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The Cold Six Thousand in Paperback

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I took my son to his bass guitar lesson a couple of months ago. I was sitting there looking at the NY Times Sunday Book Review section, and I turned to page 12 for part 2 of the review of the new Primo Levi biography.

My eye drifted over to the left to an ad for the paperback release of James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand, and I saw a blurb:

    “A ripping read….This book is pure testosterone.”
    -The Plain Dealer

I reviewed that book last year for the PD.

Although I did, in fact, write the things they quoted, I also wrote a lot of other things that weren’t all that flattering, leading me to believe that reviews of this book must not have been all that great. They also quote the NY Times and Village Voice, so I’m in good company. Pretty cool to be in the NYT for the second time in a week.

In case you’re wondering, the book was readable, even compelling, but very disturbing and ultimately not very satisfying.

Here’s my original Ellroy review from the Plain Dealer:

    The Cold Six Thousand
    by James Ellroy
    Alfred A Knopf, New York
    672 pages

    James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand is a morality play and character study in the guise of a very hard-bitten crime/political conspiracy/espionage novel. Beneath the surface of a ripping read, Ellroy explores the natures of hate, revenge, loyalty, greed, deception, idealism and addiction. This audacious, extended (almost 700 pages) adrenaline rush traces the frenetic exploits of three fictional characters through the volcanic period bookended by the murders of John Kennedy in late ’63 and Robert Kennedy in mid ’68.

    These people – youngish, troubled Las Vegas PD intelligence officer Wayne Tedrow Jr.; former FBI operative, and current attorney to both Howard Hughes and major Mob figures, Ward Littell; and hitman/drug and gun runner/anti-Castro idealist Pete Bondurant – are so busy scheming, traveling and committing flamboyant, operatic murders that they barely take a nap in four-and-a-half years. Among the locales the peripatetic characters scuttle back and forth between are Dallas, Las Vegas, Saigon, various towns along the Gulf Coast, Mexico City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Sparta Wisconsin, and an opium farm in Laos.

    Ellroy, author of several best sellers including American Tabloid and L.A. Confidential, is audacious in his use of real historical figures in the action. Such disparate figures as J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Howard Hughes, Sonny Liston, Sammy Davis Jr., Sal Mineo, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, and Mob figures including Carlos Marcello and Moe Dalitz all interact with the book’s fictional characters. Other figures, including LBJ and Martin Luther King are observed vicariously through wire taps or electronic bugs. In fact, surveillance – observation without interaction – is one of the main activities of many of the book’s characters (on par with murder and travel), and is the favorite activity of lead character Tedrow.

    Ellroy writes in the clipped, profane, aggressively insensitive style of classic crime noir. This book is not for the easily offended, although it is an equal opportunity offender: among those colorfully disparaged are Italians, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Southern whites, Jews, Catholics, women, and especially gays and blacks, who rack up over a dozen separate derogatory epithets each, including some I had never heard before. My childhood was spent in the “enlightened” post-civil rights ’60s and ’70s, in relatively affluent and tolerant suburbs of Los Angeles and Cleveland, and this book helped me grasp for the first time in my life the hatred for minorities, especially blacks and gays, felt by large blocks of Americans. For them, including such figures as J. Edgar Hoover and a fair portion of the crime fighting establishment, the civil rights era was a threat, a disruption and an offense, and leaders such as Martin Luther King, often referred to here as “Martin Lucifer Coon,” were widely loathed.

    This book is pure testosterone: all action is observed from a male perspective and the few female characters of note serve as loyal (or otherwise) support for the main male characters. Everyone is dirty, everyone has mixed motives, all of the main characters occupy a clandestine twilight world where the borders between cop/spy/criminal are more membrane than wall, and the figures permeate those membranes with regularity if not impunity.

    The plot is far too Byzantine to explicate here, but in a nutshell, LVPD Sgt. Tedrow is sent by his Mob-controlled superior to Dallas in November of ’63 to kill a black pimp who knifed a casino card dealer in Vegas. Liberal, idealistic Tedrow is loathe to perform the task, for which he has been paid $6,000 (“cold”) in advance. His Dallas PD liaison – a scabrous, drunken Klansman with ties to Tedrow’s right wing pamphleteer father back in Vegas – is all too eager to “clip the spook”; he and Tedrow Jr. clash on every level.

    Littell and Bondurant, beholden to the Mob for past indiscretions, are also in Dallas and are involved in the assassination of JFK. All become entangled; the pimp is not killed but others are with profound consequences for Tedrow Jr., and the chase is afoot. Tedrow Jr’s character transmogrifies over the course of the book, with its final form not revealed until the shocking climax. We truly don’t know Tedrow Jr. until the final page.

    The Cold Six Thousand is a must for fans of crime/spy fiction, and for those who appreciate subtle character study. For others it is probably too grim, gruff, and grotesque.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://jerolson.blogspot.com Blow Hard

    I just finished this book myself.

    Good review.

    It’s not for everyone but personally, I just couldn’t get enough of crazily paranoid details like Sonny Liston interacting with Sirhan Sirhan.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks J, I mean BH. The perverse details made it compulsive.

  • Crimson Cow

    Despite being an avid Ellroy fan, it’s taking me longer and longer to break down the style. The first 50 pages or so started reading like a laundry list. Sure, worth it once you crash through the door, but I’d say he had the sentence structure down better in American Tabloid.

    Is this a natural progression towards minimalism, or is the guy just consciously parodying himself now?

    Still looking forward to the next one, mind…

  • Michael Flynn

    In response to Crimson Cow’s post, I believe this progression is intentionally moving in a minimalist style. Remember that there was a six-year break between this and TABLOID, leaving Ellroy time to develop.

    In response to the original article, I assure you that the book was well-reviewed, in spite of the routine manipulation of reviews that was employed. It landed on several “best books of the year” lists.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I don’t think American Tabloid can be topped. But if you think Ellroy gory, try Ann Rule