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After you kill the president, what do you do for an encore? That's the narrative dilemma underlying James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, the continuation of his epic criminal history begun with the corrosive American Tabloid. Cold takes up where Tabloid left off -- in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 -- and examines America's underbelly via a rogue's gallery of fictional and real people, the latter including Hebert Hoover, Howard Hughes and Bayard Rustin, a leader of the 1960s civil rights movement.

As in Tabloid and L.A. Confidential, Cold follows three protagonists, two carried over from the previous book. Aging muscle-for-hire Pete Bondurant becomes involved in Vietnamese drug trafficking. Former G-man Ward J. Littell continues his work as a mob lawyer while secretly supporting Martin Luther King. Newly introduced Wayne Tedrow Jr., initially an idealistic Las Vegas detective, finds himself in over his head in the cover-up of JFK assassination, and that's just for starters.

At 670 pages, Cold is longer than Tabloid, and although it shares the infernal vision of the Unites States, it lacks the same impact. Tabloid maintained an unnervingly close proximity to JFK's Camelot, but Cold's antiheroes are kept too far removed from the lives of RFK and MLK to have the same effect. And Bondurant and Littell's character "arcs" resolve so well in Tabloid that bringing them back feels like trying to bottle lightning twice. Tedrow comes with complicated racial and Oedipal conflicts -- and a close perspective on the birth of modern Las Vegas -- but he peaks too soon, and feels like a bystander for much of the book.

There's still a salacious pleasure in reading Ellroy's intricate conspiracy theories, and there may be no other American writer alive so dedicated to stripping the language down to its rawest essence. His slang-studded prose has the rhythm of a cleaver brutally chopping sentences to their shortest lengths. My favorite paragraph is: "The cat fell asleep. Pete stroked him. Time schizzed. He dug on the dark." As The Cold Six Thousand attests, no one digs on the dark more than Ellroy.

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