Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Cold Six Thousand

My first exposure to James Ellroy was the movie LA Confidential. That sent me to the local library, where only Ellroy available was The Cold Six Thousand. It was the most unpleasant reading experience of my life. I vowed never to read Ellroy again.


A few years passed. Stephanie Padilla, then editor of the New Mystery Reader web site and the person responsible for many of the good things in my life as a writer, asked me to review Blood’s a Rover, which picks up where The Cold Six Thousand leaves off. I accepted as a favor to Stephanie. Turns out it was she who’d done me a solid. I loved the book, which taught me

1. The Cold Six Thousand is not a good point of entry into Ellroy’s work.

2. I needed to go back to The Black Dahlia and read him in order.


I revisited TC6K a couple of months ago. I revised my original assessment by the end of the first page. By Page 100 I understood why it’s a masterpiece, though I stand by my opinion it is not the place for the uninitiated to learn about Ellroy. There are no good guys, only shades of bad guys, and they’re not just bad guys, they’re bad people. Racial epithets, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, the dialog and internal thoughts of the characters show much of the worst of human nature. The subject matter aside, the best word to describe the writing style is, “brutal.” The sentences are short and percussive.


The story draws heavily from the FBI’s attempts to discredit Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The hatred for the Kennedy brothers shown by organized crime and J. Edgar Hoover in American Tabloid is now secondary to civil rights matters, but the inciting incident for the book is John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.


TC6K reads like a description of what one might find after overturning a rotting stump, told in stark, unapologetic language. Human empathy is well down the list of “virtues,” and it’s most often dealt with by crushing its bearer. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the main course doesn’t need to be dead for the feast to begin.


And yet it’s a glorious read, as daring a book as I have ever encountered. Ellroy’s vision of America in the 60s turns a negative light on events we have struggled for years to describe either positively or as aberrations. Ellroy is having none of that. To him, the events described, factual and fictional, did not happen in spite of America’s greatness; they are part and parcel of the illusion of American greatness.


It’s also a much timelier book now than when I first read it. The current political climate has allowed the kinds of people depicted in TC6K as working underground to surface and thumb their noses at ideas of decency. Lots of people write of dystopian futures. Ellroy pulls the covers off our dystopian past.


Through all of that, the ending shows a little light. Not so much for the situation as a whole, but for how people can find a little justice for themselves, so long as they don’t hope for too much of it. Even that is eventually doled out in a brutal, too little too late, manner.


There won’t be any moves made of The Cold Six Thousand, though the storytelling virtues of streaming services make one wonder what Netflix or Amazon Prime could do with the material. I have no idea how TV would handle the pages of “transcripts” and “internal reports” that give the book such a documentary feel in places. Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks have both tried, and failed, to get series on the air.


It’s just as well. The Cold Six Thousand may be a story best saved for those willing to invest the energy to reads them. No skimming here. A proper encounter gets the reader dirty with the characters or the point is missed. 


Mathew Paust said...

As did you, I read a couple of Ellroys right after seeing L.A. Confidential, which, as I recall, took its plot from the two novels I read, and I don't remember which ones. Nonetheless I agree with your take that Ellroy...I just had a flash notion here, I think of him as the Faulkner of crime novels. There, I said it. I came out of the reading feeling gloomy yet enthralled but not enuf to want to read anymore, at least then. And I've not picked him up again, yet. Same with Faulkner. He's draining emotionally and cognitively, and altho there are flashes of hilarity in both writers' works, the overall mood for me stays pretty much on the shadowy side of the street. Now you've got me thinking of trying another Ellroy...

June Lorraine Roberts said...

I think Ellroy is one of those writers that you have to come back to now and again. Sometimes you get his work right away, sometimes you get it on a whole other level the next time around. Sometimes you never understand. Whichever way, he's got that something that keeps people talking and that's what it's all about for me.

~ June Lorraine

Monson said...

I agree!!!!

Dana King said...

I also feel drained when I finish an Ellroy novel. I make sure to read him once a year. Less often and I might lose the feel. More often and I might hang myself.

Dana King said...

Yes, one has to be in the proper frame of mind to read Ellroy. Anyone who doesn't get into him should at least consider coming back a few years later and trying again. Just don't start with The Cold Six Thousand.