Perfidia – Review
James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia begins with a ‘Thunderbolt Broadcast’ on K-L-A-N Radio. The salacious gossip, casual bigotry, hyperbolic and alliterative language will be familiar to Ellroy readers who remember the Hush-Hush tabloid articles which appeared in the novels of the first Los Angeles Quartet. For this second Quartet, Ellroy begins by implying he’s going to give us the Ellrovian style we have grown to love but not how we have come to expect it.
Los Angeles, December, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has brought America into the war. The Japanese of LA, as American as any other immigrant group, are suddenly designated ‘enemy aliens’ and are about to suffer the indignity of internment. The LAPD’s top police chemist, Hideo Ashida, is given an exemption on the grounds of his exceptional skills and usefulness in investigating a brutal murder of a Japanese family of four, which the killer has designed to look like a seppuku. Ashida has conflict raging inside him. Guilt-ridden at how he has avoided the fate of his fellow Japanese-Americans, Ashida is quiet and precise but burning with attraction for the sultry Kay Lake. Japanese by temperament, Ashida is nevertheless fully aware he’s part of a Noir world and in love with its danger: ‘He chose this male world. He’s learning its customs and codes. It’s unbearably thrilling.’ From a quadruple murder, Ellroy weaves a typically complex plot involving eugenics and plastic surgery, red-baiting and Japanese hating, internment and shady property deals and, bizarrely, rumours of a Japanese submarine off the west coast. As a prequel, all the old stars of the Quartet are here: Dudley Smith, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert. I was also pleased to see the return of more minor characters such as Saul Lesnick, Nort Layman and Sid Hudgens, not to mention characters from the Underworld USA trilogy. Be warned, if you’ve never been inclined to prequels you probably won’t enjoy Perfidia. As a lifelong Ellroy reader, I enjoyed many of the incidental pleasures the novel provides. Ellroy fans will delight in connecting the dots from previous books. Incest has often been a theme in Ellroy’s work but here the writing feels incestuous. I couldn’t decide whether he went too far with a few details, such as the connection between Dudley Smith and Elizabeth Short. However, there is plenty of fully original material here to complement the revisionism of his regular Quartet characters. Ashida is a compelling figure, and Ellroy’s portrayal of future LAPD Chief William H. Parker, who is equally brilliant and inadequate in everything he does, ranks among his best writing.
With Perfidia, Ellroy has proved once again he is a master of historical fiction. This is World War Two told as Noir. Ellroy strips away the hindsight the reader has in viewing history. No character has any contrived understanding of what the future holds for their country. Instead there is paranoia and drug-induced madness. Dudley Smith hits on the uncertainty everyone feels when he quotes Shakespeare:
The bay trees in our country are all withered
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven.
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change.
This is another reference to an earlier Ellroy novel, but not from the Quartet, the quotation served as the epigraph for Ellroy’s novel Blood on the Moon (1984). Ellroy was an almost unknown crime writer when he wrote that novel. Now he is perhaps the most famous crime writer in the world. Perfidia didn’t quite leave me as moved or thrilled as his best novels such as The Big Nowhere (1988) and American Tabloid (1995), but I was gripped nonetheless, and by the last page I was left eagerly wanting more in what is bound to be an incredible Second Quartet.