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Partie II. Subversive or New Forms

James Ellroy’s American Tabloid: Conspiracy Theory and Chaos Theory

Isabelle Boof-Vermesse
p. 99-108


Suivant la piste indiquée par Ellroy lui-même dans l’introduction de American Tabloid, cet article part de l’idée que de petites causes peuvent avoir de grands effets, et appliquant la théorie du chaos déterministe à la version fictionalisée que le texte donne de l’assassinat de JFK, propose quelques conclusions quant à l’inévitable dérive chaotique du complot d’une part, et quant aux turbulences qui agitent le roman policier quant il se mêle de mettre en contact histoire et fiction d’autre part.

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Texte intégral

1A few years ago, James Ellroy picked up a copy of Libra, Don DeLillo’s account of the JFK assassination, read it, and decided that it was so good he could never write a book about the most exciting crime ever. But the thought was unbearable; his next move was to cheat, to slightly change the focus:

Wait a minute. I can write an epic in which the assassination is only one crime in a long series of crimes. I can write a novel of collusion about the unsung leg breakers of history. I can do a tabloid sewer crawl through the private nighmares of public policy.

2The main point made by American Tabloid is thus that an event, even the most remarkable event ever, is not a singular occurrence but something that is caught in a pattern.

3Stemming from that evaluation of crime as non-event, the second point corresponds to Ellroy’s strategy, which does not consist in the identification of a culprit (who killed Pdt Kennedy?) but in the exploration of a system that made the assassination not only possible but necessary.

4Ellroy thus takes the noir tradition one step lower into the “sewer” – siding with the devil, his text forces the reader to identify with “bad white men making bad history”.

5American Tabloid unfolds between 1958, before Kennedy’s election, to end in 1963 on the very day of the assassination. The first in a trilogy still to be published, it explores the way Kennedy gained access to power and the way those who facilitated his ascent also precipitated his fall. It centers (if one can use the term) on the actions of three men the activities of whom are already numerous at the beginning of the narrative:

  • Pete Bondurant, a Quebec-born former LA cop who works for billionaire Howard Hughes as body guard and drug provider (“Renaissance man Pete: pimp, dope procurer, licenced PI goon”). He also makes money on the side as an independent hitman for the mob and on divorce cases shakedowns.

  • Kemper Boyd, a Southern lawyer from a no longer prominent family. He is a FBI agent and as Hoover’s protégé, he is asked to fake his resignation to be hired by Bobby Kennedy in order to infiltrate the McClellan Committee investigating the mafia in general and Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters in particular.

  • Kemper’s friend and Pete’s enemy, Ward Littell. Also a FBI agent and a lawyer – Ellroy’s books all feature lawyers as protagonists, for some reason. His task is to report on communists, in keeping with Hoover’s obsession. Having worked (briefly) for the Top Hoodlum Program, Hoover’s feeble attempt to emulate the McClellan Committee, he soon realizes that The FBI dismisses the danger raised by the Mafia. He is then given a chance to work undercover (as “the Phantom” who reports exclusively to Kemper Boyd) for his idol Bobby Kennedy.

6The novel starts with each man’s multiple activities, constantly metaphorized in the book by multiple paychecks, and it ends with their doing so much double, triple, quadruple spying that they sometimes come full circle.

7Although the authors of each conspiracy wished they could keep things “compartmentalized”, each individual, separate, selfish plot influences the others.

8The tripartite focus placed on these triple-operatives (Ellroy’s trademark) is fueled by iteration, a mathematical function the result of which is reinjected as the starting point of a new equation. The output of each sequence is thus recycled in the system as fresh input; the outcome of one action is the starting point of the next, which creates a feedback loop according to a retroactive logic.

9Of course, the same might be said of any narrative; sequences do not exist in isolation but are redeemed by the consistency inherent in placing them together in the same fictional narrative. But the argument is more exciting here in the case of Ellroy’s text: it claims to be inspired by history, supposedly indifferent to any ultimate goal, as opposed to fiction’s orientation towards the ending (or at least some kind of closure). How come the hors texte is also spiraled up by a feedback loop?

10It has, alas, nothing to do with conspiracy proper, contrary to the title of this essay.

11Ellroy’s vision of noir as social history provides a clue: he recently said about American Tabloid: “I don’t have a conspiratorial take on history in general. Like in the LA Quartet books – it’s the secret history of a time and place.”

12The aim of the present essay is to study the point where conspiracy vanishes into a wider model, that can be called chaotic.

