Plenty of pieces in hard-boiled LA puz­zle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - JP O’Mal­ley

Per­fidia By James Ell­roy Wil­liam Heine­mann, 697pp, $32.99 IN his two most suc­cess­ful se­ries of books, the Un­der­world USA Tril­ogy and the LA Quar­tet, which in­clude popular ti­tles such as Amer­i­can Tabloid, The Black Dahlia and LA Con­fi­den­tial, James Ell­roy brings an ob­ses­sion with con­spir­acy the­o­ries, para­noia, sub­ver­sion, mur­der, sex and power to his own rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of mid-20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can his­tory.

Per­fidia, Ell­roy’s 14th novel, is the first book of the Sec­ond LA Quar­tet. It places real life and fic­tional char­ac­ters from his pre­vi­ous work in Los An­ge­les dur­ing World War II.

The novel is set over 24 days, from De­cem­ber 6 to De­cem­ber 31, 1941. Just mo­ments be­fore the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in Hawaii on De­cem­ber 7, a Ja­panese fam­ily is found dead in a house in LA. What is first thought to be a group sui­cide turns into a homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

As Amer­ica en­ters the war and anti-Ja­panese hys­te­ria grips LA, which has the most prom­i­nent Asian pop­u­la­tion in the US, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and cor­rupt LAPD chiefs are de­ter­mined to find a Ja­panese scape­goat to suit their nar­ra­tive of anti-fas­cist pro­pa­ganda.

Ell­roy de­vel­ops a mon­stros­ity of a plot sup­ported by mul­ti­ple story-lines. One sees a se­cret in­for­mant called Kay Lake be­ing put on the LAPD’s pay­roll. She in­fil­trates a group of Holly-

Septem­ber 13-14, 2014 wood left­ists in­volved in un­pa­tri­otic ac­tiv­i­ties.

We also learn the US gov­ern­ment is at­tempt­ing to set up in­tern­ment camps in Cal­i­for­nia, where Ja­panese cit­i­zens will be treated as sci­en­tific re­search sub­jects in spe­cial eu­genic lab­o­ra­to­ries and racial pro­fil­ing cen­tres. For­mer FBI di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover plays a cru­cial role in this part of the story.

But the man Ell­roy ded­i­cates most time to in Per­fidia is a hard-drink­ing Ir­ish wom­an­iser, LAPD po­lice sergeant Dud­ley Smith. When he is not booz­ing with the up­per ech­e­lons of the Catholic Church after con­fes­sion, Smith is mak­ing jokes and is­su­ing or­ders at the scene of a crime. Or he’s show­ing an im­pres­sion­able but sex­u­ally cu­ri­ous Jack Kennedy the volup­tuous women Hol­ly­wood has to of­fer. Smith chases his way through the day with cig­a­rettes, cof­fee, am­phet­a­mines, the oc­ca­sional opium hit or a mo­ment in bed with ac­tress Bette Davis. We learn he fled to LA from Dublin dur­ing the Ir­ish War of In­de­pen­dence in the 1920s. Both his fa­ther and brother were shot dead by the Bri­tish Army, while his mother died from al­co­holism.

But this to­ing and fro­ing be­tween Smith’s trau­matic Ir­ish past and his new life in LA as a cop is, I feel, un­nec­es­sary, con­trived and un­con­vinc­ing. More­over, given the novel’s con­stant sense of im­me­di­acy, it seems un­evenly bal­anced against the rest of the nar­ra­tive.

That said, Ell­roy’s great­est strength is his con­sis­tency of tone. The sen­tences in Per­fidia groove along the page, Ell­roy’s min­i­mal­ist-beat­nik style mov­ing with all the grace and rhythm of a Miles Davis record. He has a se­ri­ous gift for di­a­logue and his use of hard-boiled no-non­sense street slang is es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive. When he tells us “traf­fic was f..ked-up from here to king­dom come”, he con­veys a whole load of at­ti­tude in just one sen­tence.

With dead­pan cool­ness he in­te­grates huck­sters, hip­sters, whores, pimps, femmes fa­tale, crooked cops, movie stars and pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal fig­ures into a recog­nis­able sleazy mi­lieu. It’s easy to see why his nov­els make such a seam­less tran­si­tion into Hol­ly­wood block­busters.

But if this is what has made Ell­roy such an orig­i­nal and recog­nis­able nov­el­ist it also has put lim­i­ta­tions on his crafts­man­ship. The more one wades through Per­fidia, page after page, the more it be­gins to feel like a tri­umph of style over sub­stance. This is pri­mar­ily be­cause we are not given ad­e­quate time — para­dox­i­cal given the book is just shy of 700 pages — to get close to the 87 sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ters who pop­u­late this epic crime saga.

Ell­roy is an ex­tremely tal­ented writer with a cred­i­ble body of work. But the lack of de­vel­op­ment, in­sight, depth or at­ten­tion to de­tail in his highly stylised noir crime-fic­tions — which aim to shock, dis­turb and amuse simultaneously — makes it hard to embrace him with un­con­di­tional love.

Strong on di­a­logue but sketchy on character study James Ell­roy


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