Underworld USA Trilogy
The trilogy blends fiction and history to tell a story of political and legal corruption in the US between 1958 and 1973. American Tabloid covers the years 1958 to 1963, beginning exactly five years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with the assassination as the book's dénouement. The Cold Six Thousand begins concurrently with American Tabloid's end. It covers a slightly longer period, culminating in the twin assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Blood's a Rover spans the years 1968 to 1973, encompassing the Vietnam War, the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the Black Power movement, the Mob's attempt to build casinos in the Dominican Republic, and the reign of President Richard M. Nixon. Each novel is written from the viewpoint of three separate characters.
Ellroy has described the central themes of the trilogy:
The essential contention of the Underworld USA trilogy ... is that America was never innocent. Here's the lineage: America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy ... and nations are never innocent. Let alone nations as powerful as our beloved fatherland. What you have in The Cold Six Thousand — which covers the years '63 to '68 — is that last gasp of pre-public-accountability America where the anti-communist mandate justified virtually any action. And it wasn't Kennedy's death that engendered mass skepticism. It was the protracted horror of the Vietnamese war.
Literary devices and innovations
Ellroy has developed a number of literary innovations in his work and these have found their fullest expression in this trilogy.
This is a type of third person narration that Ellroy first used in The Big Nowhere (1988) and its sequel L.A. Confidential (1990). It was discarded in Ellroy's next book White Jazz (1992), (which used a standard first person narrator or stream of consciousness,) but was reinstated for American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. It consists of presenting three major protagonists, each with chapters that are identifiably "theirs". Each chapter is written in third person but excludes any information of which the protagonist would be unaware. For the most part, it distributes the chapters evenly between the three protagonists and will run in a consistent ABCABC sequence. Exceptions to this include the death of one of the protagonists, in which case it becomes ABABAB.
Ellroy adds further consistencies in the way he uses this device, such as all three protagonists being male, being police or ex-policemen, each having a female love-interest (frequently shared), and having the interrelation of the three protagonists as a point of interest. The scope of this device was widened in this trilogy by presenting protagonists who "survive" from the first book, to become protagonists in the second.
Like the "triple narrator", the insertion of documents is a device that Ellroy used previous to this trilogy, notably in L.A. Confidential and White Jazz. It provides an opportunity to present objective information that might not be accessible to the protagonists. This device appears between the "proper" chapters and purports to be a factual transcript of various documents of significance to the story.
This gives the books a semi-"documentary" feel, although the "documents" are entirely fictional.
In L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, the documents were usually newspaper articles, confidential reports and memoranda, and personal letters. In the Trilogy, this has been expanded to include transcripts of telephone conversations and bug and wiretap transcripts.
- American Tabloid: Kemper Boyd, Ward J. Littell, Pete Bondurant
- The Cold Six Thousand: Ward J. Littell, Pete Bondurant, Wayne Tedrow, Jr.
- Blood's A Rover: Wayne Tedrow, Jr., Don Crutchfield, Dwight Holly
Although the device of blending fictional characters with historical figures is not original to Ellroy, in the Underworld USA Trilogy he has done this in a way that has rarely been matched elsewhere. The combination is close to fifty-fifty and it is often difficult to determine which is which.
In the Trilogy, the other real life and historical figures who appear include: Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., Jimmy Hoffa, Guy Banister, Howard Hughes, Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Johnny Roselli, Jack Ruby, Chuck Rogers, Lyndon B. Johnson, Lee Harvey Oswald, J. D. Tippit, Lee Bowers, Bayard Rustin, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Sal Mineo, Moe Dalitz, Santo Trafficante, Jr., Bebe Rebozo, E. Howard Hunt, Fred Otash, and Sonny Liston.
In most cases, the actions of the historical figures is not that of record, but Ellroy provides deft character essays on each.
- Birnbaum, Robert (2001). "James Ellroy: Author of L.A. Confidential talks with Robert Birnbaum". Identity Theory.com. Retrieved June 12, 2009.