Thursday, February 25, 2016
FFB: Perfidia by James Ellroy
This big, 700-page novel is another rocket ride through the mean streets of old Los Angeles. James Ellroy calls it the first book of his second Los Angeles Quartet.
His first quartet was made up of the novels The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.
Like them, Perfidia is about crime, crooked cops, celebrities and wannabes. Also like his previous novels, this one’s intricately plotted story follows several characters as they weave their way in and out of each other's lives. At the center of the story is the murder of a Japanese-American family on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Set in December, 1941, Perfidia is a prequel to the first set of L.A. novels.
The sneak attack so inflames Los Angeles, according to Ellroy, that all the rules go out the window. Danger is everywhere and the police do anything they want to solve crimes, catch spies and punish anyone in their way.
Dudley Smith, of the Police Department (a key character in L.A. Confidential), Kay Lake (who appeared in The Black Dalhia), and Hideo Ashida, a Japanese-American scientist working for the LAPD, and many others cross paths in Perfidia as they become involved in the murder case. The investigation widens out to include hate mongers, gangsters, dope addicts, and upstanding citizens ruthlessly buying up and developing Los Angeles County. No one is a hero in an Ellroy book. No one has clean hands. Some try to wash away their sins. Most use their personal crimes as stepping stones to what they want.
Told in his usual punchy style of short sentences, Ellroy paints a vivid, if very ugly picture of L.A. at a particular moment in history. His writing is a snappy, jazzy shorthand that is part Damon Runyun, part Walter Winchell, part Louis Armstrong. The effect is a fast, wicked and brutal police procedural.
Reviewers of the book compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and I agree with them. McCarthy’s book was the darkest western I had ever read. Ellroy’s is the darkest noir.
Perfidia is so dark that noir seems an inappropriate term, recalling the lush L.A. of Raymond Chandler. Ellroy’s version of noir is pitch black and the only light is from the fires of a riot or the bowl of an opium pipe.
(For more forgotten, or not to be forgotten books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)