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In 1931, Dashiell Hammett published "The Glass Key," his noir novel about political corruption, organized crime and the bloody consequences that their union begets. For a brief moment, Hammett stepped out of the literary shadows and into the light. He took aim and fired into the future.
Hammett's cynicism only grazed Raymond Chandler, lurking nearby, but his economy of language, his razor-sharp dialogue, his antiheroes, his searing irony and his raw imagery bruised Graham Greene, wounded Jim Thompson and fractured Patricia Highsmith's literary psyche. The Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino experienced some collateral damage. But it's James Ellroy who took Hammett's literary shots full force.
And Ellroy knows he's been hit.
A few years ago, in the Guardian, Ellroy wrote that Hammett's social realism in "The Glass Key" is "a constant jolt of physical movement and conversation," of "densely spare exposition and multi-layered dialogue" of "spell-binding male discourse." Hammett's novel, Ellroy continued, shows how "crime seamlessly pervades the body politic and defines a whole culture."
Ellroy could easily be describing his own novel, "Blood's a Rover," a brilliant, brutal narrative whose plot picks up after "The Cold Six Thousand," strafing across the underside of U.S. political history from 1968 to 1972. Ellroy hits the fallout from the assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, the infiltration of the Black Power movement, the deliberate destruction of candidate Hubert Humphrey by Mafia and FBI-controlled insurgents, Nixon's ascendancy via similar forces, riots in Los Angeles, "dirty tricks" in Las Vegas, and the man whose bloody hands manipulated most of it -- J. Edgar Hoover.
There are no soft edges to this novel. It pummels readers with the violent actions of a few men and women negotiating their perceived moral line between individual rights and the greater good -- a greater good that no one asked if America really wanted or if it was worth killing for. In Ellroy's America, "blood's a rover," and no one is clean of it.
The novel's chapters are tightly composed vignettes of action and dialogue interspersed with FBI documents, police statements, transcripts and secret memos, as if we're finally getting to see the real case file for this violent conspiracy-laden testosterone-driven period in U.S. history.
"Blood's a Rover" is not for those who like their fiction -- or their history -- to impose an order and a moral authority on the world. Ellroy appears to decry both (as would Hammett). Instead, Ellroy gives readers a view of America's immediate past -- the "dream aftershock" -- that's crazy bad and, well, pretty believable.
Carole E. Barrowman blogs at carolebarrowman.squarespace.com/carole/ and teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee.