“All literature created out of a conscious political aim in the long run creates weakness by creating a habit of unthinking obedience. Literature created for its own sake, for some eternal spiritual need, can be used for politics …. The more unconscious the creation, the more powerful.”
— William Butler Yeats
Part 1: The Year of the Pig
In the late evening or early morning of June 6th, 1968, a gunshot awakened me. I was five years old, and sleeping in my bed in Whittier, California. After being startled, I drifted back to sleep.
That morning, I saw my parents and grandmother watching news coverage of someone who had been shot. I did not know of this man or why his murder got my family’s attention. Later, they explained that the victim was a prominent political figure named Bobby Kennedy. I knew the name. At some earlier, indeterminate point, I had seen pictures of his brother, John, who had been a U.S. President. I knew beforehand that, he too, had been murdered. This seemed like a mere coincidence. I had yet to see patterns in history.
For a brief moment, the gunshot and the broadcast fused into a singular moment, transcending physical space and time. I believed that I witnessed history. This produced a sense of power born out of having, at my tender age, no sense of temporal or spatial geography. Later that week, that intimacy induced a feeling of terror, a feeling perhaps generated in bearing witness to a crime whose implications lay beyond the boundaries of my comprehension.
Blood’s a Rover begins on the morning of June 7th, 1968. Two of its three characters not only had explicit knowledge of Senator Kennedy’s assassination, but enabled its execution. Wayne Tedrow Jr., a liaison for the criminal underworld and the national intelligence establishment, had just blocked his mentor, Ward Littell, a fallen FBI lawyer in the thralls of the mafia, from thwarting the murder. He celebrated the event by watching his stepmother/lover beat his tyrannical, Klanned-up father to death with a golf club, which he facilitated by handcuffing his old man to the bar in his Las Vegas compound.
Littell and Tedrow share a history. Littell facilitated the murder of President John F. Kennedy to avenge a personal betrayal by his brother, the then attorney general (explicated in 1995’s American Tabloid). Tedrow, an atypically liberal Las Vegas police officer, facilitates the King and Bobby K. killings to procure favor in avenging the murder of his wife at the hands of a black pimp, blowback precipitated by Tedrow Sr.’s attempt to coerce his son into the shady realm of far-right political activism. Littell, former good Catholic boy that he is, spends 11/22/63 through 6/6/68 assuaging his guilt through works, hiding witnesses and quietly subverting FBI operations against the civil rights movement’s figurehead. Tedrow soon bears the load of Littell’s transferred guilt, not over the fratricide, but as payment for the damage he accumulated in his quest for vengeance.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, FBI agent, Dwight Holly contemplates the future course of his mistaken path. A “special operative” for J. Edgar Hoover, he largely engineered Littell’s downfall after Littell roped Holly’s brother into a botched insurgency against the Bureau’s King operation, leading to his suicide. Like Tedrow, Holly’s family is also tied up with the Klan (Indiana division) and thus feels some empathy for the younger operative’s oedipal turmoil and talent for reckless action. As he witnesses Hoover’s mental deterioration and escalating racial paranoia, Holly begins questioning his loyalty to the job. As his relationship to Karen Sefakis, a comely pacifist, leftist confidential informant deepens, his skepticism slowly turns to activism against the organization to which he has dedicated his life.
Holly enlists Tedrow in a COINTELPRO operation aimed at L.A. black nationalists, whose earlier lives of crime involve an emerald theft that two LAPD officers, a corrupt detective named Scotty Bennett and a closeted, black street cop named Marshall Bowen, follow with obsessive interest. All players soon fall into the orbit of a charismatic radical leftist named Joan Rosen Klein, who somehow ties the stolen gems to a perverse union of black power revolutionaries and gangsters building a new casino empire in the Dominican Republic. As time marches into the 1970s, political alliances will shift as the era of bad men doing bad things in the name of authority (without social accountability) winds to a close.
On June 11th, 1968, while sitting in my family’s car on the way to church, I saw portraits in the window of a bail bonds office of John and Bobby Kennedy, along with Martin Luther King Jr. It was my first public acknowledgement of violent death on an epic scale, a death that on some inner level I mistakenly felt that I witnessed. It was the first time I felt that the world outside my home might not be safe. It was the first time I felt the full power of history, via a public expression of grief, unsettling a pattern of security and re-assurance that I assumed was normal. Over the following decade, it would not be the last.
Part 2: The “Whack Jack Métaphysique”
On his most recent book tour, James Ellroy implored his audiences not to posit any contemporary political commentary into his latest opus, This Storm. He argued that it is set in the imaginary world of 1942; more specifically, his imaginary world, which he compartmentalizes from the modern machinations of Donald Trump and the media circus he generates. Ellroy was partly correct in discouraging this reactive line of interpretation: allegory is ruthlessly reductive in insisting that we read fiction only in terms of contemporary social relevance. It valorizes the polemic as the epitome of literary ambition. This request, however, deflects a fundamental aspect of historical fiction’s function: why does the past speak to us the way that it does if it contains no contemporary meaning?
