Imagine an America where the wealthy people in power rule a system in which they are free to reap enormous profits through unregulated businesses whilImagine an America where the wealthy people in power rule a system in which they are free to reap enormous profits through unregulated businesses while every privilege that society can offer is given to them. These titans of capitalism underpay their employees for hard labor that lasts at least twelve hours a day in unsafe conditions with no overtime or benefits. If any of these workers dare complain, then the government will happily label them as dangerous socialist terrorists who threaten the American way of life and do anything within its power to crush any attempts to organize the labor.
Ah, it’s enough to make a right wing conservative weep with joy.
Danny Coughlin is a Boston patrolman at the end of World War I. Since his father is a legendary and politically connected police captain, it seems like Danny’s got a bright future ahead of him with the department. Danny’s father and some other power brokers offer him a chance to make detective by going undercover in various subversive groups including the social club of the Boston Police Department which is looking more and more like a union.
Danny doesn’t want to cause problems for his fellow police men who have been shafted by the city. Working a minimum of almost 80 hours a week at a wage below the poverty level and forced to pay for their own uniforms and equipment, the men of the BPD literally can’t feed their families but when their grievances are brought up, the men in charge insist that the cops are vital government personnel and therefore can’t strike so they can safely be told to go fuck themselves. When the men complain about this treatment, the politicians are shocked and insist that anybody who wants to make enough money to buy his kids some food is nothing but a damn Bolshevik. Danny eventually finds an actual danger to the public in the form of a bomb happy anarchist, but his superiors continue to be more concerned with those who might force change on the economic system.
Meanwhile, a black man named Luther Laurence, who is on the run following a messy incident with a local kingpin in Tulsa, is trying to lay low in Boston and ends up working for Danny’s family. Luther has a hard enough time just working around the racism that runs through all aspects of life, but things get worse when he runs afoul of a psychotic police crony of Danny’s father. Danny and Luther eventually strike up a friendship that defies the odds as they get caught up in the conflict between the old world and the changes being forced upon it.
Lehane’s books have often a crime oriented social component to it, and it seems like his time working for HBO’s The Wire encouraged him to add a depth and complexity to his work in this historical fiction. This is the story of a bygone era, but it seems familiar since the tactics employed by the powerful are still in use. One of their favorites is getting half of the working class to turn on itself by claiming that anyone who questions the fairness of the economic system is an American hating socialist as well as probably being a secret terrorist. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The only parts that really didn’t work for me were the interludes with Babe Ruth. It seems like Lehane was trying to point out some things regarding a common guy who could barely read becoming rich and famous as a city ripped itself apart while refusing to pay its police a living wage, but those segments just didn’t seem to sync up with the other action.
Still, it’s one of Lehane’s best and most ambitious books yet. ...more
American Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren'tAmerican Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren't trying to make history, they're just trying to survive it.
American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite books. The second part of this trilogy has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. I read both again to prep for the release of the final book, Blood's A Rover. With that one sitting here, just waiting for me to start reading, I'm feeling a bit more charitable to this one now.
I judged it harshly because after the mind blowing brilliance of American Tabloid's fictional re-telling of the JFK years from the perspective of a cop/criminal trio of Ellroy patented Bad White Men, anything was going to seem like a let down. Ellroy's crazy fragmented writing style works brilliantly when he keeps it on a leash like he did in L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid, but when it gets away from him, it slips into near self-parody, as I think it did in White Jazz. He comes dangerously close to that in this one, too.
And while American Tabloid felt like an epic re-telling of American history during the JFK era, The Cold Six Thousand has always had a slightly grungier and grimmer tone. That's understandable since American Tabloid mirrored the JFK administration. Even the guys trying to scam and steal their way to greatness felt like they were making history as they did it.
Here, with the fallout of the JFK assassination plot hanging over everything and coloring all the characters with varying degrees of paranoia and guilt, the schemes feel small-time and cheap, no matter how much money is involved or how grand the plot.
Howard Hughes wants to buy every casino in Vegas, and the Mob is selling, provided they keep their own people in place to run their skim operations and steal crazy Howard blind. Vietnam is ramping up and everyone in the book sees it as a business opportunity to start large scale heroin smuggling operations to fund their own pet causes.
An aging J. Edgar Hoover is obsessed with bringing down Martin Luther King Jr. for having the nerve to demand equal rights. All the players are worried about what Bobby Kennedy actually thinks about his brother's death and what he plans to do about it. Loose threads to the JFK plot are getting ruthlessly snipped and the only way to stay alive is to stay useful to the men in power which means that even the worst of them are being told to do things that push them to their limits and beyond.
Adding to the grimmer tone of this one is the new guy, Wayne Tedrow Jr. He starts out as a relatively clean Vegas cop being pushed towards contract murder by his rich asshole father, who wants him to join the family business of peddling hate against anyone but white Americans. When Wayne is given cause to start hating too, it makes him one of Ellroy's most uncomfortable characters to read about.