13It corresponds to what Ellroy does with the genre: he takes it away from whodunits (conspiracy theory) to reach social history (chaos) in a totalising, some might say totalitarian, attempt at embracing reality as a system. The difference between the two is essentially one of scale.

14Conspiracy theory tries to find a logic, to attribute responsibility. It also rests on “compartmentalization”, ie the necessity to maintain partitions between various layers of the conspiracy. Compartmentalization is evidence of the agency of some kind of mastermind and indicates the presence of a superior perspective.

15Chaos takes complexity a step further: it points to the existence of a self-organized system – apparent randomness conceals a secret order that is independent from men’s will. Another difference with conspiracy is that openness, ie interdependency, is a factor of efficiency, as opposed to what takes place with compartmentalization.


16Conspiracy theory proponents generally follow two main interpretations of the JFK assassination: New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in the Oliver Stone movie) ignores the role of the Mafia in his conspiracy theory to focus on government in general and the CIA in particular as the perpetrator of the assassination, while Robert Blakey, Chief Counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, leaves aside government agencies, CIA or FBI, to come up with a “the mafia-did-it” conclusion. Ellroy’s famous “connectionism” puts them together thanks to “cross over” characters and throws in far-right groups and Hoover & Hughes’ anticommunism. In American Tabloid heterogeneous systems thus come into contact; but they do not pursue exactly the same ends, which creates turbulence. Collusion breeds collision.

17The narrative’s first thread features the Teamsters subplot, which starts with the opposition Bobby vs. the Outfit, with colorful Hoffa as the attorney general’s bête noire. Bobby Kennedy wants to nail Jimmy Hoffa, and to achieve this, he needs to find the Mafia’s secret accounting books that show he stole money from the Teamsters Pension Fund. In Ellroy’s version of the plot, Ward Littell wants to get at them to pass on the information to Bobby. To locate the books, he must rely on one or several informants. The chase for and exploitation of informants will provide the first pattern of period doubling, generating turbulence.

18As is typical of the behavior of a system on its way towards chaos, Littell’s quest is marked by period doubling: each informant builds up his own network of snitches; each informant doubles over into two other informants when pressure increases. The overall structure is marked by bifurcation and duplication. Now, as in any dynamic system, period doubling generates instability: the “attractor” of the system, which is the point to which it periodically goes back becomes double, then quadruple, etc. As bifurcation occurs faster and faster, it creates turbulence and the system turns chaotic: the trajectories of the system become erratic and peridiodicity (indicated, as said above, by the return to the attractor) eventually gives way to apparent randomness.

19The treatment of informants in the fiction of American Tabloid provides a good illustration of period-doubling (the first stage), and its consequence, turbulence (second stage) and chaos (third stage). What Littell had planned to be a linear “string” of relays (A gets information from B who gets information from C, etc.) turns into a complex crisscross with loops going backwards, or with unexpected lateral connections. Such a complex pattern results in unpredictable trajectories drawing back towards Littell, the point of origin. The chaotic outcome is that despite the fact that all informants are eventually killed (due, in particular, to the unforeseen “coincidences” which interfere with linear progress and accelerate or stop the flow of information), Littell learns about the books’ location anymway. Chaos works.

20Another ironic reversal figures prominently in the other subplot, the Cuban Cause.

21The Cuban suplot illustrates Hoover’s version of a famous aphorism: anticommunism breeds strange bedfellows. The Mafia/CIA collusion starts soon after Castro’s taking over Cuba (1959), as the nationalization of casinos cost underworld czar Sam Giancana “hundreds of thousands a day”. The Mafia quickly understands that cooperation with CIA is good business, with Cuba as their common cause. Evidence of cooperation is three-fold in Ellroy’s narrative.

22First, the Mafia will help the CIA to recruit and train Cuban criminals to become an elite corps (the effort will climax and anticlimax at the Bay of Pigs). Second, the agency will lease Jimmy Hoffa’s Miami “Tiger Kab” taxi stand, exclusively staffed by Cuban refugees, and supervised by Pete Bondurant, to use as an anti-Castro hub. Third, collusion will become even tighter with the heroin trade.

23Heroin is a means for Castro’s brother Raul to finance a Miami propaganda drive, which is the argument used by Kemper Boyd (Ellroy’s fictional FBI/CIA agent) to convince the CIA to start a drug ring to fight the communists on their own grounds.

