[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Kraniauskas argues that Ellroy’s novel is an example of both crime and historical fiction.]
… history, the billiondollar speedupJohn Dos Passos, USA, 1938
Blood’s a Rover (2009) is the final volume of James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, which includes American Tabloid (1995) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001).1 It is one of a recent glut of long, serially formatted works of crime-detective fiction, others of which have also been trilogies—for example, Steig Larsson’s extraordinarily popular, but disappointingly conventional, ‘Millennium’ trilogy; David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet, filmed for television as a trilogy; and Andrew Leu and Alan Mak’s outstanding three-part film Infernal Affairs, rehashed by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. Most, however, have been television series, The Sopranos and The Wire made by HBO are among the best known. Crime-detective fiction, noir, is now a transnationalized culture-industrial form as well as an important site of avant-gardist literary experimentation—witness, for example, recent novels by such writers as Ricardo Piglia in Argentina (Money to Burn, 1999) and Giuseppe Genna in Italy (In the Name of Ishmael, 2001), not to mention Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009), Dennis Johnson’s Nobody Move (2009) and Robert Coover’s Noir (2010) in the USA itself. Ellroy’s work now belongs in this experimental space too. This would suggest, paradoxically, that the ubiquity of crime-detective fiction is part of a vaster cultural process of hegemonization: not because all narrative fiction today is noir, but because so much is touched by its fictional procedures.2
For its part, Ellroy’s trilogy shares the radical and totalizing artistic intent of David Simon and Edward Burns’s television series The Wire, but eschews its anthropological and realist compositional procedures for a graphic modernist gestics, which is at times jazz-like, and at others cartoonish. Read contrastively in terms of content, however, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover, in particular, reveal an important historical and political absence in The Wire: the lack of any political resonance of the radical black nationalist politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the bleak neoliberalized local environments it portrays (the world of the ‘corner boys’)—the lack, that is, of a black community politics. Motivated instead by a nostalgia for a lost world of industrial work and trade-union labour organization, The Wire seems to empty out historically and politically the ‘black’ community experience it nevertheless insists upon representing. There is the church, there is boxing—forms of surrogate welfare—there are a number of more or less corrupt local black politicians, and then there is Omar (the outlaw urban cowboy)—arguably an individual stand-in for an anti-racist and anti-capitalist local politics whose memory has all but been erased.3
One reason for this difference is that, unlike The Wire, Ellroy’s Underworld USA extends the procedures of crime fiction historically into the recent past. Each of its constituent parts is thus also a historical novel. Together they present a particular version of ‘the Sixties’—at first negatively, and then more positively—as a transitional decade whose ‘world historical’ moment is precisely...