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Originally published Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Book review

'Blood's a Rover': the satisfying third installment of Ellroy's alternate-history epic

James Ellroy, the "mad dog of American crime fiction," knocks one out of the park with "Blood's a Rover," the third installment in Ellroy's alternate- history epic. Ellroy reads Thursday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

James Ellroy

The author of "Blood's a Rover" will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5, co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com, or go to brownpapertickets.com). He will sign books at noon Friday (206-587-5737; seattlemystery.com).

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"Blood's a Rover"

by James Ellroy

Knopf, 656 pp., $28.95

We're talking a major case of conspiracy incompletus — with apologies for the Latin butchery.

After James Ellroy's serpentine-brilliant "American Tabloid" in 1995, its sequel, "The Cold Six Thousand," didn't drop until 2001. Given its highly stylized, rhythmic, hypnotically repetitious prose, I wondered if Ellroy would either tip into full incoherence or just not wrap up his Cold War alternate-history epic at all. But another eight years and he finally concludes his "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy with the mammoth "Blood's a Rover."

Verdict: so absorbing and satisfying that it's exhausting.

You could possibly read it as a stand-alone. But why would you want to? And even having inhaled the previous two like a paint-huffing junkie, I sometimes felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails to keep everyone and everything straight in the big cast of characters and sprawling story that spans Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Florida, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

In "Tabloid," Ellroy began with the JFK election and ended with his assassination, weaving his trio of complicated male protagonists into the history and involving them in the hits. "Rover" — whose title comes from an A.E. Housman poem — covers '68-'72 and features an ensemble of complex and compromised characters::

Wayne Tedrow, the ex-Vegas cop who survived "Cold Six Thousand" after tracking down and dispensing gruesome justice to the black thug who murdered his wife, and who wound up as the real shooter of Martin Luther King, Jr. Saddled with a fearsome reputation for killing blacks, Wayne's eaten up by his deeds and becomes obsessed with squaring his karma, even as he smokes his own father and becomes Howard "Dracula" Hughes' operative and personal Col. Tom Parker.

Dwight "The Enforcer" Holly, a Klan-raised, right-wing FBI man who cleans up Wayne's messes like an older brother and has serious dirty laundry that put him even more in thrall to "Gay Edgar" Hoover, aka "the old girl," than he would have been otherwise. Both Hoover and "Drac" are in serious mental decline by this time, and their exchanges with Wayne and Dwight, who are charged with helping install "Tricky Dick" in office and defaming black militants with heroin — become increasingly funny.

And there's Don "Crutch" Crutchfield: a young lowlife and "peeper" whose own cases dovetail with Wayne and Dwight's world-class-ugly business.

All three men are obsessed/tortured/haunted and increasingly strung-out by what they've done and what they discover. Their nexus appears to be a mysterious woman with gray streaks in her hair and a knife scar on one arm, and who may be involved in everything they touch, from the brutal, unsolved armored car heist that opens the novel, to black militant activities, on up to the highest levels of mob-government conspiracy and killing.

Ellroy's style seems sharper and less spazzy-beatnik-at-Mach-1 than in previous books, and every page has at least one passage that's so snappy you want to replay it like a song. However, it would be hard to find one to print in its entirety here, because the dude's use of period racial invective is so pervasive that I'd have to redact it like an FBI file. It's for a purpose — especially as illustrated in Wayne's transformation — but I wouldn't be surprised if a) passages are not read aloud at diversity group meetings and b) some readers wonder if maybe he's a little too into it.

Still, memo to Ellroy: Take as long as you want with whatever's next. This one kills.

Mark Rahner is a Seattle Times reporter.

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