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

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - CRIME FICTION - Words blanche clark

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.”


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