I don’t know if there is a universal answer to this question. I do know that, despite a 15-year age difference between us, Ellroy and I have swum in some of the same historical currents. We both love hard-boiled fiction, and are obsessed with the conspiratorial mindset of the political thrillers of the 1970s. What is commonly called neo-noir reflexively contextualizes the aesthetics of our political sensibilities. Whether it be printed on paper or captured on celluloid, narrative shapes our understanding of history and current events. We seek ecstatic truths in perceiving the past via a “reckless verisimilitude.” The Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which 2009’s Blood’s a Rover concludes, is a work fused into our DNA by the nature of a collective interface of politics, culture, and taste that we share with thousands of others.
From 1968 to 1976, I grew up in a world where secrets were routinely exposed. The Pentagon Papers showed that the government routinely lied to its people about the prospects of a failing war. Watergate exposed the duplicity of a president insecure in his leveraging of political power in the midst of cultural flux. The Church Committee investigations cast institutionally sanctioned doubt as to the forthrightness of American foreign policy and the truthfulness of the narrative of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The inner sense of unease that I intensely felt in 1968 curdled into perceived wisdom and a cynical acceptance that public works deemed noble and inspired were actually motivated by private interests and base desire.
I was not alone. Neo noirs and political thrillers reinforced the tabloid tawdriness of the evening news. My dad, who was not a big movie fan, allowed me to watch Chinatown when it was first televised in 1976, because it was the best movie showing the nuts-and-bolts of freelance investigation work, his trade. I got something else from the picture: the secret story of the city where I grew up, where the civically lauded theft of a region’s water reflected the violent betrayal of a daughter’s trust. The Conversation, which I saw the following year, cast a more psychically troubling image of a surveillance expert grappling with the consequences of the facts that his job uncovered (My dad didn’t like this one too much). Other films, such as The Parallax View, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Executive Decision (which predates Oliver Stone’s conspiratorialism by 17 years), and All the President’s Men became my window into the uncensored grown-up world. From these movies, I developed a lifelong interest in history, not as an affirmation of a national spirit, but as an archaeological pursuit of secret truth rooted in the inherent corruptibility of human nature.
In short, 1970s America primed me for Ellroy. Its media and popular culture raised me to see public service as a cover for private gain. It facilitated a desire to see patterns in which all benefits bestowed by historical happenstance are outcomes determined by premeditated conspiracies. All serendipitous occurrences were patterned by design. Who killed the Kennedys? Maybe it wasn’t you or me, but some coalition of interests must have lent a secularly derived invisible hand to these leaders’ untimely demise.
At the same time, Ellroy was living the underground life of a self-described “Minnie Mouse criminal.” Having lost his mother to a brutal unsolved murder at age ten, and his father to natural causes at 19, the future Demon Dog of American Letters spent a decade chasing drugs supported by committing B&Es and petty thefts. Whatever he learned of the larger politics of disillusionment he picked up on the fly. He continued to develop an autodidactic expertise in the subject of crime fiction and detection, a taste of which he began cultivating when introduced to Jack Webb’s The Badge months after his mother’s violent death. He continued to read “classic” hard-boiled romances by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. He also encountered the works of ex-L.A.P.D. officer Joseph Wambaugh, whose novels, true crime chronicles, and subsequent film and television work explored the psychological tolls of policing in a world of urban declension. From Wambaugh, and his own adventures in the criminal justice system, Ellroy began noticing the divide between the re-assurance of crime fiction (that criminal activity will be found out and punished) and the personal price paid for becoming an instrument of justice.
These insights formed the basis of the L.A. Quartet, a series of novels in which labyrinthine paths of interconnected malfeasance unfold against the backdrop of the rising political capital of Los Angeles’ fabled police department. These novels explored the price of power, and the social necessity of carrying the burden exacted by assuming the mantle of righteous force. In 1995, with American Tabloid, Ellroy began a new trilogy of epic-length books that took these concepts to a national scale. They chronicled the middle managers of the 1960s’ national security establishment. In pursuing personal ends through the enactment of clandestine public policy, characters like Kemper Boyd, Pete Bondarant, and the aforementioned characters from Blood’s a Rover facilitate major events in American history, and pay the wages of sin exacted in the acquisition of secret knowledge.
