The Cold Six Thousand is the second volume of Ellroy’s “Underworld Trilogy” tracing the history of 1960s America through the lives of real and imagined gangsters. Written in an intense staccato style, the books are filled with conspiracies, bad men behaving horribly, and real and imagined dirt on most of the pivotal figures of the 1960s.
I enjoyed the first book in the series, American Tabloid. By turns exhausting and exhilarating, it felt like something new in crime fiction. The dirty machismo of much the genre boiled down to a thick tar of nasty violence. Ellroy’s books relish in violence and hatred. They’re not nice and can at times be difficult to read, but despite my conflicted feelings about Ellroy as a person and a writer, I enjoyed the hell out of American Tabloid.
The Cold Six Thousand is another story. American Tabloid ends with the assassination of JFK. The Cold Six Thousand takes us from the “cover up” of that assassination through to the deaths of MLK and RFK with extended stops in mobbed up Las Vegas and drug-fueled Vietnam. If anything, The Cold Six Thousand is uglier than American Tabloid, racism plays a key role, and it is hard not to think that Ellroy enjoys putting despicable dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It is all a bit much. The ultra short declarative sentence style that seemed new and exciting in American Tabloid is just tiring in the Cold Six Thousand.
But Ellroy can write, and the characters remain compelling. I wanted to put it down, but I didn’t. If you’re a fan of Ellroy’s you’ve probably already read this. If not, start with American Tabloid. If after that you haven’t gotten enough, you could give this a try. I should probably leave well enough alone and not read the final book in the series, Bloods a Rover, but I probably will. I can’t leave a series unfinished.
The Long Fall
Crime novels are very grounded in place. George Pelacanos’s novels sing of DC; Laura Lippman’s of Baltimore of Los Angeles, and until recently, Walter Mosley’s most famous crime novels were set in Watts. For the last decade of so the heavy hitters of crime fiction have mostly been avoiding New York. There is, of course, Lawrence Block, but I have not read him. In recent years the crime writers I read came to New York were Richard Price’s “Dempsy” novels: Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, which were set in a fictionalized version of Newark with the occasional glimpses of life in New York. Price has said that he set the novels in a fictionalized city because the real thing was too overpowering. I can see that.
Lately, there has been a bit of a return to New York. Price set Lush Life on the Lower East Side, up and comers Reed Farrel Coleman and Colin Harrison have both set their novels in Brooklyn, and now Mosley has started a new crime series in the City staring a new protagonists, Leonid McGill.
The Long Fall’s plot is a classic of the genre – private detective investigates a case that leads him into a conspiracy bigger than he imagined. Innocents are injured; the detective must get his hands dirty; justice must be done. If you read these novels, you know exactly what I am talking about. Mosley knows what he is doing; the plotting is catnip to crime novel fans.
More interesting, perhaps, is the creation of the character of McGill. He is a private investigator, and in crime novels, PIs generally come in two types – those on their way down, and those on their way up. McGill is a little of both, morally he is on his way up. He isn’t taking enforcer gigs anymore; he isn’t setting people up for crimes they didn’t commit. But he is behind in the rent, drinking too much and cheating on his wife (who is cheating on him). It’s a nice juxtaposition. By being good he is doing bad. I am curious to see how it plays out in the other novels. Will McGill’s better angels lead him into financial ruin, or will he turn his back on the moral life and return to a life of crime. Mosley seems to be setting us up to watch McGill rise up again, but I could be wrong. Either way, it is a treat to see such a great crime writer set his stories in my city.
Worth reading for fans of the genre, especially those who wish more crime novels were set in New York.
Hell to Pay: A Derek Strange Novel (Derek Strange Novels)
The second book in Pelecanos’s series about P.I. Derek Strange and his sidekick Terry Quinn. Probably even better than the first, this one has less silly shoot ‘em up scenes and more of the grime that is crime in South East D.C. as well as more development of the deeply troubled Quinn and the only slightly more together Strange.
As I’ve written many times before, crime novels are about crime like playboy is about the articles. It needs to be there to be, but it isn’t the part that matters. Crime novels are really about two things — the protagonist and place. Pelecanos does a great job with both, creating believable fucked up barely holding it together cops and showing us D.C. as it is – segregated, largely poor, mostly black, undemocratic, and violent. The writing here is so good you can see why Pelecanos was pulled into the David Simon writing machine for both the Wire and Treme.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Right As Rain: A Derek Strange Novel (Derek Strange Novels)
Pelecanos is the great chronicler of our nation’s capital (Washington, D.C.) as it is lived by its actual citizens. For a crime writer who works in place and character, he is top of his game.
This is the first of Pelecanos’s series chronicling private investigator Derek Strange (a black man from south east d.c.; obsessively together; unable to commit; a self conscious hero in his neighborhood) and his sidekick of sorts, Terry Quinn (white, from the poor suburbs, a troubled ex cop). They are a compelling team and this book tackles poverty and racism in D.C. in a way that is approachable and smart. If crime novels are you thing, then so is this book.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
The Night Gardener
As you probably know, most of the writers for the Wire are actually accomplished crime novelists including Denis Lehane, Richard Price and this guy, George Pelacanos.
Pelacanos made his name in crime circles writing hardboiled detail rich police procedurals taking place in Washington, D.C. This is the first book by him I have read, but I can feel an obsession coming on. What we have hear is well written detective story that turns out not to be a detective story at all (telling you more than that will ruin it). Pelacanos does an excellent job of capturing the fucked up racial and class shit that goes on in this city, and backs it up with an excellent knowledge of the history of go-go and the Washington Redskins.
This isn’t as smart or as complicated as the Wire (but then again, what is?), but it is still pretty goddamn good.
Recommended for the enthusiast.