If James Ellroy had never existed, someone would have to invent him. Otherwise, where would we get all these great big, uncompromising novels, allowing us our fix of voyeuristic peeks inside the bowels of historical sacred cows? No one else out there is doing anything even remotely similar.
I met Ellroy a few years ago when he was touring to promote Blood’s A Rover, the final installment in his Underworld USA Trilogy. Since this trilogy seemed to wrap up the 1946-72 era he exposed in those three novels and the LA Quartet of novels which preceded them, I asked him what he had planned next. Without missing a beat, he said, “A romance novel.”
Well, I guess Perfidia (Knopf) is as close as Ellroy is ever going to get to a romance novel (about as close as David Goodis got to a happy ending when he polished off Cassidy’s Girl). You could say there are romantic elements to it, but don’t let that fool you. This isn’t going to win any RWA awards. Beyond the romance undertones, what you get is vintage Ellroy: rogue cops, seamy Hollywood types, LA in turmoil … oh, and Japs. Plenty of Japs. In fact, Part 1 of the book is titled “The Japs”.
Perfidia opens in LA on December 6, 1941, and when the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor occurs the next day, Los Angeles goes into (or tries to go into) lockdown mode, but frenzy and racial paranoia prevail. Japs are rounded up, a few are killed here and there, and eventually, the whole city slides into uncontrollable chaos.
This book is the first installment in a new quartet of novels that will span the years 1941-46, a sort of prequel to the LA Quartet, giving Ellroy a total of eleven novels which, taken as a whole, blow apart virtually every preconceived notion of American history during the era of 1941-72. The reader is aware that if any of Perfidia‘s characters had acted even slightly differently at any single moment, all of history which followed would have been very different, so intertwined were their actions.
As with all of the other novels in this group, Perfidia is far too ambitious to be held together by a single central character. This time out, there are four: Power-hungry LAPD captain William H Parker, who is grooming himself to step up to the position of Chief; Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese-American on the LAPD and one of their top forensic specialists; Kay Lake, idealistic pinko and the object of several men’s affections; and LAPD sergeant Dudley Smith, Irish immigrant tough guy with a Bette Davis fixation, and who has justified in his own mind the execution of any inconvenient individuals who may get in his way.
The book is filled with familiar characters, big and small, real and fictional, whom Ellroy readers may recognize from their appearances in one or more of the other Quartet/Trilogy novels. In fact, the author includes a reference list in the rear of the novel explaining who the characters are, whether or not they are fictional, and in which novel(s) they previously appeared. A nice little touch, if I do say so myself.
To a certain degree, Ellroy has reined in his rat-a-tat-tat narrative style which reached its zenith in Blood’s A Rover. Readers will find a few more complete sentences than they might expect, making for a somewhat less-jarring experience. This self-imposed restraint, however, does not diminish the power of his prose or of his story.
For a novel as sprawling as Perfidia, its timeline surprisingly occupies only about three weeks in December, 1941. Ellroy has the unique ability to pack action and provocative dialogue into virtually every minute of time. But make no mistake, this book is unquestionably setting the stage for a behemoth World War II-era storyline that will usher the reader into 1946 and the beginnings of The Black Dahlia, the first of the LA Quartet.
Recommendation: Buy it. Perfidia is a triumph in every sense of the word. Besides, any book where Bette Davis murmurs “Kill a Jap for me” has got to be worth reading.