In the first two books of this trilogy, the violent ends dealt to real-life political leaders are expressions of universal disdain for the hubris of reckless power. “Bad Back” Jack Kennedy’s willful disregard for the interests of the organized crime factions that facilitated his rise, along with his perceived weakness in hindering the natural aggressiveness of the state security elite, leads to his assassination. His brother’s zealous prosecution of these same forces dooms him as well. Martin Luther King’s escalating challenges to the liberal establishment’s moral authority, via his outspokenness against the Vietnam War and for the rights of the working class, inspires the plot that kills him as well. The flaws of these books’ historical figures are reflected in the characters, most of whose deaths result from the fallacious belief that the intelligent use of power vested in the cloak of authority absolves you from the moral force of historical order. The moral vision of Tragedy, in short, defines the trajectory of these novels’ path.
Writing this, I now realize that for years I placed my own frame of reference over Ellroy’s fiction. From movies like Chinatown, I saw the root of corruption embedded in nature; that progress required a gene for violence embedded in evolution. The film’s intertwining of currency with semen and water rooted criminality and power in materiality and biological determinism. Neo noir, I once felt, inherently mimicked evolution. Ellroy, on the other hand, dictated his novels within the classical structure (namely, Tragedy) that resembled nature, but merely expressed its own concerns with self-knowledge and catharsis. From The Black Dahlia through The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy sought to expand the parameters of this form with content, seeing how far one could inflate the edifice before it popped. With Blood’s a Rover, it explodes.
Part 3: Noir and Remembrance
Something about novels and movies turns historians into antiquarians. Instead of interpreting cultural artifacts in the context of their production, society asks them to compare apples to oranges; to measure the quality of a representation against the authenticity of what is being represented. As I began obtaining a M.A. in Public History, I expected that my training would allow me to do this. The historiography of my field, however, led me in a different direction.
My studies of the American West challenged the assumption that the forward momentum of social, political, and economic progress is the norm. The recurrent persistence of Native Americans, immigrants, and environmental obstacles, coupled with the vagaries and ineptitude of government regulation, undermined any coherent attempt to define American culture through an organic model of frontier settlement. Movie mythology, in which my national culture germinated through a “pioneer spirit,” went entirely against the grain of modern historical modeling. While continuing my graduate work, a new “L.A. School” of urban study emerged, in which the industrial production of cultural history was integrated into various sociological, anthropological, and historical theories. Any clear delineation between fiction and fact vanished. Films and books were analyzed in terms of their exertion of cultural power, of privileging certain classes and groups on the urban scene, and marginalizing and erasing others.
The noir tradition, of which Ellroy is perhaps the most important contemporary exemplar, became a significant, yet problematic cultural tool for interpreting Los Angeles history. Its hard-boiled claims to journalistic naturalism no longer seemed rooted in capturing reality, but in expressing a reified, romanticized vision of the structured heterogeneity of urban life. Over time, its rawness appears more circumspect, giving way to a nostalgia for someone else’s time. My affection for Noir was built on a taste preference uninformed by historical qualification. When asked about an era that I would prefer to live in besides my own, I’d certainly answer “Los Angeles in the late 1940s”, but that would certainly be the imaginary place.
Having been born in 1948, James Ellroy’s fascination with the noir aesthetic corresponds roughly to the contemporaneous period of his childhood. Its merger of psychological nuance into a world of black-and-white moral certitude reflected the collective ethical structure of its audience. As a half mockingly self-described political reactionary, Ellroy bemoans the countercultural shifts that prevailed during the time of his drug hunting wanderlust, half boasting and half lamenting his inability to “get laid during the Summer of Love.” Sobriety, and the path towards artistic redemption, required acknowledging the value of Joe Friday’s laconic rectitude. The structural inequalities ingrained in the making of postwar Los Angeles lay outside of this hermetically sealed vision.
Beginning with Blood’s a Rover, Ellroy allowed a new level of historical subjectivity to interface with that of the collective neo noir hive mind. One reason for this was pragmatic. After publicly expressing no desire to write about Watergate, he was hard pressed to find a suitably large scale traumatic historical event to end the final volume with. It was also becoming increasingly clear that the mythologically invested world of secret power was waning by the Cold Six Thousand’s conclusion. When J. Edgar Hoover believes that funk music’s “get on up” messaging refers to radical black nationalism, you know things are going to the dogs. Fate intervened, however, to make a personal trauma a source of inspiration.
Ellroy’s mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, was strangled by an unknown assailant in the Los Angeles County suburb of El Monte in 1958. His feelings at the time were, by his own account, a mixture of shock and relief. He wanted to live with his father following his parent’s divorce, and shortly before the murder, when young James said this to his mother, she slapped him. He cursed her, saying he wished she was dead. For years he believed he willed her death. Over the years, Ellroy used his status as the son of a murder victim to lend authenticity in selling his books, only slightly aware that the repressed memory of the shock and loss had semi-consciously wormed its way into his writing in the form of grisly tales of misogynistic murder. Just before American Tabloid’s publication, Ellroy’s wife Helen Knode gave him a photo a news reporter had taken of ten-year-old James the day of killing. Shortly thereafter, he got to look into the sheriff’s murder file, smelling the perfume his mother had left on the dress 35 years before.
