Short version: good read, but not as good as American Tabloid (the first instalment in the trilogy).
I came to James Ellroy via American Tabloid, and I found it fascinating. There seemed to be an almost electric hum in his style with its many viewpoints, journal-like entries, inserts from low-life slur-rags and the rest. If Charles Bukowski chronicled the nether regions of America, then this seemed to be the same restless drivers at work on major movers and shakers - and the upper crust certainly seemed just as prone to follow base instincts. The many prominent historical figures and spliced-in historical events boosted the effect further. It was hard to follow the many twists and turns, but that too provided raw nerve. It was one hectic ride, and a class-A reading experience.
I then read most of Ellroy's corpus, and while most books were good, some very good, they never really reached the heights of American Tabloid, and they seemed slowly but steadily to grow worse. Then I read A Cold Six Thousand, purportedly a sequel to AT. I couldn't finish it - Ellroy seemed to have reached the end of a stylistic cul-de-sac where he had pared down individual sentences to an absolute minimum (three word sentences seemed to his desired and often attained norm). It was thus with some trepidation I picked up Blood's a Rover, which was labelled the third instalment in the American Tabloid trilogy.
Stylistically we recognise American Tabloid. It is a pan-american vista dotted with famous figures, and their many quirks and weaknesses. Journal entries and quick cuts between characters and sub-plots provide the familiar restlessness. But it must at the same time be said that it is a weaker reproduction of its great forebear. Compared to the high-power Cuban sub-plots in AT, the Caribbean excursions in Blood's a Rover seem weak and inconsequential. Most major characters are less extreme, but are at the same time less interesting (even mob-figures seem unduly watered down). Supplementary inserts carry less authenticity and less energy. This is a methadone kick - not the real thing.
Paradoxically, I think that Ellroy's development as an author can be blamed. The characters in AT were in many cases one-dimensional freaks. The 6'3'' men willing and capable of killing anyone with their bare hands (and with no remorse) are, with few exceptions, gone, and so are their similarly unswerving and unsophisticated ambitions. Much has been made of the fact that Ellroy now lets "strong women" into his stories. In my opinion these characters are often simplistically drawn (they are like the men used to be), but they do add a dimension to the way the men act and think - and they hold back their fierceness. I submit that the closer look at certain characters sometimes fails completely. From a private journal entry where a mother talks about her child: "Eleanora rules my days. She is a mighty empress and imperious ruler of my heart, as well as an exhausting bundle of ceaseless energy and need. She focuses me and deflects my actions and thoughts not directly related to her" Say what? Is this a private journal made by a parent or a medical journal made by a theoretical psychiatrist? And regrettably this is not a one-off - Ellroy falters when he tries to gauge the depths of the human heart.
American Tabloid worked so well because oafishly extreme wills and characters clashed, and sometimes crashed and burned as a result. It did not need an underpinning story - its electricity became its own story of the hind side of the American Dream. Blood's a Rover, by contrast, has as an undercurrent a specific storyline that resurfaces from time to time. This too is a sign of authorial maturity, but in my view, it does not improve the book. Sometimes a novel's very format demands a specific balance between energy and "maturity"/sophistication, and Blood's a Rover is not quite spot on, whereas American Tabloid is.
To buy or not to buy?
The blurb informs me that this is a masterpiece, and had it not been for American Tabloid, which is far better, I might have concurred. By all means buy it and read it, but promise to buy AT first.