24By bringing together two independent systems (the Mafia and the CIA), the Cuban subplot uses another process that entails chaos: quasiperiodicity. Quasiperiodicity occurs with the coupling together of several incommensurate (ie with a ratio that is not exact) periodic systems. American Tabloid exploits quasiperiodicity to the full with its multifold collusion of systems (the Mafia, the CIA) that do not pursue exactly the same ends. The two cycles will almost, but not quite, pull forces, and the new resulting cycle will almost, but not quite, repeat itself. If a periodic system can metaphorically be represented by a closed cycle, or a loop (mafia members are symptomatically “in the loop”), a quasiperiodic system resembles a spiral or a vortex, its two superimposed revolutions describing a donut-like figure, with the exterior ring being formed by the revolution of the other system around the axis of the central hole (in detective fiction, one can hardly help wondering if the “whodonut” corresponds to the superimposition of two cycles, that of the crime and that of its detection...). But the essential point is that, interestingly enough, quasiperiodicity is temporary: soon enough the new composed order drifts away from the orbit. Just like period-doubling above, quasiperiodicity is but a passage to chaos, it is transitional.

25Coupling together two assassination plots, American Tabloid is a text in which quasiperiodicity is brought to the fore. The novel concentrates on the partly fictional Miami hit planned by our three protagonists, but its narrative also filigrees reference to the real Dallas hit that will take place outside American Tabloid’s temporal frame. Quasiperiodicity arises from contact between the two – a contact already made possible because of the Mafia/CIA collusion.

26It can be argued convincingly, I think, that Ellroy’s generic shift (from mysteries to historical sagas) is but a modulation on the quasiperiodic theme: the superimposition of crime and detection is altered into a superimposition of history and fiction.


27One of Ellroy’s contributions to the plotting of the assassination is to connect the afore-mentioned drug subplot to the assassination proper. The drug subplot ties in with the assassination on multiple levels: negatively, the Mafia will at first veto a Castro hit as they strike up a business association with communist Cuba, selling Cuban heroin in America (after Kemper and Boyd steal a huge shipment of heroin sent by Raul Castro to the American mafia, however, détente turns into cold war again and the Castro assassination plan is eventually activated). The Mafia will also get involved in an active, positive way when they hear that Kennedy cut a deal with Castro, promising never to invade the island again (which means the mob will never recover their casinos), but this involvement comes with a twist: the target has changed, Kennedy being “worse for business than Castro ever was”. So that when the Mafia discovers that Pete and Kemper have allied to steal a shipment of heroin from Cuba, Littell is able to save their necks by securing a deal with mobster Santo Trafficante (real-life Florida boss Santos Trafficante – last name, as opposed to first name, no misnomer! – is said to have planned the assassination of JFK along with a Robert Maheu, an ex-FBI agent who later worked for Howard Hughes, a figure Ellroy probably borrowed from to create Kemper Boyd and Pete Bondurant). Santo will let them live and keep the stolen heroin if, in exchange, they kill Kennedy. To complicate matters further and ensure maximum friction and dissipation, Ellroy puts forward Edgar Hoover’s involvement in the assassination plot.

28Hoover sends Littell a secret tape in which witness Valachi (Bobby’s weapon against the mob (one of Ellroy’s non-fictional characters) reveals the extent of old Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the mob. Littell is to forward the tape to Bobby to humble him into stopping the assassination investigation after the deed is done. For Littell, Hoover’s gesture means that Hoover knows the assassination will take place. The second indirect Hoover angle is precisely non-action, a rather sophisticated move in what Kemper calls “Mr Hoover’s chess game”. When Bobby Kennedy raids anti-Castro groups, Hoover never warned his allies against the action precisely to fuel hatred against Bobby.

29Remote control, a favourite device with mysteries, or spy stories, which exploit complexification of motive, is here classically used to point to the fact that local defeat might be part of a strategy for global victory. There is a paradoxical balance between the unpredictability of the individual trajectories (ex: Kemper is killed by his former friend Littell for stealing the heroin, while Pete, guilty of the same crime, is spared by the Mafia) and the overall consistency of the system (there will be a Kennedy assassination no matter what). Seen from above, from the point of view of the conspiracy-turned-chaotic system, tiny departures from the well-planned trajectory of the original plan do not alter its overall geometry after all.

30Unpredictability is due to sensitive dependence on initial conditions, better known as “butterfly effect”, an echo of which can be found in Ellroy’s introduction to American Tabloid: “Had one second of their [the few men involved in the assassination plot] lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it”.