Ellroy temporarily postponed writing the second volume of the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy to re-open the investigation of his mother’s murder and to write a memoir, My Dark Places, about the experience. Upon resuming the chronicle, he began suffering hallucinations and having several nervous breakdowns, which he further complicated with drug abuse. As he explained in 2010’s The Hilliker Curse, the spirit of his murdered mother infiltrated his subconscious during the early 2000s via a series of mental breakdowns. During his period of recovery and relapses, he dated women who shared physical and moral traits that he associated with her. Prior to Blood’s publication, Ellroy maintained a strict boundary between addressing her death in the field of non-fiction, and keeping it out of his expansively imaginative dives into the secret history of American power in his novels. At The Hilliker Curse’s conclusion, he announced his intention to abandon writing about her in a journalistic sense, but that she, and her surrogates, would serve as his muse in his novels.
More so than any other novel since his debut, Blood’s a Rover is inspired by personal memory and the phantasmagorical presence of the author’s mother. Joan Rosen Klein, a committed revolutionary at the heart of the emerald trafficking scandal that obsesses the characters, and Karen Sifakis, a tactical politician committed to internal social change by changing hearts, are explicitly based on progressive-leaning women Ellroy had dated following the break up of his marriage. Over the course of the book, they serve as its conscience, drawing Tedrow and Holly into abandoning their allegiance to the security state and sacrificing themselves to the romantic pull of redemption through political action. Ellroy is not interested, or remotely sympathetic to, the content or objectives of revolutionary struggle, but the will to commit to a notion of justice, and the willingness to risk all for a greater good. In a sharp departure from the earlier volumes, which concentrate their attention on the burdens of responsibility, Blood’s a Rover, and the subsequent first two novels of the second L.A. Quartet, are about dedicating oneself to action.
Much of the book is set in Southern California, which Ellroy moved back to in 2006. He also introduces a new character, Don Crutchfield Jr. who, while ostensibly based on a real-life private investigator, mirrors much of the author’s own life and experiences in 1968. He is a recently orphaned punk voyeur who spies on women in Hancock Park, a swanky housing development where Ellroy grew up. After stumbling on a murder scene connected to the diamond/gangster connection, Crutchfield becomes absorbed into the novel’s underworld machinations, coming to age, and feminine wisdom, over the course of the book. By the novel’s end he becomes the hero that Ellroy, I imagine, wishes he was.
Blood’s a Rover announced a more personal foray into the world of L.A.-based crime fiction, one in which the signs and symbols of hard-boiled romanticism combine with personal memory. He takes characters and personalities he knew and transforms them into noir archetypes, putting them into fantastical adventures ranging in destination from Los Angeles to the Dominican Republic. He not only concludes the saga of “the private nightmare of public policy” that began with American Tabloid, but he reconnects this national saga with Los Angeles, searching in his hometown reunion for a path towards hope and love through the tortured labyrinth of the city’s darkness with only a redheaded Beatrice to guide him. History, pop culture, and personal memory warp into a fabulist construct of operatic extravagance, creating a far greater emotional resonance transcending the pessimism of the earlier volumes.
Like many readers, my fascination with Ellroy was predicated on my love of history and hard-boiled detective fiction. His key books of the late 1980s and 90s conveyed huge swaths of urban and national history with a terse flair for language, extravagant action, and attractive, broodingly doomed male characters. Readers seek out their favorite writers based on their own tastes and preferences. Ellroy, quite simply, checked off a number of my boxes. Based on the fans of his that I’ve met at signings and online, I know that I am not alone.
As Ellroy’s urge for autobiographical inspiration gradually directs his novels in a more phantasmagorical direction, I wonder if he can sustain the universal attraction of the earlier books. There is a passionate desire to explain politics, history, and morality with concrete specificity in the previous volumes that appeals to my masculine tastes and interests. The more personal side of his writing, dealing with the trauma of violent death and sexual confusion/delirium, doesn’t connect with my own experience. Based on comments on various fansites, I don’t think I’m alone in this notion that I am experiencing the last three novels differently than those of previous decades. I think that these are important books of astonishing artistic ambition and philosophical merit, and I am glad that I read books outside of the confines of genre fiction that allow me to grasp what he is up to.
Although I am still a huge fan, I think that my takeaway from these books is more objectively qualified. In writing the cross talk with Wallflower last month, I felt that my primary goal was to describe and explain the uniqueness of This Storm’s structure and vision in contrast to the other novels. It seemed necessary to prime that opus for another audience beyond the mystery crowd. I would have struggled to apply the rigor of critical analysis to the earlier fiction. I’ve come to the realization that this is what I’m good at, and at this juncture, I’m glad that Ellroy will continue to be part of my own literary and intellectual journey.