As the backlash against Andrew Dominik’s 2022 film Blonde suggested, retelling the Marilyn Monroe story in the age of #MeToo is a queasy business. Billed by its author – America’s most celebrated crime novelist – as ‘not a Marilyn Monroe book’, The Enchanters nevertheless has her sexual exploitation by powerful men and the conspiracy theories that emerged following her death at its heart. The story is seen through the eyes of Freddy Otash, the real-life private investigator responsible for bugging Monroe’s apartment, who spends the novel spitting vitriol at her sloppiness, ‘sloth and disarray’.
The premise is knowingly, conspiracy-theory absurd. ‘Shitbird’ Otash, extorter of celebrities, ‘strongarm goon’ and consorter with corrupt cops, finds himself hired by Jimmy Hoffa to spy on Monroe and gather dirt about her affair with his nemeses, Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Monroe dies while the job is in full swing, propelling Otash into a position of precarity-cum-leverage between the LAPD and the Kennedys themselves (Bobby plays a central part and comes in for a lot of stick, while the ‘kahuna’ Jack gets only one scene). Buzzing in the background are the kidnap job Otash got mixed up in at the start and a combination of big and small cultural and political flashpoints: Elizabeth Taylor causing trouble on the set of Cleopatra, the LAPD’s brutal raid on a Nation of Islam mosque and the 1957 school segregation affair in Little Rock, which still casts a shadow. Monroe is joined by a cast of real and made-up celebrities: bit-part movie stars, singers, psychiatrists, mobsters and the Kennedy brothers’ sister Pat (with whom Otash is having an affair). Here, as elsewhere, Ellroy has fun lampooning B-listers, including Taylor’s fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, and Peter Lawford, a peripheral member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack and JFK’s brother-in-law, rumoured to have acted as a ‘presidential pimp’.
The countercultural period detail and the hum of paranoid rumour call to mind the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Ellroy’s character-crammed, free-associational ‘wild riff’ on the 1960s sometimes reads like a straighter version of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Bikini-clad girls audition for films about doing the twist; hip surfer