Nothing’s shocking

There are those who think James Ellroy is one of the great writers of our time. That’s bunk, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read The Cold Six Thousand and enjoy it for what it is: a sprawling mess of a crime novel in which Ellroy’s energy generally manages to overcome his lack of depth and nuance.

Ellroy is best known for the novels in his L.A. Quartet: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz—powerful, complex works that established him as the rightful heir to Raymond Chandler as the poet laureate of L.A. crime noir. Ellroy dragged the age-old crime story clichés kicking and screaming into the 1990s with these dense and atmospheric books, upping the ante on the violence and developing a clipped, telegraphic prose style that made his tough guy predecessors seem limp-wristed and verbose by comparison.

But Ellroy apparently wanted out of the noir ghetto, and set out to write Underworld, USA, a trilogy designed to expand his scope and win a seat at the big kids’ table with writers of more “serious” fiction. In the introduction to American Tabloid, the first entry in the trilogy, Ellroy declared his intention: to provide the “reckless verisimilitude” necessary to overcome our “blurred” perception of recent history and “set that line straight.” That book, which tells the story of the John F. Kennedy assassination as a sleazy contract killing, expanded Ellroy’s audience and proved a hit with critics as well, garnering honors as Time magazine’s top fiction for 1995 and prompting the Los Angeles Times Review of Books to call Ellroy “one of the great American writers of our time.”

The Cold Six Thousand seeks to pick up where American Tabloid left off, tracing the paths of various mid-level operatives as they orchestrate the escalation of the Vietnam War and its attendant heroin trade, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and various other atrocities at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover and the mob. We follow Pete Bondurant, a hit man, extortionist and mercenary dedicated to the lost cause of a free Cuba; Wayne Tedrow Jr., an increasingly corrupt and depraved ex-cop with a talent for cooking drugs and a thing for his stepmother; and Ward Littell, a former Jesuit and FBI agent turned mafia lawyer, as they kill potential witnesses to the JFK assassination, run skim operations at Vegas casinos, sell Vietnamese heroin in African-American neighborhoods, undercut the Civil Rights movement, murder their enemies in the most gruesome ways imaginable and plot the Robert Kennedy and King killings.

There was a time when all this would have been considered scandalous, but in these post-JFK, post-X-Files times, there’s nothing shocking about the idea that the King and Kennedy killings were the result of a mob/FBI conspiracy. Partly for that reason, The Cold Six Thousand falls curiously flat, in spite of its often furious activity. Where Ellroy was able to portray ’50s crimes like the so-called Black Dahlia murder as near-mythic acts of horrifying depravity in his earlier works, the ’60s assassinations come off with a businesslike inevitability.

That’s unfortunate. Plot-character development, apparently, is for wimps—and if Ellroy’s narratives are not completely engrossing, it becomes too easy to notice the limitations of his writing. Here he takes the hardboiled noir style to such minimalist extremes that it’s difficult to find much difference in tone between a Vietnamese monk’s self-immolation (“A Buddhist monk walked in. His robe reeked of gas. He bowed. He squatted. He lit a match.”) and a climactic love scene (“He jammed her knees out. He spread her full. She pulled him in.”).

This is not great writing. It is, however, passable noir, and it is often entertaining, thanks largely to Ellroy’s relentless energy and his obvious delight in his characters’ crimes. Despite his obvious ambition, Ellroy remains what he has always been: a literary guilty pleasure for those of us with a soft spot for the crime novel.