Monday, October 19, 2009

Book: Blood’s a Rover, by James Ellroy (2009)

The years: 1968-72. The men: factotums and hoods beset by personal demons and on the precipice of history. J. Edgar Hoover’s pet thug. An ex-cop/chemist with daddy issues aiding and abetting Howard Hughes’ takeover of Las Vegas. A wannabe private eye. This being Ellroy’s scarred funhouse mirror version of reality, at least one of them will wind up dead, and any survivors will be disillusioned and damned.

American Tabloid, which kicked off Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, remains one of my favorite books. The Cold Six Thousand, which followed, left me colder than the title sum. That’s partly the nature of the epic story Ellroy chose to tell. David Mamet once explained the three-act structure by citing a possibly apocryphal headline: Boy Cuts Off Father’s Head, Cuts Off Parakeet’s Head, Then Cuts Off Lizard’s Head. The key, Mamet said, is to have the kid cut off his father’s head last. Tabloid had the JFK hit as its dark, beating heart. C6K has to grapple with the chaotic ensuing years, and it’s tough to depict a time when the center did not hold. Ellroy’s obsessions, immodest enough as to not go even thinly veiled, and his baroque molecular plotting didn’t help.

I feared for the long-gestating Rover because the period it covers lacks the outsized events that provided a structure for its predecessors. But the dearth of obvious set pieces spurs Ellroy’s ingenuity. The lynchpins here are an armored car heist in early ‘60s L.A., the Mafia’s attempt to reboot its Caribbean glory in the Dominican Republic, and a left-wing Lorelei known as the Red Goddess Joan. She’s a cipher until the closing section, but when she does finally come into focus she’s quite formidable.

I liked Rover. It’s no Tabloid, but its “rogue authoritarians” make it a mighty improvement on C6K. Perhaps the books will read differently if consumed all at once, as a single epic narrative. Feature it: the panty-sniffer’s Lord of the Rings.

Book: You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You, by Robert J. Randisi (2009)

What are the odds that I would read two novels in a row featuring Hollywood P.I. Fred Otash as a character? Considering my interests, they’re actually pretty good.

Shamus-to-the-stars Otash is a minor figure in Rover but lands a decent supporting role in Randisi’s fourth Rat Pack mystery. Sands pit boss Eddie Gianelli is again asked for a favor by famous pals Frank and Dean. This time it’s to help a peripheral member of the Clan, Marilyn Monroe, who’s convinced that she’s being followed. We also learn more about Eddie G as he heads home to Brooklyn to deal with his estranged family. Randisi’s take on Marilyn, the sex bomb who becomes everybody’s kid sister, seems spot on. The book is the kind of breezy concoction you’d expect from an author who recently took home a lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America.

Here’s a little of Freddy Otash in action, in a Tinseltown dustup involving Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac. Who was not, as urban legend claims, a Brooklyn girl named Amy Camus.