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The challenge facing any reviewer of BLOOD'S A ROVER, the third in James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy, is immense; how does one convey the richness, breadth and depth of a book like this? I have opted for making a number of suggestions about ways in which the book might be read. In the first place - chronologically if nothing else - there is a mystery plot. In February 1964 a highly-accomplished, violent and well-executed heist takes place in Los Angles; millions of dollars and a consignment of emeralds are stolen. This robbery - and recovering the proceeds of it - become the obsession of a number of characters. In a way the robbery is a mere MacGuffin but Ellroy somehow manages the feat of eventually tying many strands back to it in the book's explanatory final chapters. So it is important to note that this relatively conventional mystery is an important element in the book's structure.
Another approach is to see the book as a thriller. It is certainly action-packed with many scenes of extreme violence and horror. There are detailed accounts of all kinds of criminal activity from burglary and surveillance to murder and torture.
Very obviously however while the mystery and thriller elements are securely in place, and done with great expertise and conviction, BLOOD'S A ROVER is very much more than that.
Another way of reading, which is made explicit in the short introductory first-person narrative, is as history 'America: I window-peeped four years of our History.' The four years specifically concerned are 1968 to 1972 which is the time-span the events of the book cover, although in fact - as with any history - the causes and sources of events reach far back into the past. as is fully revealed near the book's end. Nearly every major player in American political life from the four-year period, not to mention many cultural ones, make appearances here. Central to Ellroy's account of that history are the actions of the FBI under Hoover and the latter's unrelenting pursuit of a right-wing agenda to be pursued by any means necessary. In this version of history both Kennedys and Martin Luther King are the victims of FBI assassinations. As well, Black militants and Black Nationalist groups are under attack. Here this is exemplified by a particular operation to infiltrate and destroy two minor radical Black LA organisations.
In Hoover's war all means (whether legal or illegal) are acceptable that further the goal of repressing and destroying opposition to the US state and naked capitalism. Those who are most committed to fighting against Hoover and all he represents are forced into acts of violence and destruction and cruelty. Now the extent to which individuals readers 'buy' Ellroy's dystopic version of American history will of course depend upon their political outlook (without accepting everything I found it largely highly convincing) but what matters in an artistic sense is the completeness, the breadth and depth, the imaginative vision, involved both in creating it and then sustaining that creation.
A quite different approach to the book is in terms of its major characters. The term 'major characters' is in itself something of a problem here given both the multiplicity of characters and the fact that in some ways the most memorable character of all - Joan Rosen Klein, to whom so much of the book leads - is not, in terms of the internal narrative given to her, a major character. But I will take as the three major characters, Wayne Tedrow, working for both Hughes and the mob, Dwight Holly, Hoover's Enforcer and FBI assassin and hard-man, and 'Peeper' Crutchfield, a young man who becomes caught up in the maelstrom. All three undergo conversion experiences and commence searches for redemption in which their allegiances shift. They all have moments of choice and it is in their choices, in accepting freely moral responsibility, that they are able to become fully human.
The final approach involves Ellroy's use of language, which is, of course, one of the most extraordinary facets of his writing. Here he borrows from all sorts of sources - street slang, Black slang, FBI-speak and so on. He also uses a variety of techniques - third person narrative, first person diaries, telephone transcripts, memos, documents etc. There is a repeated emphasis on files and records and means of destroying and recreating files; characters are endlessly hunting through and for particular references in mountains of paper.
Of course the truth is that the book is a combination of all of these facets, and no doubt several others, in greater or lesser degrees. Even in a much longer than usual review like this it is only possible to skim the surface of a book of 656 pages of great complexity, astonishing literary virtuosity, great intellectual depth, multiple plotlines and myriad characters, and convincing historical and political vision. It is finally worth adding that the book's concluding chapters in which everything is wrapped up and brought to a conclusion are in no way a let-down; on the contrary the ending is intensely moving. One could of course reduce any review of BLOOD'S A ROVER to one word - 'masterpiece'. Ellroy is simply in a different and unique category and BLOOD'S A ROVER is a masterpiece of the mystery genre.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, November 2009
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