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Perfidia Reviews – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

October 13, 2014

PerfidiaPerfidia has been out for a while now and many James Ellroy fans will have read it and formed a judgment. Personally, I thought it was a strong novel and an improvement on its predecessor Blood’s a Rover (2009), but reading what the other critics have said makes me think I’m in the minority. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of critics praised the book. It’s just that the praise felt a bit muted and the criticism more prolonged than Ellroy has come to expect. I wonder if this is the beginning of critical opinion turning against Ellroy. I think that would be an over-reaction, but to give you a sense of what I mean, I’ve compiled an overview of the mixed comments that came from reviewers.

Barry Forshaw, usually an Ellroy admirer, describes Perfidia as ‘the Finnegans Wake of crime novels’ and ‘for diehard enthusiasts only; the casual reader will melt away.’ However, he does add ‘at least Ellroy is still trying to expand the parameters of the crime novel – and perhaps we must pay him the compliment of cracking the prismatic (but exhilarating) prose that is his speciality.’

Forshaw acknowledges that Ellroy broke free of genre boundaries in his previous work, but as this is a return to the Los Angeles-set  noir that Ellroy had sworn he’d left behind, can the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction effectively live up to the standards he created for the genre? Dennis Lehane, whose themes of political corruption and of a criminal underworld often mirror Ellroy’s work, writes that some of the old motifs are looking tired:

while the endless and uncomfortable racial epithets feel true to the times and the men who utter them, the ceaseless “outing” of rumored homosexuals grows monotonous and, worse, predictable. Before I even saw the “Roosevelt” that followed “Eleanor,” I knew reference would be made to her rumored homosexual tendencies, and it was. Same went for Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant. The effect isn’t revelatory; it’s puerile.

But he’s more positive about the return of Dudley Smith and Ellroy’s ability to work magic with his most famous character:

In Dudley Smith, Ellroy has found the hellhound guide for his neon-noir Los Angeles underbelly. Smith, a demon removed from any concept of restraint, says at one point: “I destroy those I cannot control. I must be certain that those close to me share my identical interests. I’m benevolent within that construction. I’m ghastly outside of it.” Smith casts the same shadow over “Perfidia” that Judge Holden cast over Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” He’s writ large and writ evil, a monolith of corruption and utilitarian expediency. But unlike what Ellroy did with Smith’s previous appearances, here he sets his sights, to varying degrees of success, on the devil’s heart and the ways in which satanic charms often coexist with paternal benevolence. For Smith engenders loyalty as much as he does fear. In a world as sordid and chaotic as the one Ellroy depicts, the simple purity of Smith’s evil attains a kind of nobility.

Writing in the Seattle Times, Mark Lindquist is mostly positive, describing the novel as a ‘great read’ and hailing the return of Kay Lake as ‘the most engaging for me, illuminating the motives and desires of the men who are intertwined by the investigation.’ But he adds that this is unlikely to win Ellroy any new fans with so much of the narrative connected not just to the original LA Quartet, but also to the Underworld USA trilogy: ‘Your appreciation of Ellroy’s unabashed attempt at the Great American Novel will depend, in part, on your familiarity with his oeuvre.’

On Amazon the reader reviews have been more unambiguously positive, with one reviewer comparing Ellroy’s work favourably to Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. Surely the biggest compliment a historical novelist could hope for.

In the Guardian, Edward Docx is similarly awestruck, describing Perfidia as ‘a genuinely impressive feat of sustained literary energy: 90% of novelists couldn’t get anywhere near it.’ And yet Docx senses a certain inverse proportion to Ellroy’s writing. For all the brilliance of the stylistic experiments, they appear to be in equal parts maddening, a problem not helped by Ellroy’s now inescapable literary persona:

Great novelists disappear so that their characters no longer seem to partake in their creator’s sensibilities but instead become real unto themselves and thus to the reader. But Ellroy cross-infects his cast list with such similar traits and strains that they begin to flatten into collage rather than come forward as people.

The baffling contradiction of Ellroy’s persona is that he can criticise his past work in a way that bolsters his confidence about the new novels. Forshaw states that Ellroy ‘disowned’ The Cold Six Thousand (2001) before Blood’s a Rover was released. In a recent interview with Craig McDonald at the Iowa City Book Festival, Ellroy emphatically stated that his second novel Clandestine, which features Dudley Smith and references to the Black Dahlia case, does not fit into his new larger Quartet narrative. I wonder why any author would be so scathing of their past work when they’ll always be critics happy to do that for you, and what does it do to your sales when potential readers think you don’t believe in your own work?

The answer, I suspect, is that for Ellroy no standards of writing are too high. He’s already reinvented the genre several times, but with Perfidia and the Second LA Quartet, he’s come back for one more go.

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