Fever Dreams of Your FBI

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Rex Features/Everett Collection
James Ellroy, 1990s; photograph by Richard Mildenhall

James Ellroy’s astonishing creation, the Underworld USA Trilogy, is complete. Its concluding volume, Blood’s a Rover, has just been published. The three long thrillers that make up the trilogy (American Tabloid, 1995; The Cold Six Thousand, 2001; Blood’s a Rover, 2009) present a brutal counterhistory of America in the 1960s and 1970s—the assassinations, the social convulsions, the power-elite plotting—through the lives of invented second- and third-echelon operatives in the great political crimes of the era. The trilogy is biblical in scale, catholic in its borrowing from conspiracy theories, absorbing to read, often awe-inspiring in the liberties taken with standard fictional presentation, and, in its imperfections and lapses, disconcerting.

Ellroy, who is in his early sixties, is the celebrated, prolific, and popular author of a body of genre crime fiction, crime journalism, and a forensic memoir dealing with his own dark family history. His work has been made into movies and television shows, and widely translated. There are Web sites devoted to Ellroy, and he connects with his fans through Facebook.

The Underworld USA Trilogy is generally regarded as Ellroy’s magnum opus. It is unique in its ambitions, and proceeds at a level of art distinctly above that attained in his famously lurid and violent but more conventional books. It is a fiction unlike any other.

The Underworld USA Trilogy gives a literary answer to the question of what it was that so deformed the history Americans traversed in the 1960s and 1970s. As Ellroy presents it, a constellation of independent but collaborating power centers, pursuing sometimes identical and sometimes antagonistic objectives, was responsible. They include the secretive tycoon Howard Hughes, the Mafia, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, Jimmy Hoffa and his corrupt associates, and a disorganized but still potent consortium of KKK and other white supremacist groups, as well as international narcotics producers. Hoover is the sole unmoved mover. Howard Hughes is insane, Hoover is getting there, and it is his strategies that dominate all. Hoover, like the KKK, is phobic about blacks and Communists. The objectives of the other players are largely pecuniary.

The forces in opposition to this network of villains include Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, an inchoate pro-Castro left afflicted by divisions over the question of violence, and, later, a Black Power movement in which violence has become accepted policy. Also in the opposition but compromised by their family’s power intrigues in the past, and by their own personal weaknesses, are the Kennedy brothers.

Agents provocateurs abound, ancillary murders occur, people switch sides, ghastly errors are made. This chaos of mismated plotting yields the great assassinations of the period: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Robert Francis Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. (Cases have been made for expanding this marquee death list to take in Malcolm X and Walter Reuther.) Flowing from the assassinations are the race riots, the destruction of the black …

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