Noir into history

‘… history, the billiondollar speedup’ John Dos Passos, USA, 1938

Blood’s a Rover (2009) is the final volume of James Ellroy’s ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy, which includes American Tabloid (1995) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001).1 It is one of a recent glut of long, serially formatted works of crime–detective fiction, others of which have also been trilogies – for example, Steig Larsson’s extraordinarily popular, but disappointingly conventional, ‘Millennium’ trilogy; David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet, filmed for television as a trilogy; and Andrew Leu and Alan Mak’s outstanding three-part film Infernal Affairs, rehashed by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. Most, however, have been television series, The Sopranos and The Wire made by HBO are among the best known. Crime-detective fiction, noir, is now a transnationalized culture-industrial form as well as an important site of avant-gardist literary experimentation – witness, for example, recent novels by such writers as Ricardo Piglia in Argentina (Money to Burn, 1999) and Giuseppe Genna in Italy (In the Name of Ishmael, 2001), not to mention Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009), Dennis Johnson’s Nobody Move (2009) and Robert Coover’s Noir (2010) in the USA itself. Ellroy’s work now belongs in this experimental space too. This would suggest, paradoxically, that the ubiquity of crime–detective fiction is part of a vaster cultural process of hegemonization: not because all narrative fiction today is noir, but because so much is touched by its fictional procedures.2

For its part, Ellroy’s trilogy shares the radical and totalizing artistic intent of David Simon and Edward Burns’s television series The Wire, but eschews its anthropological and realist compositional procedures for a graphic modernist gestics, which is at times jazz-like, and at others cartoonish. Read contrastively in terms of content, however, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover, in particular, reveal an important historical and political absence in The Wire: the lack of any political resonance of the radical black nationalist politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the bleak neoliberalized local environments it portrays (the world of the ‘corner boys’) – the lack, that is, of a black community politics. Motivated instead by a nostalgia for a lost world of industrial work and trade-union labour organization, The Wire seems to empty out historically and politically the ‘black’ community experience it nevertheless insists upon representing. There is the church, there is boxing – forms of surrogate welfare – there are a number of more or less corrupt local black politicians, and then there is Omar (the outlaw urban cowboy) – arguably an individual stand-in for an anti-racist and anti-capitalist local politics whose memory has all but been erased.3


One reason for this difference is that, unlike The Wire, Ellroy’s ‘Underworld USA’ extends the procedures of crime fiction historically into the recent past. Each of its constituent parts is thus also a historical novel. Together they present a particular version of ‘the Sixties’ – at first negatively, and then more positively – as a transitional decade whose ‘world historical’ moment is precisely the emergence of ‘black’ reformand- revolution and whose key figures are, on the one hand, Martin Luther King (in The Cold Six Thousand) and, on the other, the Black Panther Party (in Blood’s a Rover). The perspective the novels offer on this process, however, is not a community one (a history ‘from below’), but rather a statist one (a history ‘from above’). In this respect, ‘Underworld USA’ is Hegelian: it is state-centred (the state is both the condition and the shaper of history’s course for Hegel),4 and its principal characters are more or less subaltern ‘enforcers’ of various kinds, intent on containing and erasing reform-and-revolution (both ‘black’ and otherwise). Ellroy’s state, in other words, is coded as ‘white’ and insists on violently maintaining its imaginary whiteness. 5 Appropriately, what Hegel would have referred to as the history of ‘freedom’ that is embodied in successive states (and this is certainly a view the US state propagates of itself), Adorno re-baptized the history of ‘big guns’.6 Central figures in ‘Underworld USA’, in this regard, are the arms-and-entertainment industry magnate Howard Hughes (referred to as ‘Drac’) and J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. Together, they form a capital–state alliance invested in the manufacture of forms of ‘fascination’ (that is, the capturing, ideological coding and capitalization of visual attention), on the one hand, and investigative surveillance, or spying (that is, its repressive instrumentalization), on the other – historical forms of vision that, with the Hollywood margins of Los Angeles at its centre, have been fundamental to the obsessions and anxieties explored in all of Ellroy’s fictions: the dream factory as psychopathology and nightmare.


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