Concealed Weapons

Hollow-points, steel jackets, and the arsenal of history.


by James Ellroy (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95) Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry, 587-5737, noon, Sun., June 10; University Book Store, 4326 University Way, 634-3400, 7 p.m., Sun., June 10; Bailey-Coy, 414 Broadway E., 323-8842, 7 p.m., Mon., June 11 THE LONE GUNMAN is never alone. For those unhappily assigned to keep the shooter company, however, life is pretty goddamn lonely. Working for the Man—whether he be FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Mob boss Carlos Marcello, or nutty, germ- and casino-obsessed Howard Hughes—takes a toll on a guy. Start with Oswald and his handlers. That's where James Ellroy left off with 1995's American Tabloid, which now looks to be the first installment in a political crime trilogy that will presumably culminate with Nixon's 1974 resignation. In the interim, The Cold Six Thousand begins with that fateful November 1963 day in Dallas, when the J.F.K. assassination triggers repercussions beneath the scrutiny of us law-abiding, newspaper-reading citizens. There's a hidden, deeper story that flows through the rest of the '60s, poisoning that decade's promise, written by the goons, enforcers, and fixit men who populate Ellroy's vivid, seamy underworld. "It's time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars," the author wrote in his preface to Tabloid, and that determination remains firmly rooted in the gutter, with the stars only fitfully glimpsed by Ellroy's few tarnished idealist characters. There's Pete Bondurant, back from Tabloid, a Mob-run thug with a certain code of honor. There's Ward Littell, also back from Tabloid, a lawyer and bugging expert variously in the service of the Mob, Hughes, and Hoover. New in town is Wayne Tedrow Jr., a Vegas cop and scion of a Mormon mafia family back in Nevada. Like the tough guys in Ellroy's most famous work, L.A. Confidential (filmed in '97), this crew lies, kills, and double-crosses with impunity but not without conscience. Wayne fought segregation in the South; Ward's "a closet leftist" and "fallen liberal" in Hoover's view; Pete likes cats and draws the line at killing women. Here's how Ward tries to formulate his conflicts: "I believe. I have horrible debts. I'll try to help more than I hurt." How long do you think those ideals will stand up against Hughes' millions, the Mob's power, Hoover's malevolence, and CIA heroin dealers? It's a stacked deck, and Ellroy's hep-cat staccato pessimism relentlessly chronicles his three protagonists' ineluctable fates. Does that make them tragic? Ellroy won't go so far; these guys aren't so nice. The author mocks a radio DJ's discourse upon J.F.K.'s death ("One fool stressed innocence lost") as if to douse that theme of disillusionment. SUCKERS DON'T LAST in Ellroy's hard-boiled world, and tough-fisted Pete is no sucker. "A bug was spreading," he notices. "Call it the Mercy Flu. Call it the Me-No-Kill Blues." Such contagion has its carriers—R.F.K., Martin Luther King Jr.—and its exterminators—the Klan, profit-first mobsters ("the Outfit"), and the mandarin Hoover himself. Oddly, Ellroy makes the hate-filled Hoover the funniest guy in the book. Speaking with malignly amusing grandiloquence, J. Edgar labels Ward "the world's most dangerous wimp." Cold Six is packed with fake "document inserts" containing supposed phone transcripts and telegrams between Hoover and various characters (real and fictional), newspaper headlines, and dossiers on casino skimming, heroin processing, and Vietnam—all meant to drag the reader deeper into the details of conspiracy and corruption that ensnare basically decent men and women. Cold Six is strongest and most readable in those myriad details of corpse disposal and fingerprint planting, but its prodigious length and density underscore Ellroy's forest-from-the-trees limitation. How many scenes of one car trailing another can we read? How many nuances of criminal methodology must we understand? How many sordid blackmail trysts need we visit? ("Dirt incurred debt," we're reminded.) Ellroy's detective-fiction influences—principally Chandler and Hammett—married terse prose to sparse plots. The facts were convoluted, the crimes simple, the volumes slim. Not so here, on undulating terrain previously trod by Don DeLillo's superior 1988 Libra and Norman Mailer's 1995 Oswald's Tale. In the ever-growing annals of conspiracy literature (if that's not an oxymoron), there has to be some gold in the vein beneath the mountain of circumstantial evidence, some core insight. Ellroy sets out to create a new myth, he declares, but myths depend on more than memorably rhythmic language. (The typical Ellroy sentence numbers three words and a paragraph nine.) It's not just a case of Ellroy having bitten off more than he can chew; the problem is that he's still chewing at the end of Cold Six without having cleared his mouth to say anything definite. Swift, shallow chicanery is his narrative mode, which denies a considered, comforting authorial presence. He knows all while explaining little—an apt response to past murky events, but also a cop-out. Midway through Cold Six, Wayne is warned, "You're going to do things you won't be able to live with." It's one of the few direct moral statements and foreshadowings that Ellroy provides, but it's also a lie. The cold, hard fact is that his survivors learn to live with anything. It's about the only truth that this entertainingly corrosive novel will concede.

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