Perfidia, by James Ellroy (Knopf)
The Gist: Twenty-two years after White Jazz, the final entry in his original “L.A. Quartet” of historical crime novels was published, James Ellroy storms back into bookstores with Perfidia, the first volume in a “Second L.A. Quartet” that he has described as an epic “grand romance of Los Angeles during World War II.” This prequel set of gritty, often brutal yarns will feature a blend of real-life characters with fictional ones, some of whom have been drawn from Ellroy’s previous works and will appear in these new books as their younger selves. As part of a review for The Seattle Times, novelist and prosecutor Mark Lindquist offers this synopsis of Perfidia’s story line:
On the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, [Hawaii,] a Japanese-American family is found dead. Either they committed a ritualistic suicide, or they were murdered. Los Angeles Police Department Police Chief William H. Parker from “LA Confidential,” who was the actual police chief of the LAPD from 1950 until 1966, appears as Captain William H. Parker and oversees the investigation. Hideo Ashida, a police chemist, and the only Japanese-American employee of LAPD, is assigned to work the case.What Else You Should Know: In a piece for the Los Angeles Times (in which I happen to be quoted), Scott Timberg describes Perfidia as “700 pages of ultra-violent, often frenetic police procedural, macho swagger, anti-Semitic broadcasts and racist rampage. It is told in real time, much of it between midnight and dawn, shaped by what Ellroy found in the historical record: a city raging at all hours, high on unchecked hedonism and bone-deep fear. … Ellroy’s novels are rarely sedate, but ‘Perfidia’--the title, which means ‘betrayal’ in Spanish, comes from the 1939 song--is more jittery and hopped-up than most. Reading Ellroy can be overwhelming in any setting, but the new novel might be incomprehensible without some sense of his earlier books. As bullets and fragments of teeth fly, numerous historical figures--Bette Davis, Joseph Kennedy--show up. Ellroy is more concerned with fitting his characters into the world he's created over his last seven novels than historical accuracy.” Writing in The New York Times, fellow crime novelist Dennis Lehane explains that in Perfidia, “Ellroy depicts a Los Angeles Police Department of order, if little law.
Kay Lake, from “The Black Dahlia,” appears as a 21-year-old adventuress learning her way around L.A. “I wanted to run away to Los Angeles and become someone else there … I was equal parts innocence and lunatic grit.” Kay’s chapters, written in first-person diary form, were among the most engaging for me, illuminating the motives and desires of the men who are intertwined by the investigation.
Beginning on Dec. 6, 1941, and unfolding in 23 days of real-time narration, “Perfidia” is a murder mystery, a subversive historical novel, and a dark meditation on power, politics, race and justice.
It polices the city with thuggery, racism and misogyny, its foot soldiers drunk either on power, alcohol, opium or speed. And while the endless and uncomfortable racial epithets feel true to the times and the men who utter them, the ceaseless “outing” of rumored homosexuals grows monotonous and, worse, predictable. Before I even saw the “Roosevelt” that followed “Eleanor,” I knew reference would be made to her rumored homosexual tendencies, and it was. Same went for Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant. The effect isn’t revelatory; it’s puerile.Ellroy is no angel as a person, and he can be downright cranky when asked to remark on the current state of American culture. The staccato style of prose-writing he has adopted over the years can come off as affected, and it wears uneasily on many readers (including yours truly). However, as Megan Abbott (The Fever) remarked several years ago in a piece for The Rap Sheet, Ellroy produces “sprawling, meaty, kaleidoscopic novels that take us on unforgettable, labyrinthine journeys into a simmering, epic Los Angeles (and Las Vegas and Miami and New York and Havana and Chicago ... but especially Los Angeles)--a city swelling at the seams with uncontrollable violence, deceit, self-deceit, predation, grief, self-hatred, dangerous bravado, and a deep, lingering sorrow over itself.” If you were taken with the hard-knuckled, persistently cynical literary wonders Ellory spun out in his first L.A. Quartet, it may be hard not to sign up for at least the opening novel in this second act.
The police are not knights, they’re occupiers, and in “Perfidia,” Ellroy comes closer than ever to making the case that he writes alt-histories not of the Los Angeles police but of the Los Angeles police state. Very early in the investigation, it’s deemed necessary for the war effort and the city’s mental well-being that a Japanese culprit be caught, tried, convicted and executed. And so the morally compromised Parker and the amoral [police detective Dudley] Smith fight for bragging rights to immorally “solve” a crime in the best interests of the city’s morale. As Parker and Smith circle the Watanabe murders and their connection to war and postwar profiteering, Ellroy depicts with frightening authenticity how those innocent of crimes are knowingly framed in the interest of the almighty “greater good.”
READ MORE: “James Ellroy,” by Ben Isaacs (ShortList); “Review: James Ellroy’s Perfidia a Perfect Start in New L.A. Quartet,” by Colette Bancroft (Tampa Bay Times); “How I Wrote It: James Ellroy, on WWII and His Second L.A. Quartet,” by Neal Thompson (Omnivoracious).