The Cold Six Thousand picks up from where American Tabloid left off: immediately following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The broad sweep of history continues through the book – Cuba, Castro, MLK, RFK, Howard Hughes in Vegas, the Mob, J. Edgar Hoover and any number of Hollywood figures – are dissected and dramatised. The book takes us from JFK to RFK on one long death trip – with plenty of scalps on the way.
As ever, research and descriptiveness is vibrant and larger-than-life. There’s a combination of staccato jive and verisimilitude which evokes a real sense of place. But this instalment contrasts Big History with smaller stories. Fathers and sons. Hitmen and victims. And love stories – whether they’re between showgirls and killers, lawyers and Kennedys or Hoover and chaos. It seems altogether more nuanced than American Tabloid, and the little touches serve to flesh the experience out fully.
Ellroy’s gift with this book – aside from the recreation of era, which is standard in his works – is that he presents truly despicable people in such a way that you can’t help but love them. There’s a sense the author has real affection for his characters – the racist Klan fucks, the mannered, deadly Hoover… they’re the result of so much work you can feel the writer’s pride in his creation.
For me, this shone through with the figure of Pete Bondurant: he is one cold motherfucker. He does terrible things. He exercises a freakish will – killing, maiming, torturing – but you can’t help but like him. There’s an element of “yay, bad guy!” at play but it’s offset by how bad enjoying his head-kickings makes you feel. Conflicted doesn’t begin to cover it.
The book is definitely hard going at times. Not that it’s difficult to read – if powers along – but it’s a cruel work, much more cruel than American Tabloid, the first in the trilogy. There’s a rapaciousness at work that’s insidious and almost all-encompassing. It’s a real world of shit, of dark deals and cabals within cabals. It’s dirty, wet work. In The Hilliker Curse Ellroy mentions how his disintegrating relationship (and mental state) contributed to the obnoxious tone of parts of the work.
But stick around for the ending. It rockets along with a mix of historical death, relationship breakdown and some of the most satisfying revenge you’ll find. The cruelty pays dividends boocoo.