31This logic is typical of Ellroy’s fictionalized history. There is no “waste” that is not recycled in the “sewer” of history: nothing should be ignored, discarded, despised as trivial or profane. Everything partakes of history. In American Tabloid, mingling fiction with history, Ellroy exploits little causes having portentous effects (a well-known, if by no means exclusive, property of a chaotic order). Thanks to Ellroy’s connectionism, tiny variations are magnified: at the beginning of the novel, Pete fires a journalist working for a scandal sheet owned by Howard Hughes because he is accused of having Communist leanings. He finds, hidden in his apartment, secret files about a loan made by Hughes to Nixon’s brother; after some hesitation, Pete decides to publicize the evidence:

Jack or Dick – one very tough call.
The smart bet: Don’t smear Red-baiter Nixon. Not so smart, but sexy: Smear him and put Jack in the White House.

32Pete’s “sexy”, ie unpredictable and daring, choice will rock the campaign and result in JFK’s election and in a doubly ironic reversal. The first irony lies in the fact that disorder sets in precisely because of an excess of order, because the various components of the system, its movements, are tightly knit together (Pete being directly connected to Hughes and indirectly to the Kennedys through his associate Kemper), and because retroaction (ie more feeding of the same into the system) contributes to creating new movements that are unpredictable (Pete’s decision might be sexy, it is not smart, as he has rightly anticipated it) and that threaten to explode this very same order. Conspiracy as such is thus by definition a highly unstable system. A second irony can be found in the fact that this so-called disorder is in fact order, if seen from a wider prespective. The system might display individually centrifugal trajectories, the overall movement is definitely centripetal. Turbulence is disorder only on the surface, when seen from a limited perspective. The failure of a local conspiracy might well be what ensures the success of a super conspiracy, as the novel shows it with its mise en abyme of conspiracies. In American Tabloid, our three partners, Pete, Littell and Kemper, provide a plan that is ironically the blueprint of a real assassination plan by Guy Banister (a real life character that appears in Ellroy’s fiction):

It’s the day of the motorcade. We hold our man hostage at the office on the parade route. [...] Kennedy’s car passes. Our two legitimate shooters fire from separate roof perches in the rear and kill him. The man holding our patsy hostage fires at Kennedy’s car and misses, drops the rifle and shoots the patsy with the stolen revolver. [...] The police finds the guns and compare them to the manifest from the burglary. They’ll chalk up the evidence and figure they’ve got a conspiracy that tenuously succeeded and unraveled at the last second. They’ll investigate the dead man and try to build a conspiracy case against his known associates.

33The main point of this (and the real one’s) assassination conspiracy is to find the patsy, whose identity will of course depend on the interests of the promoters of the hit. But as it happens, the Mafia is not a homogeneous group.

34Carlos Marcello, the New Orleans boss whom Kennedy had deported to Guatemala (again a real-life figure recycled by Ellroy), is dedicated to the Cause and wants a leftist fall man to promote anti-Castro feeling. Giancana and Santo Trafficante however overrule him: they demand a right-winger for opposite reasons (they are wooing Castro whose brother is still is a business partner at that point). Besides, they plan to show Castro they financed the hit to obtain concessions about casinos in exchange. As in the “real” plot, the patsy is the key – he will be instrumental in thwarting a full-scale FBI investigation. The three men know Hoover wants it to happen, but to obfuscate the investigation, they need to find a FBI-connected patsy. The fall man will have to be both a ring-winger and FBI: Hoover will have to pull a blanket over him or else he will risk to expose the Bureau’s racist policies.

35This is where Ellroy’s web ties in with a far-right contribution to the conspiracies (the Miami and the Dallas hits). In American Tabloid, the connection with far right groups has its remote origin in Pete’s idea that the Agency bankroll a KKK group in Blessington to avoid tensions with Cubans: “Dirt-poor crackers surrounded the camp site – spic haters all. Klan hijinks would keep them diverted”.

36With that in mind, Pete had looked through documentation on right-wing movements provided by Guy Banister and he had singled out as the best prospect a Klan zealot and FBI informant named Frank Lockhart. Now that the Cause is dead, Pete reckons the same man would be perfect to play the role of the patsy. Another confederate, Chuck Rogers (a Tiger Kab associate and pilot for the Mafia) dyes his hair bright red like Lockhart’s and makes anti-Kennedy speeches in all the Miami bars to incriminate the patsy, in a manner similar to what conspiracy theory proponents describe as the “Ozzie impersonation”.

