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Two down, one to go
on 14 November 2005
The Cold Six Thousand is a daringly direct take on the biggest events in America in the 1960s – the assassinations of President John F Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther King and JFK's younger brother Senator Robert F Kennedy. All this set against the first few years of the US involvement in Vietnam, the cold war and the stand-off with Cuba, with considerable influence from such figureheads as FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and the leading dons of the US Mafia.
Officially we know who killed JFK, MLK and RFK, but after reading this sprawling novel, sequel to the even better American Tabloid, you may wonder if the author's version of events is closer to the truth. All of the 'official' guilty parties feature, including Palestinian activist Sirhan Sirhan who is still in a California jail some 38 years on....but did he pull the trigger of the gun that killed Bobby Kennedy? This novel doesn't specifically and unambiguously answer that question, but Ellroy is in no doubt at all as to who was behind the presidential assassination.
If taken literally (which is difficult not to do) it's impossible not to be disgusted at the extraordinary levels of corruption, racism and political manipulation that lay behind the face of the United States in the Swinging Sixties. The Ku Klux Klan were highly influential in CIA strategy, and although the political impetus behind the US involvement in Vietnam is somewhat glossed over (Linden B Johnson barely has a talking part, unlike JFK in American Tabloid), the CIA's heroin processing 'business' is documented in great detail, as one of the three primary characters Wayne Tedrow Junior (a former policeman) becomes primarily responsible for the labs set up in Vietnam and Laos for creating a massive 'White Horse' production line which has at least two key objectives - to establish a distribution network in Las Vegas among negroes only, and to finance 'The Cause' : collaboration with the Mafia in their attempts to overthrow Castro in Cuba and repossess their casinos which they had invested so much money into.
The other two lead characters, Ward Littell and Pete Bondurant, are carried over from American Tabloid, and for me one of the best features of both books is the description of how the lives and personalities of these two men are shaped and changed by their murderous activities. These men are cold-blooded killers with soft hearts - and in Bondurant's case a rather weak one.
In a way it's amazing that so much history has been squeezed into one riveting novel; if you know nothing about the truth on which it's based it still makes compelling reading, but if (like me) you are among the many who want to know what really happened back then, this story will probably satisfy on another level, and put the whole sordid series of events into some kind of perspective.
I cannot miss this opportunity to add that there appears to be a case for an allegation of history repeating itself, with the US invading Iraq under the one context while the world was/is convinced that the real motive was to get its hands on a valuable commodity. Back in the 1960s, it was a US invasion of another country cloaked under the paranoia of Communism (as opposed to terrorism today) while the commodity of choice back then was heroin. Ellroy finished The Cold Six Thousand only a year or so before the US started the Iraq War - now his words have a sense of prophetic familiarity.
Truly a must-read. I guess that the third and final piece of Ellroy's trilogy (yet to be published) will continue where The Cold Six Thousand left off, and possibly span the presidency of Richard Nixon. 1968 to 1974 was yet another scandal-ridden period for US politics - I wonder if Ellroy will do his version of the Apollo mission to the moon? Thousands doubt we ever landed there!