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August 5th, 2009
An Idle Word: An American obsession

An Idle Word: A column

A borrowed title from this week’s issue of Newsweek. Why not?

That one of America’s leading news magazines devotes the major part of its current issue to crime—true and fictional–was certainly a major thrill to me as regular readers of my column could well imagine from knowing my predilection for both true crime and crime fiction. And it turns out I’m not the only one.

And Newsweek does have an “A” list to contribute. Its special section leads off with an introduction, “The Roots of American Obsession” by Walter Mosley, the renowned author of the of Ezekiel “Easy “ Rollins novels (Rollins was superbly played by Denzel Washington in the film based on the first book in the series “Devil In A Blue Dress”).

Our dissatisfaction with information sources from news sources ranging from newspapers and magazines to television — and, yes, even blogs — create a truth-hungry mindset and “This dissatisfaction brings us to fictional accounts, “ Mosley contends.

“Crime shows, mysteries and films speak to the bystander in a dangerous world,” he writes, “These forms of entertainment corroborate our feelings of distrust and allow us to think about how we might fit into a world that wouldn’t even be aware of us getting crushed under its collective weight.”

“We are fascinated with stories of crime, real or imagined, because we need them to cleanse the modern world from our souls,” he concludes in his introduction.

So now I have a valid interest for my fascination with crime other than just being an old police reporter who as a boy was always fascinated by the lurid covers of my father’s old Gold Medal paperbacks, almost invariably drawn by the great Robert McGinnis.

Vincent Bugliosi provides an interview on the 40-year anniversary of the Manson murders and their impact on American society.

Another story details the obsession of an intrepid reporter for a Los Angeles alternative newspaper, who working with an L.A. police detective, is stalking the perpetrator of a 20-year series of serial murders that have gone unpublicized because they involve lower-class victims.

And James Ellroy—America’s greatest living crime fiction writer and according to no less an authority than Ellroy himself greatest ever—contributes a haunting memoir of the random murder of a teenage girl, evoking the writer’s tragic memories of the unsolved murder of his own mother which propelled him to become the self-proclaimed “Demon Dog of American Literature.”

And good news is provided that Ellroy’s next novel and the finale of his “Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy”—“Blood’s A Rover” will finally be released next month.

Ellroy is best known for his “L.A. Quarter”—a fictional history of crime in his hometown in the post World War II beginning with “The Black Dahlia,” based on L.A.’s most sensational unsolved murder and made into a so-so film with Hilary Swank. It was followed by “The Big Nowhere,” “L.A. Confidential” (which was made into a great movie with Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey) and finally “White Jazz.”

With his “American Underworld Trilogy”, he tackled a bigger tableau—a secret history of modern America and the role of criminal elements in it beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

In his introduction to the first book in the trilogy, 1995’s “American Tabloid,” Ellroy writes, “Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.”

“They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it.”

“It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.”

“Here’s to them.”

So right from the start, readers familiar with Ellroy’s scorching prose are prepared to follow Bette Davis’ advice in her greatest line, “Fasten your seatbelts! It’s going to be a bumpy night.” At almost 700 pages, it’s definitely more than one night, particularly since one invariably finishes his works emotionally and almost physically drained.

“American Tabloid” concludes on Nov. 22, 1963 and, as an example of Ellroy’s rogue protagonists, one of the lead characters is a part of a team dispatched to carry out the hit, a mission aborted only by a redemptive act typical of the “bad men” in Ellroy’s world. It just happens that there was more than one group in Dallas that fateful day who wanted John Kennedy dead for a variety of reasons.

It took six years for the next entry in the trilogy, “The Cold Six Thousand.”(Ellroy is not a prolific writer, and wasn’t’ even one before his close friendship with “Desperate Housewife” Dana Delaney).

The follow-up begins the day after the assassination and carries the reader through the cover-up, the rise of Las Vegas, J. Edgar Hoover’s secret war on the American Civil Rights Movement, the murder of Martin Luther King and American intelligence participation in drug trafficking in Vietnam before finally concluding like the trilogy’s opener with the murder of a Kennedy.

Blood’s A Rover” promises more revelations about the conspiracies, the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the threats of race war in the United States and the draconian countermeasures planned by elements within the government.

Tom Hanks’ production company is already reported to be preparing a mini-series or TV series of “The American Underworld Trilogy.”

While I have gotten off on James Ellroy—something easy for me to do—there’s more meat in Newsweek’s special section especially Malcolm Jones’ incisive piece. “Death Becomes Them,” but that is “To Be Continued.”



TO DIANA FINLAY HENDRICKS: As a veteran of the Chautauquan wars, I couldn’t think of a better choice for war correspondent for the threatening Mason-Kimble Counties War over bringing wind energy into Central Texas. Your first assignment is to come up with a snappier acronym for my “SOP-B-NIMBY” (Save Our Planet But Not in My Backyard.”

TO CHARLES SIMS: You know it’s really hot when Charles Sims can’t come up with a “pithy comment.”

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