Plenty of pieces in hard-boiled LA puzzle
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