoming fiendishly curious about L.A.'s criminal and social history, I am seeking the answer to why my mother was killed, but there is no answer. There's only the accumulation of detail. It's not as if I will ever be able to shape these things into a snappy epigram, and I wouldn't want it that way. When this career of mine is ended many years from now and I have fulfilled, to whatever degree, my mandate to re-create 20th-century American history through fiction, then hopefully the books will be read as obsessively as I've written them, and in the aggregate, people will point out themes and motifs that will serve to answer this question.

"I am far more interested in the question of what have we done, because it is answerable. A good example of this is all the brouhaha that attended the passing of the millennium and what a softball nature it was. It was all about going back to revisit our great victories in World War II. What does that get us? What about the flip side of this? What about all the shitty, cowardly, self-interested, jive, imperialistic, rapacious shit America's pulled around the world throughout the American 20th century? Why aren't we examining that so that we don't repeat this in the 21st century? It was said that Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the people who really perpetrated it, and what I would like to say that I've done with the novel of realistic intrigue is to give it back to the key specific 20th-century perpetrators who are these goons of the American system."

Ellroy started writing because he had no choice. He had absorbed so many noir novels during his childhood that he needed some way to vomit them out. And then there was his mother. And he was in love with a dead woman: Elizabeth Short, both pieces of her. Short was a Massachusetts beauty queen with big-screen daydreams who moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, posed for glamour-girl pics, then wound up bisected in a vacant lot in January 1947. The cops came up empty, just as they would when Ellroy's own mother was found. Short, known as The Black Dahlia, was a drunk, a fuck-around--a shadow in a dark room. Ellroy would write about her, too, in 1987; he considers The Black Dahlia his breakthrough book. It would lead to three more about the nasty underside of Los Angeles in the 1940s and '50s, the books that constituted his L.A. Quartet: The Big Nowhere, about Commie-haters and killers; L.A. Confidential, which told of three cops looking for their souls beneath a cover-up; and White Jazz, about Dave "The Enforcer" Klein, a cop with a hard-on for beatings and shakedowns.

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