Book review: Blood’s A Rover

Blood's A RoverBlood’s A Rover by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, JFK, MLK and RFK were all dead by the time this book began, so I was wondering where it would go. Who else could be offed? Thankfully, foreign casino insurgency and a gem heist gone to shit allow Ellroy the chance to work some of his favourite characters (requisite dirty cops, Sal Mineo and Sonny Liston, mysterious double agents, the Mob) into something which isn’t quite as weighed down by history as the preceding books in the trilogy.

The gem heist – and where the gems lead – provides a neat small-scale tableau to provide a break from the Nixon and Hoover machinations. As with the search for rogue drug dealer Durfee in a previous volume, the smaller crime has echoes in the larger political sphere. This time around though, it seems more – human. There’s a very penitential streak running through the book, with both Dwight Holly and Wayne Tedrow Jr seeking some kind of forgiveness for the heinous shit they’ve wrangled over the last couple of decades.

The text is as telegraphic as ever, but enlivened by a greater black cast: it’s almost blaxploitation at times – what it is, brother! – but it’s less caricatured as portrayals elsewhere in Ellroy’s work. There’s a neat study of black power movements here, even if they end up looking almost as big a bunch of dickheads as the chaw-spittin’ Klan members do. It’s an interesting change.

Also of interest is the portrayal of the decline of J. Edgar Hoover. You could argue that Hoover has been the main character of the Underworld USA trilogy – all roads lead to him. He is the invisible hand behind the work of the main characters, and he’s a national-importance character. He’s a terrible bastard, but by the end of this book I found the portrait of his frailty and his diminishing powers quite touching. I suspect Ellroy had a soft spot for the guy after so long crafting a crew to do his bidding.

Perhaps I’m reading a little much into it – probably understandable after shotgunning the autobiographical My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse in one go – but there seems to be much more of Ellroy in this book. Sure, the whole cherchez la femme thing is here. But that’s usual. What I’m talking about is the figure of Don Crutchfield, a pimply wheelman who comes of age through some truly heinous banana republic tasks. He’s a peeper, a spy, looking for an elusive mother. He watches, he steals, he plans. He wants something better than he is. It just feels like Ellroy – Peeper Crutchfield, who knows much more than he’s saying.

I can dig it.

The ending of Blood’s A Rover was both satisfying and unsatisfying. It completed its own story arc pretty well – messily, but well. There’s even elements of hope, of human perseverance which are a new note in the Ellroy songbook. But in terms of the Underworld USA trilogy, it seemed more of a whimper than a bang. Lots of stuff happens, but there’s a real sense of… fizzling, I suppose.

But I guess that feeling of ennui, of things lost and a grim future is what Ellroy has in mind. It’s certainly not accidental. Let’s face it – we’re leaving the story in a world where Nixon is prez and Watergate is just around the corner. Figures of control are losing their collective grip, and the general tone is grim. Given the times and the players, how could it be otherwise?

It’s been a long, grim ride where men are men and women are dispensable – assuming they’re not cooze or operatives, though that’s no guarantee – and I guess I’m a bit sad it’s all over. It feels like I’ve had almost thirty years of bloody US history uploaded to my brain… and I suppose that’s not far from the truth.

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