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Wrapping up 'Underworld U.S.A.'

Gruesome dismemberment, death by fire, by machete, by gunshots in the face. International conspiracy and conspiracy theories and theorists. Voodoo herbs. Plots and counterplots. Emeralds. The shooter on the grassy knoll. Hippies, Black Panthers, and the CIA. Castro. Papa Doc. Hip Nixon. Paranoid Hoover. Wacko Howard Hughes. Dead King. Dead Kennedys.

Gruesome dismemberment, death by fire, by machete, by gunshots in the face. International conspiracy and conspiracy theories and theorists. Voodoo herbs. Plots and counterplots. Emeralds. The shooter on the grassy knoll. Hippies, Black Panthers, and the CIA. Castro. Papa Doc. Hip Nixon. Paranoid Hoover. Wacko Howard Hughes. Dead King. Dead Kennedys.

And all this is a historical romance, "much less frenetic than previous books."

It is if you believe James Ellroy, the accomplished writer whose novel Blood's a Rover appears this week. Ellroy, 61, reads from the book at the Free Library on Thursday night. For him, this panoramic, often nightmarish epic is a deeply moral tale about belief and the way it works.

Contacted at his home in Los Angeles, to which he returned in 2006 after years away, Ellroy calls Blood's a Rover "markedly different from my other novels." His crime tales have made him famous, and several, including L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, have been made into big movies. "But this is a history, a deeply romantic novel," Ellroy says.

Set in the '60s and early '70s, swinging among Washington, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Los Angeles, Blood's a Rover completes what's known as Ellroy's "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy. The first book, American Tabloid, covered 1953 to 1958; the second, The Cold Six Thousand, spanned 1958 to 1963; and Blood's a Rover wades into the incendiary years of 1963 to 1972. The trilogy is often described as a renarration of American history in terms of its understory of crime and social upheaval. Ellroy says it's "a study of politics as crime."

Writer and noir expert Eddie Muller says by e-mail that Ellroy "asserts, correctly, that he doesn't write noir, but historical fiction. The nation's shadow-history is a crime story, and Ellroy is the guy with the style and guile and . . . bravado to tell it."

"The late 1960s were a period for paranoia," Ellroy says. "It was a time for shifting allegiances, conspiracy theories, getting stoned, and looking for something else out there." Many characters shift sides: A rabid anti-Communist FBI man falls for a left-wing radical; a racist loves a black woman. Psychopathic killers become close friends. Nonbelievers believe and believers lose belief.

Beneath all that movement, amid all the gunfire, what's really going on is a sub rosa discussion of how to live. It is, as Ellroy says, "my most ideological novel."

But romance? "It's the first book I ever dedicated to a human being," Ellroy says. That dedication, to "J.M.," reads: "Comrade: For Everything You Gave Me." All Ellroy will say is that her name was Joan, he fell in love with her in San Francisco, and the relationship ended. "All I want," he says, "is to look in her eyes one more time." So this romance grew out of a romance.

No surprise, given the tightrope walk between real and imagined in Ellroy's fiction, that a Joan plays a major role in this huge novel; in fact, its last word is Joan. Real people, as always, rub shoulders with fictional. Chief among them is Crutch, a young, wickedly resourceful private investigator who lands in the thick of an international intrigue involving Communism, the free world, a body chopped up in a sink, voodoo, chemistry, the FBI, and the 1968 presidential election. For starters.

Crutch, it turns out, is real. He's Don Crutchfield. As a young "wheelman" (a beginner PI with a fast car), he did it all back in the day. "The late '60s were the golden age of the private investigator in Hollywood," Crutchfield says by phone from his Beverly Hills home. "We were the low-rent rock stars of that era. And I'll tell you one thing: James Ellroy, he does his homework. He knows the history, the people, the places. His new book's got it all in there."

But how did Crutchfield get in there? "I read L.A. Confidential and loved it so much, I said, 'I'd love to be in one of his novels.' " Crutchfield went to an Ellroy reading in L.A., bringing a copy of L.A. Confidential for an autograph. A year later, Ellroy contacted him and they started working up Blood's a Rover. It took eight years.

Ellroy says, "It's really a book about American ingenuity. Crutch is nothing if not indestructibly ingenious." With Crutch, we ride the streets of Hollywood, peep through the windows at adulterers, bug houses and hotel rooms, go to dinner with celebs who have huge expense accounts, go to Haiti and snort zombie herbs. features the celebrated Gatling-gun short-burst Ellroy style, a patois that approaches a psychedelic macho poetry: Scotty hit a parking-lot crap game and shuck-and-jived with the brothers. Scotty logged ghetto scuttlebutt. Scotty dispensed chump change to winos. Scotty greased his snitches with ten-spots. . . . Darktown sizzled. It was mid-September-hot. . . . Just on a linguistic level, it's dizzying, vivid, and supremely fun to read.

Blood's a Rover

It also features the Ellroy trademarks: ultraviolence, obsessed men on lifetime Grail quests, the madness of the power-mad, bursts of strange tenderness in a loveless world. Crutch himself falls in love, a love that seems tender and fruitful.

Reading the book is itself an obsessive, compulsive act. Reading Ellroy often makes you concerned for the writer, who, as his memoirs have pointed out, had a painful road to adulthood, including his mother's unexplained murder during his childhood, addictions, depression, homelessness, and petty crime.

But he calls 2009 "a good time, a very good time. I am a sober individual, I have a girlfriend, and I try to be good to people." He's still struggling to find Los Angeles after years away, but the imagined L.A. of his books is sufficiently engrossing.

This talented writer with the troubled past says he finds a cleansing sense of control in creating novels such as Blood's a Rover: "I have an astoundingly vivid and commensurately controlled imagination - I am able to write something with so many levels, something deep, complex and wild, and make it perfectly coherent. I have been doing this for 30 years, evolving a different voice all along."

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