Smart, stern and ramrod straight, James Ellroy sits in his Chelsea Harbour hotel room in London and broods about women and words. He is upright. Terse. Correct. He doesn’t quite speak the way he writes – hell, nobody speaks the way he writes, in prose entirely unadorned with commas, adjectives or conjunctions – but his sentences are short, exact, punchy. ‘I love the English-American idiom,’ he says. ‘I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love slang. I love profanity. And the simpler the language, the more direct, the more blunt, the better. When writers try to imitate me they always put in too many words, and none of it works.’
People try to copy Ellroy – author of The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential – because his jazzy, rhythmic, slang-strewn pulp-prose is deceptive in its simplicity and addictive in its execution. The latest fix comes from Blood’s a Rover, the Nixonland masterpiece that completes his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy, an alternative history of conspiracy, crime and collusion that includes American Tabloid and the psychotic Cold Six Thousand. Like its kin, Blood’s a Rover is a bloody collision of Johnny Cash, Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah in which Ellroy uses three fictional male characters to explore factual events – in this case the ascent of Richard Nixon, who joins J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes in the pantheon of American personalities that Ellroy has slyly redrawn. ‘You’ve got to like Nixon,’ he says. ‘He’s funny, full of s***. You’ve got to love a guy like that.’
Where this novel differs is in its bold ancillary characters such as Joan Klein, a femme fatale who embodies Ellroy’s tribute to a life-changing lover. ‘It’s about a lost boy who finds a matriarch and that’s my story,’ he says. ‘One of the men is asked why he does what he does. He says, “So women will love me,” and that’s why I write. I wrote it to honour Joan. There was a dark romanticism to the relationship, it ended badly and I will never see her again. There’s a line from [Ellroy’s forthcoming memoir] The Hilliker Curse: “I left bloodspills wherever we went.” She just cut me open.’
Joan is the book’s hinge. She is pursued by all three of the story’s male characters – Wayne Tedrow Jr, a tortured ex-racist; Dwight Holly, a CIA fixer with a shadowy brief and head full of grief; and Don Crutchfield, a teenage voyeur with the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. All are looking for ‘salvation, redemption’, reflecting what Ellroy calls his ‘misunderstood Christian morality’.
Joan brings a touch of female strength and left-wing idealism into their right-wing masculine world. ‘I wanted to write the story of that woman and me, and I wanted to write about symbiosis and synthesis and how the right and left need each other, and how that often leads to catastrophe, because everything Joan and Dwight touch turns to s***,’ explains Ellroy.
There are other changes from past books. The prose style is turned down a notch, the violence less gut-churning, the noir bleached. ‘It [The Cold Six Thousand] was too difficult,’ says Ellroy. ‘My ex-wife said: “Babe, it’s the most ambitious novel I have ever read, it’s 100 pages too long, it’s f***ing complex, the style is too difficult and I didn’t know what the f*** was going on.” And she was right. So here you have a range of characters who are much more thoughtful, much more – in their weird way – composed, and who think about s*** a great deal more, so you need a more explicatory style.’
Ellroy breaks up the pace with journal entries written from less testosterone-soaked perspectives, and softens the mood towards a tentatively upbeat conclusion. ‘I don’t feel bleak,’ he says. ‘It’s very much a book about romance. I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap.’
As distinct as Ellroy’s style is his setting, a pre-’70s America where power is held by the Feds and the CIA, rogue cops, Hollywood players, bent politicians and the mob. Plots are punctuated by factual events, which he uses and interprets as narrative demands. It’s a world Ellroy has made his own, but didn’t invent. ‘The three books were launched by Libra by Don DeLillo [a fictionalised biog of Lee Harvey Oswald] and his take
that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA guys, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob,’ he admits. ‘Conspiracy is there, I love writing about it, I love exploring the collusive mindset and I can’t prove any of it. So what it comes down to is whether it is dramatically viable and whether the human infrastructure of the big public events is believable. That’s my job. I take the ideas, the characters, the milieu, the real-life history, the real-life situations and the research fills it in. Then I lie in the dark, I think of love stories and I brood.’
Blood’s a Rover is published by Century. Dhs85, available at Magrudy’s