Blood's A Rover by James Ellroy: (A Book Review)
1. What is the novel Blood's A Rover by James Ellroy?
2. How is the book put together?
3. What is the novel trying to do?
4. How does all of this relate to various consumer tastes with regard to literature?; and having determined that, we might help crystallize, for you, the idea of whether or not this book (and kind of book) is to the individual tastes of anyone who might read this review.
First of all, we have a novel that is some six-hundred-thirty-eight pages long. The version I'm holding in my hand, at this moment, is hardcover; and the publisher is Alfred A Knopf, copyright: 2009.
This book is the third book of a trilogy series by Mr. Ellroy, which includes: American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and this one, Blood's A Rover. The series are three historical novels (contemporary history) set in the late-1960s and early-1970s. The books revolve around the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother, the former U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, and the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since this is a 'historical' novel, what we have here, is a narrative that mixes the fictionalized depiction of historical characters---for example, in this third book we get 'appearances' from Richard M. Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, several famous east coast Mafia chiefs, Howard Hughes, and so on---combined with purely fictional characters.
The story's focus is on the purely fictionalized characters; and in doing this, the book (like the two previous installments) make the strong statement that the grunt work of moving history forward is done by people several levels removed from open political glory, people whose name will never get 'into the history books'---if that kind of thing is meaningful to you. These are the people, 'in the trenches,' as they say.
Let's go deeper
What exactly are we looking at?
Blood's A Rover is not a thriller, as I like to define the term, because events are not presented with a sense of, what I like to call momentous immediacy. What I am trying to say is that the book is not put together in such a way that every single thing that happens drives to a single point of Earth-shattering culmination. Mr. Ellroy's books in general tend to be very densely plotted, as he himself would say or agree with; and the stories tend to end in a rather ambiguous way---again, the term 'ambiguous' is another term he would agree with in reference to his storytelling style. I'll explain the 'ambiguity' a little bit later on.
Blood's A Rover is not a suspense novel, again, as I like to define the term, because we are not looking at a story in which the protagonists has to do something within a certain time window---or else 'all will be lost;' you know how that goes. That is not how this book is put together. James Ellroy, from what I can tell, does not write 'thrillers' or 'suspense' novels; how they are translated into film, however, is another matter.
In one sense, 'suspense' novels are not really suspenseful, since there is no doubt the good guys will prevail in the end no matter how 'harrowing' their journey to victory is. The way to make a 'suspense' novel interesting, then, is to play with the notions of good guys/bad guys, white hats/black hats. Make it a trial for readers to figure out whom to route for; and then make readers work to figure out if what the 'good' guys are pursuing is a worthy goal.
I'm oversimplifying, but James Ellroy certainly does that.
The book happens to be a mystery, in that there is a 'whodunnit' element. But that is misleading. There is no central 'mystery,' per se as in an Agatha Christie novel, for instance. What marks this off from the usual 'mystery,' is the facts that: 1) There is no central mystery, whose problem readily yields itself to brilliant deduction by a brilliant detective, either official law enforcement or a gifted 'amateur;' 2) There are several mysteries that get unwrapped in this story; 3) The revelation of the various 'whodunnits' do not bring with them the threat of official punishment---either the concerned party takes personal revenge and kills the killer or the identity of the suspect is covered up because this suits someone else's agenda (practical or romatic); 4) This is one of the factors that negates this book as a thriller or suspense novel---so many crimes are committed in making history that resolution does not yield itself to Agatha Christie-like forms.
Because Mr. Ellroy tends to write stories that are saturated in an atmosphere of what we would call criminality, I would hesitate to call Blood's A Rover a crime novel. After all, if criminality is in the air you breathe, its law-abiding behavior that is deviant. A crime novel features are protagonist who either commits a single crime and spends the entirety of the rest of the book covering his trail; or he commits a series of ongoing crimes while trying to avoid detection and imprisonment. There is no question of 'whodunit.' The identity of the criminal is made quite clear to us from the beginning. The question is how and if he is going to get away with it; and one is also interested in how he feels about what he is doing.