37But for all this perfection, down to every detail, something is wrong: Juan Canestel, one of the shooters, originally chosen as a member of Kemper’s elite “Kill Castro” team, is spotted in a conference with Guy Banister and Carlos Marcello. Juan’s going over to the Banister/Marcello team is evidence of a second plot. The hitch however is that he is a sex maniac, a serial killer, and Kemper will be forced to execute him three days before the motorcade, thus modifying Banister and the Mafia’s plan for a Miami hit. Kemper will be in turn killed by his best friend Ward Littell obeying Mafia orders. The erratic behavior of Juan had sent the system adrift – locally. But as we all know, the system as a whole will follow its course and Kennedy will be killed nevertheless.

38In the meantime, Giancana and Santo have realized that the truce with Castro is over, and they consequently want to build the Kennedy assassination as pro-Castro, rescheduling the hit out of Miami and using a left-wing patsy under Guy Banister’s guidance.

39The reality/fiction cross-over character Guy Banister is Ellroy’s wink at the real assassination plot. Banister, a former FBI agent, was the anti-communist crusader whose detective agency was Lee Harvey Oswald’s address in New Orleans.

40In Ellroy’s fiction, Banister’s plotting is a remarkable example of mise en abyme, called “fractals” by chaos theory. Not only is his plot strikingly similar to that of our three heroes, but his also encompasses theirs, recycles it, feeds on it. It has the same shape but on a different scale.

41Ellroy uses Joe Milteer, another, less famous cross-over character to work out the mise en abyme twist. JFK assassination reports show that right-wing Joe Milteer was questioned in connection with a conspiracy (weeks before the assassination, Milteer outlined a Miami hit to an interlocutor who unfortunately for him was a FBI agent that had infiltrated arch-conservative National States Rights Party). In Ellroy’s version of Banister’s plan, Milteer becomes a naïve agent of disinformation.

Banister told some nut named Milteer about the Miami job, without naming no personnel. Guy knows Milteer’s a loud mouth who’s got a Miami PD snitch bird-dogging him. He’s hoping Milteer will blab to the snitch, who’ll blab to his handler, and somehow the Miami motorcade will get cancelled and divert everybody’s attention away from Dallas.

42Banister’s far-fetched ploy to use Littell’s plan as diversion is successful: the Miami motorcade is cancelled and the Dallas hit can proceed as planned, outside the scope of American Tabloid however (the Miami plot as ploy is, as far as I know, an invention of Ellroy). The way the assassination plan duplicates itself in Ellroy’s fiction is exemplary of the way turbulence fragments into smaller and smaller versions of itself.

43The self-similarity that can be detected in American Tabloid is what theorists of deterministic chaos noticed when they tried to give a topological representation of turbulence and discovered the fractal dimension of “strange attractors”, ie their dimension that hesitates between surface and volume, and their form that duplicates itself on various scales. It might account for a salient feature of the novel, self-similarity.

44Plots-within-plots-within-plots: complexification of motive and multiplication of hats can thus be read, not as gratuitous exercises in plot in the spy story tradition, but dictated precisely by the nature of the system, ie its conspiratorial unbalance evolving towards chaos. The single-mindedness of conspiracy is not sustainable, American Tabloid suggests, a conspiratorial system necessarily gives way to cross purposes and order replaced by disorder. On another level though, the contradictory patterns, the erratic trajectories coalesce into a single system, albeit a chaotic one and disorder is transcended into order. Pete thus interprets accurately “Jack and the Beard as one fucked up, pervasive thing”.

45Any detective story can be described as the coupling of two systems, that of the crime and that of the investigation.

46Here, Ellroy superimposes also facts and their reconstruction, but in the form of history revisited by fiction.

47The uncanny “verisimilitude” of the complex entanglement is due to the fact that fictional characters seem to be spiraled up by the force of history, which entails quasiperiodic unstability and a glimpse at a paradoxical, fractal, turbulent and criminal order.

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Ellroy, J., American Tabloid. New York, Ivy Books, 1995.

Gleick, J., Chaos: Making A New Science. New York, Viking Penguin, 1987.

Hersh, S., The Dark Side of Camelot. London, HarperCollins, 1998.

Marrs, J., Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1989.

Stewart, I., Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos. London, Penguin, 1989.

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Isabelle Boof-Vermesse, « James Ellroy’s American Tabloid: Conspiracy Theory and Chaos Theory », Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 99-108.

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Isabelle Boof-Vermesse, « James Ellroy’s American Tabloid: Conspiracy Theory and Chaos Theory », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 27 avril 2017. URL :

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Isabelle Boof-Vermesse

Maître de conférences en littérature américaine, Université Lille 3

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