Blood's a Rover, By James Ellroy

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The Independent Culture

A mighty, meaty, muscular beast of a book. It's the third in James Ellroy's USA Underworld trilogy, but is a stand-alone triumph. It tells the story of power struggles in America between 1968 and 1972, involving the FBI, black-power groups, Republicans, Democrats, mobsters, Communist agitators, white supremacists, Mormons, Howard Hughes, Richard Nixon, J Edgar Hoover, Sonny Liston and a huge cast of informers, infiltrators, criminals and corrupt cops.

The sprawling, epic narrative is focalised through three characters: Wayne Tedrow Jr, a killer (whose victims include his own father) and chemist who keeps Howard Hughes supplied with his drugs of choice; Dwight Holly, a ruthless FBI agent who fraternises with Communist women and is off-the-scale tough (when one police officer demurs about fitting up a scapegoat for a killing committed by Tedrow, Holly throws him over his desk, drops a filing cabinet and an air-conditioning unit on him and kicks him in the balls three times); and Don Crutchfield, a young private investigator who gets sucked into the maelstrom of conspiracy and who, it finally transpires, is the compiler of the whole book.

Ellroy paints pictures with the fewest words possible: "It was muggy. Night insects bombed him. He was secluded. Fireworks popped on the other side of the park." He does a nice line in hyphenated epithets: a doorbell is "wake-the-dead-shrill". His style is telegraphic, shot through with vivid slang. Sometimes one has to pause and work out that "Wayne waltzed on the spooks", for example, means that Wayne was acquitted of the murders of some black people.

At 630 pages of condensed prose and convoluted plot, it is not an easy read. But it is brilliant, funny, breathtakingly cynical, shocking, and makes most other novels I've read this year look anaemic.