A term I have seen to describe this book, as well as the two previous installments of the series, is political noir. I think that's a good term. What might that term mean? What is political noir?
The way I would comprehend the coined term is like this: First of all, what is film noir? I'm sure that is where the 'noir' comes from. This term refers to black and white movies from the thirties, forties, and fifties, which features some kind of crime and violence as its subject; rather how criminality and violence can spring from various situations in which ordinary people face 'long odds,' as they say; or the tension can spring from various doomed and/or dysfunctional love relationships; or it can be pretty straightforward, tough guy, private eye mystery stories such as The Maltese Falcon, and so on.
If you recall and accept what we said, previously, about Blood's A Rover making a strong statement about how ordinary people, several layers removed from open political glory doing the grunt work of moving history forward in response to the edicts of ones whose names will appear in history books---and you accept the idea that these ordinary people commit and are victimized by a great deal of violence in pushing history forward---then the noir-ish aspect of the book becomes clear. Do you follow me?
I have written a few reviews (really essays designed to 'reverse engineer' the books rather than 'criticize' them, per se) of Mr. Ellroy's novels; and there is a feature which he uses in all of his books, as far as I can tell, but, until now, somehow neglected to mention.
A wonderfully inventive narrative device he uses to move the story along in his novels---and Blood's A Rover is no exception---is the fictionalized representation of periodical headlines and articles. Sprinkled throughout each of his novels, you will run into a section of 'document inserts,' featuring the fictionalized representation of newspaper and magazine headlines and articles. One of those document insert categories are fictionalized representations of recorded-at-the-Director's-request phone calls between J. Edgar Hoover and one of his operatives.
J Edgar Hoover was the Director of the FBI his whole adult life. Think cointelpro.
I should say some of the contemporary issues of the day included: closet homosexuality and its use by various law enforcement agencies mostly for the purpose of entrapping communists; official law enforcement dedication to exposing communists (its the height of the Cold War, after all); xenophobia (especially anti-black prejudice); spy-hunting; youth culture is referred to in a glancing way; and so forth.
Now then, since I do not want to make this review torturously long, and do not want to give away the plot of the book (the author worked too hard on it; and you can get plot summaries anywhere)---let us consider questions one and two adequately addressed so we can move on to question number three.
Question #3: What is the novel trying to do?
This goes back to the not-suspense, not-thriller, not-exactly-mystery (but sort of), not-really-crime-novel discussion we previously engaged in.
The book we're looking at is what is called a 'genre' book, meaning not 'literary.' But genre novels are usually supposed to have a very clear purpose. Everything that happens ought to be aiming at the final culmination point. But since, as I told you, with James Ellroy novels, in general, the relationship between good and evil is never straightforward, to say the least. Its seems to me that this very fact complicates what the culmination point should be; it is not easy, as a reader, to decide what kind of ending would 'satisfy.'
What I like to say about James Ellroy novels, in general, is this: If you like the television shows Criminal Minds (about the FBI profilers to track down serial killers) and The Shield (about a corrupt unit of plainclothes police officers in Los Angeles) and film noir (black and white crime drama films of the thirties, forties, and fifties), you should like James Ellroy novels.
Now, as I said, Blood's A Rover is the last installment of a trilogy of novels by Mr. Ellroy, about three major American political assassinations of the 1960s. But you do NOT want to look for an Oliver Stone-type treatment of those events from Ellroy. Ellroy has given political noir; that is decidedly not what Stone provides in such movies. Stone deals with the characters whose names appear in the history books; and Ellroy deals, primarily, with people whose names will never appear in the history books, and will barely make the papers, if at all. It is this distinction that makes Ellroy's trilogy, unlike the work of Stone, political noir.
You know what? I think that'll do it.
Thank you so much for reading!
Take it easy!