Confidentially, HE’S A BIT DARK
James Ellroy’s 14th novel unfolds in Los Angeles on the eve of Pearl Harbor – a world of crime, war-time fears and nihilistic abandon
Now Ellroy has embarked on a “second L.A. Quartet”, starting with Perfidia, a 697page tome that begins with the slaying of a Japanese family in Los Angeles the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The idea of interviewing Ellroy seems daunting. He has been called the “demon dog of literature”, “a hyperactive, shotgun-toting, trash-talking connoisseur of crime, women, and American history” and “cantankerous (yet still fascinating)”.
It’s also apparent he’s tired of being asked the same questions about his mother’s unsolved murder in El Monte, LA, in 1958 when he was 10 and his subsequent fascination with the unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, which became the basis for The Black Dahlia, the first novel in his L.A. Confidential series.
He covered that territory in his 1996 memoir My Dark Places, so when SA Weekend rings him at his LA home we focus on Perfidia and he’s gracious and forthcoming with his answers.
He says Perfidia is the result of a 700-page outline “preceded by copious research”.
“I hire researchers who compile factsheets and chronologies,” he says. “I knew the scale of it, the physical scale of it. I’ve always worked this way, with these large outlines. And it is in real-time, because Los Angeles, following the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, was an around-the-clock city.
“And the book is a binge. People are drinking, they are having wild love affairs and often with more than one person at a go, and there are great fistfights and big fear in the air, big racial hatred, big public outcry, people are smoking cigarettes constantly, boozing it up, taking pills and misbehaving.”
The book thrums with his idiomatic staccato style of short, rapid-fire sentences that form a labyrinthine plot.
Ellroy says he never answers questions about what is real and what’s not.
“I’m trying for a seamless verisimilitude. I know the period by instinct and inclination. Research allows me the latitude to fictionalise. I honestly don’t care how accurate it is, as long as it feels accurate to me.” Will historical points shock Americans? “The blithe collusion of the powers that be and the sense of opportunity that the internment of the Japanese provided is truly shocking in its deadpan fashion,” Ellroy says. “It’s understandable given geopolitics and the Japanese atrocities of the time.
Perfidia (the title comes from Glenn Miller’s 1941 hit song) is set before Bud White and Ed Exley’s time. But Exley’s father, Preston, an LAPD detective, is one of the 90 characters in the book, along with a young Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in the L.A. Confidential movie), and Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson in The Black Dahlia).
SA Weekend asks Ellroy, who has talked about his addiction to pursuing women, if Kay Lake is his type of woman.
“I’m completely beguiled by her, you’re right. And I loved writing from her viewpoint,” he says. “My sternest critic, my most devoted fan, and easily the most brilliant human being I’ve ever met is my second ex-wife, the novelist Helen Knode, and she’s reading Perfidia and she thinks Kay Lake is my most brilliant creation.”
Hideo Ashido, who was casually mentioned in The Black Dahlia, makes his debut in Perfidia as LAPD’s astute and indispensable chemist.
“Ashido is not outwardly charming. He’s unique in my canon in that he’s Japanese, in that he’s a closest homosexual and he reflects an earlier character of mine in The Big Nowhere in that regards,” Ellroy says.
“His cadences of speech are not American, even though he’s American and a native English speaker, and all of his movements, all of his dialogue took a lot of work.”
Ellroy says he is not trying to make any political point with Perfidia.
“When people ask the inevitable question, ‘Is the Japanese internment analogous to something occurring today?’ I tell them, no, you can look for topical relevance if you desire, but as far as I’m concerned, there is none, and history is an end in itself.”
He says he doesn’t feel compelled to keep up with the world and he doesn’t own a TV, DVD player, mobile phone or computer.
“In my case there was a tipping point where I just realised, you know what, I don’t like the world the way it is, right now. I’m just going to throw myself more assiduously into the world the way it used to be.” When he’s not writing, he broods. “I brood a lot. I lie in the dark and I think. I have done this all my life. Since I was seven or eight years old, I’d sit still on a couch, a chair, I’d lie in bed.
“I have a recliner, a modernistic thing in my office, and I just lie there and I brood.
“I talk to Helen, my second ex-wife on the phone every night, she’s in Colorado. I think about shit and what it means.
“I time travel in my mind.”