Wayne isn't an ignorant racist just hating for hate's own sake. He knows it's evil and wrong, but he's so committed to it that he practically creates his own purer form of racism that's scarier than the worst redneck rants. And he's one of the main characters so spending several hundred pages in his head isn't exactly a joy ride.
But reading this one now, after some time has gone by after my initial disappointment, I think I've gotten a better idea of what Ellroy was going for. Here's hoping that he can finish off the '60s and wrap this up in style....more
James Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like tJames Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like the idea that I’ve been personally mock-insulted by one of my favorite authors. This is his best novel, and my love for it is pretty much unconditional.
As proof of my devotion: My internet alias is from a character in it, and I’ve got an autographed copy of it sitting on my shelf along with an signed copy of the sequel, The Cold Six Thousand. The trilogy completes with the release of Blood's A Rover next week so I’m going back through the first two books, and it’d been a few years since I’d read American Tabloid. It was even better than I remembered.
This is Ellroy’s freaky take on American history from the late ‘50s through the JFK assassination, and it features Jack and Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s got the Mafia and the CIA, Cuba and Cuban exiles, the 1960 presidential election, the Bay of Pigs, the civil rights movement, and some heroin trade, just for laughs.
Ellroy uses one of his unholy main character trinities of Bad White Men doing Bad Things, but instead of limiting the action to post-war Los Angeles like he did with the LA Quartet of crime stories, he uses his three fictional characters chasing their own twisted obsessions and ambitions to probe the darker moments of a particularly juicy slice of American history.
Kemper Boyd is ex-FBI, who begins spying on the Kennedy’s for J. Edgar Hoover, and ends up devoted to Jack, even as he is moonlighting for both the CIA and the Mafia. He wants all his masters to unite in a play to oust Castro so that his behind-the-scenes schemes will make him wealthy enough to be just like a Kennedy, but he has to make sure to keep his loyalties compartmentalized.
Ward Littell is Kemper’s former partner and friend, and is still with the FBI. He hates the Mob and wants nothing more to go to work for Bobby Kennedy to get away from J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with persecuting harmless leftist groups. Even though he’s considered weak and cowardly, he shocks himself and everyone around him with the lengths he goes to fulfill his dream of being a Mob buster for RFK.
Big Pete Bondurant is a former LA cop and works as a criminal handyman for Howard Hughes. He runs blackmail divorce shakedowns and does the odd contract killing for the likes of Jimmy Hoffa in his spare time. Once arrested by Kemper and Ward, he likes Kemper’s style but hates Ward with a passion. Pete thinks he can ride shotgun to history by becoming Kemper’s partner in his various Cuban schemes, and he likes the sound of that rather than being Howard Hughes’s errand boy.
As all three of these men scheme and plot and commit horrible crimes to become more like the powerful men they are beholden to, they keep rubbing up against big events and desperately try to shape them to their will. What they all find out the hard way is that the people they’re dealing with didn’t become who they are by getting fooled by the men they regard as useful but inferior.
One of the things I absolutely love is Ellroy’s complete lack of buy-in to the JFK/Camelot bullshit. The myth goes that JFK was a glorious leader who was cut down because he stood up to the Bad Men in the country who wanted to take us into Vietnam. (An odd story considering that JFK is the one who started committing troops to Vietnam.) Ellroy brilliantly points out that the reality is that JFK was the son of a rich and corrupt man, and in one of the weirdest twists every, probably owed his presidency to the very people that he then let his zealot brother prosecute. (In all likelihood, the Mafia helped JFK take Illinois because of promises from guys like Frank Sinatra that JFK was reasonable.) RFK hated the Mob but turned a blind eye to the CIA recruiting Mafia contacts for trying to kill Fidel Casto. The Cuban exiles felt terribly betrayed when not only did JFK not fully commit to the Bay of Pigs invasion, he turned on them in the aftermath by having the Feds bust their training camps in the South.
If you believe in a conspiracy about JFK’s death, Ellroy points out that the guy might have brought it on himself by betraying so many people. And if there was a conspiracy, it probably wasn’t some Oliver Stone paranoid fantasy about some all-powerful military-industrial complex, it was probably a group of these type of guys, motivated by general JFK hatred that knew that all the embarrassing entanglements of JFK’s legacy would keep a real investigation from ever being done. (I personally don’t think there was a conspiracy, but JFK surely pissed off a lot of dangerous people by having his cake and eating it too and it makes for a great story.)
This is Ellroy at his best. Fully in control of his crazy staccato-brilliant-writer-with-ADD- style, and wildly spinning plots and counter plots with over the top violence and history as the backdrop.
Fair warning for those who haven’t read, there’s a lot of ethnic slurs in Ellroy’s work and he’s taken some heat for this over the years. He defends this by pointing out that he’s writing about evil white guys doing horrible things 50 years ago. They wouldn’t have been politically correct. He’s got a point, but it is pretty jarring reading in this day and age.