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The Meaning of Perfidia: James Ellroy’s New Novel

January 11, 2014

We now know a little bit more about the plot of James Ellroy’s forthcoming novel, but the significance of the title, Perfidia, has not, to my knowledge, been commented on. Put simply ‘perfidia’ is the Spanish word for perfidy, meaning treachery or betrayal. It is also the name of a very popular song by the Mexican composer Alberto Dominguez released in 1939. The impact of the song on popular culture has been huge. It has been recorded by artists such as Julie London, Glenn Miller and Nat King Cole to name just a few and has appeared on the soundtrack of many movies, notably Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1942). Ellroy has referenced the song before. In The Black Dahlia (1987), the lovers Kay Lake and Lee Blanchard dance to ‘Perfidia’ on New Year’s Eve, 1947. Their best friend Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert looks on, realising he has fallen in love with Kay:

On New Year’s Eve, we drove down to Balboa Island to catch Stan Kenton’s band. We danced in 1947, high on champagne, and Kay flipped coins to see who got last dance and first kiss when midnight hit. Lee won the dance, and I watched them swirl across the floor to “Perfidia,” feeling awe for the way they had changed my life. Then it was midnight, the band fired up, and I didn’t know how to play it.

Kay took the problem away, kissing me softly on the lips, whispering, “I love you, Dwight.” A fat woman grabbed me and blew a noisemaker in my face before I could return the words.

We drove home on Pacific Coast Highway, part of a long stream of horn-honking revelers. When we got to the house, my car wouldn’t start, so I made myself a bed on the couch and promptly passed out from too much booze. Sometime toward dawn, I woke up to strange sounds muffling through the walls. I perked my ears to identify them, picking out sobs followed by Kay’s voice, softer and lower than I had ever heard it. The sobbing got worse – trailing into whimpers. I pulled the pillow over my head and forced myself back to sleep.

Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake and Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert

Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake and Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert

‘Perfidia’ is an apt song for the complicated trinity of Bucky, Kay and Lee Blanchard. The lyrics refer to a love ripped apart by betrayal ‘To you my heart cries out “Perfidia” / For I find you, the love of my life / In somebody else’s arms’. The behaviour of Ellroy’s characters in the above quote suggests an unusual interaction and reliance on trade-offs. Bucky loses the dance but wins the kiss, and it is the kiss that is the most revealing, as Bucky now knows that his outwardly platonic friendship with Kay is anything but.

It might be tempting to think that as Ellroy was referencing ‘Perfidia’ in his work as far back as 1987, his plans for his latest novel started then. That would be over-reading however. Ellroy only decided to write a Los Angeles Quartet after the success of The Black Dahlia, and he has not revealed precisely when he decided to write Perfidia, the first novel of a Second LA Quartet which will be prequels to the original (although the short stories which appear in Hollywood Nocturnes (1994) are basically mini-prequels to the first Quartet, which suggests he has been toying with the idea for some time). I think it likely that Ellroy must have heard ‘Perfidia’ when he was growing up in LA in the 1950s, and it stayed with him. He referenced the song in The Black Dahlia and kept alive the idea he would return to it one day, and now he has. This reworking is somewhat similar to his use of the title The Cold Six Thousand, which was originally planned for the fourth Lloyd Hopkins novel, but after he abandoned that project, Ellroy used it fifteen years later as the title of the second novel in the Underworld USA trilogy.

Perfidia is due to be released in the autumn, Amazon has the exact date as 9 September. 

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