James Ellroy wrote some decent crime novels in the first half of the ’80s, but his 1987 novel The Black Dahlia announced the beginning of a new phase chronicling the nightmare secret history of America. A fictionalized retelling of a grisly real-life Los Angeles murder (a lifelong Ellroy obsession), Dahlia kicked off a four-novel cycle charting the underside of Los Angeles from the ’40s through the ’50s. He wrote each in increasingly spare, stylized prose that wasted no words and reflected the addled psyches of their troubled, often ugly heroes. 1995’s American Tabloid initiated a new cycle that expanded his approach to a national scale. The Underworld U.S.A. trilogy chronicled the unseen movers of American history from the late ’50s up to Watergate. Following 2001’s The Cold Six Thousand, the long-awaited Blood’s A Rover completes the cycle masterfully, closing the book on a 22-year-long project exploring the back alleys and secret channels glimpsed only fleetingly in headlines and on the nightly news.
In Blood’s A Rover, as in its predecessors, every ugly rumor is true. That nagging suspicion that powerful men with hidden agendas have rigged the game? Also true. Except it isn’t able conspirators pulling the strings, but a chaos of conflicting interests with boundaries marked in blood. After a prologue involving the violent 1964 heist of an armored car carrying a fortune in emeralds, Blood’s A Rover picks up where The Cold Six Thousand left off, following the operations of two of that novel’s survivors in the wake of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cop-turned-strongman Wayne Tedrow and J. Edgar Hoover attack-dog Dwight Holly get drawn into a labyrinthine plot that soon involves black radicals, voodoo, heroin, a voyeur who isn’t as dumb as he seems, a seductive communist known as Red Joan, and eventually, that trove of emeralds for which so many people fight and die.
This is lurid material treated luridly, but with beauty and heft. As a presentation of history, it’s simultaneously factually irresponsible and in touch with deeper truths about Cold War-stoked paranoia and the way personal obsessions get tangled up with international politics, and vice versa. Ellroy crafts finely drawn characters with a minimum of words, expanding his cast of compromised tough guys to include a leftist Quaker scholar and a closeted African-American cop whose journey from undercover work as a black militant to public hero to an ultimate fate far removed from both roles brings much of the period’s madness, injustice, hypocrisy, and failed opportunities into focus. Like most of Ellroy’s heroes, he tries to do his version of the right thing, only to get lost and changed along the way, undone by the fractured nation around him, the shortcomings of his own soul, and the way each tortures the other in the shadows of a America more noir than red, white, and blue.