James Ellroy’s prime crime starts a new LA Quartet: Perfidia
Review: His heavyweight 20th novel, set in Los Angeles on the eve of war, sees Ellroy synthesise all the writing registers he has perfected in his career
Photograph: Philippe Merle/AFP/Getty
Exposition first. Between 1987 and 1992 the Los Angeles-born crime writer James Ellroy published the LA Quartet, a sequence of four novels – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz – that propelled him to the forefront of US crime fiction. Many years before The Wire these stories cross-sectioned a naked city – Los Angeles in the golden age of noir – from the halls of power to the downtown police precincts, Hollywood salons, jazz clubs and vice dens. These were dark, dirty, breakneck-paced and stylistically sophisticated books, incorporating cop shorthand, hipster slang, autopsy reports and just about every manner of racial and sexual epithet known to man or beast.
LA Confidential, the third book in the series and Ellroy’s best-known work, due in part to Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation, inaugurated a signature staccato style that would influence younger guns such as David Peace and Ian Rankin. This hard-boiled telegrammatic lit rap was an innovation born of necessity: Ellroy’s editor had requested that he cut 100 pages from the manuscript without short-changing on plot or character. Ellroy responded by erasing all spare words.
The resulting rapid-fire approach reached its apex with Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy – American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover – which reconstructed American policy from 1958 to 1972 through the eyes of its hired assassins, wiretappers and bagmen. It was pacy, adrenalised and at times hard going – blink and you missed a vital plot point.
Now Ellroy has published Perfidia, his 20th book, and the first volume of a planned second LA Quartet. The original sequence spanned the prime noir years of 1946 to 1958; the second opens on December 6th, 1941, the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an event that precipitated US entry to the second World War. It’s a risky move: Ellroy at 66 is getting in the ring with Ellroy in his prime. The new novel serves as prequel and overture, reprising characters such as Dudley Liam Smith, the Jesuit-educated Irish republican clawing his way up the police department’s greasy pole; the ex-pugs and musclemen Lee Blanchard and Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart; the left-wing socialite Kay Lake; and “Whiskey” Bill Parker, a Mass-going Catholic, relapsed alcoholic and real-life LAPD chief of police from 1950. These are much more than cameos: Ellroy renders his characters’ origin stories at length and in detail. Consider this thumbnail sketch of Whiskey Bill as a young blow-in from Deadwood, South Dakota: LA was a hundred times bigger than Deadwood and a hundred times more corrupt. He worked as a movie usher and cabbie. LA’s sinfulness enraged him. The scale of the place drew him in. There was a horrible kid marriage. His bride was a trollop. He did vile things to her. He cannot say the woman’s name. He confessed his vile acts to a priest and received absolution. He got a church annulment and married again. Helen Schultz was a prudently chosen wife. She was an ex-policewoman. His first wife was a tawdry drunken dream. Helen was probity defined.
The most substantial new character is Hideo Ashida, a gifted police chemist of Japanese background who must negotiate the political minefield of a morally compromised and war-depleted police department while fending off threats of violence on streets aflame with wartime patriotism. His studious, bashful nature is in stark contrast to Ellroy’s standard creations: alpha-male rank and file, femmes fatales on the make.
The main story thrust derives from the ceremonial suicides (or ritual murders) of a Japanese immigrant family named the Watanabes. Around this seed event subplots accrue like iron filings on a magnet: tales of frame-ups, evidence suppression, fifth-column subterfuge and land-grab scams.
It’s complex stuff, even by Ellroy’s standards, exploring an LA underworld populated by Nazi fetishists, eugenics freaks, police-sanctioned pimps, plastic surgeons, pornographers and Hollywood lot abortionists (“scrape docs” in Ellroy’s parlance), not to mention city-hall stooges who view the US’s entry into the war as a Jewish consipracy. It would be disingenuous to say the author’s historical research is invisible, given that it powers the dramatic arc, but the old dog knows exactly how to contrast high-octane set pieces with expository fact-feed.
The question any aficionado will ask is: does it compare with prime Ellroy? The short answer is yes. Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it’s a heavyweight novel by any measure, but Ellroy mostly manages to broker a truce between his own writerly prejudices (prose pizazz, intense compression, density of social and historical information) and audience demands (plain old readability, character development, story impetus).
Perfidia’s scope permits – behoves – the author to synthesise all the writing registers he has perfected in his career, placing micro detail against macro backdrop. Los Angeles circa 1941 is portrayed as a city on the lip of the abyss. Since Pearl Harbor no one’s sleeping. Everyone’s bed hopping or hopped up on bennies and bourbon. When LAPD bosses aren’t interning Japanese immigrants or orchestrating busts to further their own political ambitions, they’re hurling themselves into booze-’n’-cooze binges, racing towards a vortical third act. It’s Ashida’s descent into the underworld, his gradual corruption, that provides the most pathos, invoking the stuff of classical tragedy.
Criticisms? Only one. Major characters often assume Ellroy’s own idiosyncratic voice, transparently functioning as author proxy, as in this from Kay Lake’s diary: I always do what I say I’m going to do. I formally state my intent and proceed from that point . . . I live a dilettante’s life now. My compulsive sketch artistry is a schoolgirl’s attempt to capture confounding realities . . . This diary is a broadside against stasis and unrest.
The seasoned Ellroy reader might write this off as a familiar tic; others might feel that the ventriloquist has been caught moving his lips. But this is a minor dent in formidable armour. Perfidia’s greatest achievement might be the style in which it renders history – subjective, fictionalised history, but history nonetheless – in lurid 3D colour. They should teach this stuff at school.