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Perfidia – A Web of Connections

January 15, 2015

PerfidiaIn Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (2006) Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss created a highly impressive chart they titled ‘Los Angeles 1935-1950: A Web of Connections’ which ‘situates Black Dahlia murder suspect George Hodel within the culturally elite circles of Los Angeles at the time of the murder and illustrates the close geographical proximity of the central characters in our book.’

After completing my second reading of James Ellroy’s Perfidia, I’m beginning to see more clearly how Ellroy has devised his own web of connections within his body of work as a crime novelist. Nelson and Bayliss explored the potential connections of figures such as Man Ray and John Huston to the Black Dahlia case, building upon the work of former LAPD detective Steve Hodel. With Perfidia, Ellroy has embarked upon a second LA Quartet, preceding the first Quartet chronologically, which, in its myriad plotting, forges fictional links between Bette Davis and the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short. Many of Ellroy’s old and new characters will be linked in the new Quartet which will spur readers and critics to reexamine Ellroy’s previous work in light of these narrative developments. Here are some of the specific connections:

Ellroy’s decision to make Elizabeth Short the illegitimate daughter of Dudley Smith was for me one of the biggest surprises of the novel. In Clandestine (1982), Ellroy’s second novel, Dudley Smith describes how while investigating the Black Dahlia murder he arranged for a cadaver of a young woman to be presented before a group of known lunatics and violent criminals. He dyes the corpse’s hair black to make her look more like Miss Short in the hope of provoking a reaction from one of the men, who would then inadvertently reveal himself to be the murderer ‘I was looking for a reaction so vile, so unspeakable, that I would know that this was the scum that killed Beth Short’. In The Black Dahlia the same scene appears but without Dudley Smith. Smith is not a character in The Black Dahlia because Ellroy feared Smith’s outwardly Irish persona would draw parallels with John Gregory Dunne’s Dahlia novel True Confessions (1977), which is in part an examination of Irish-American culture. But this leaves Ellroy in a tricky situation for the upcoming Quartet novels if he wants to be consistent with the fictional universe of The Black Dahlia. How can a character as demonic, relentless and compelling as Dudley Smith not be involved in the investigation of the murder of his illegitimate daughter?

Perfidia links to Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy through such characters as J. Edgar Hoover, Ward Littell and Scotty Bennett. There is also the wider issue of Ellroy’s fascination with archives. Hoover’s death in 1972 and the fate of his archive of files  is the climax of Blood’s a Rover (2009). Kay Lake’s first diary entry in Perfidia is preceded with the line ‘COMPILED AND CHRONOLOGICALLY INSERTED BY THE LOS ANGELES POLICE MUSEUM‘. If this is the beginning of a link to Hoover’s archive of files we can see Ellroy’s intention for the two Quartet series and the Underworld USA trilogy to be read as one long, continuous secret history. Essentially, a fictional archive of sources.

Ellroy originally planned for Dudley Smith to fall in love with Ellroy’s mother Geneva Hilliker. That would have linked the Quartet to Ellroy the author, outside of his fiction, and potentially, if he wanted the plotline to question Ellroy’s parentage, triggered a rereading of his memoirs My Dark Places (1996) and The Hilliker Curse (2010). Ellroy revised his plans. However, in this interview with Chris Wallace, Ellroy claims that he originally planned for William H. Parker to have an affair with his Geneva Hilliker in the novel:

My original plan was to base Joan Conville, the navy nurse in Perfidia, on my mother, Jean Hilliker—righteous Jean Hilliker. And she and Parker [Los Angeles chief of police from 1950 to 1966, William H. Parker, a central character in Perfidia] have an affair the next book. But, do you really want to have Whiskey Bill Parker fucking your mother? Haven’t we had enough of this woman?

Conville is an enigmatic, haunting character, a ‘ghostly redhead’ as Ellroy calls her, who is referenced by Parker throughout the novel but never seen. The name Conville struck a distant chord and I reached for my dogeared copy of The Black Dahlia. The resolution to the mystery in the novel lies in the skewered bloodlines of the grotesque Sprague family. There is the patriarch Emmett Sprague who has two daughters, Madeleine and Martha. Madeleine is actually the illegitimate daughter of Emmett’s wife Ramona Cathcart Sprague and Georgie Tilden (Emmett’s former business associate). Martha is Emmett’s natural daughter, and her full name is Martha McConville Sprague.

Martha McConville/Joan Conville. It could be overreading or coincidence but I wonder if there is a connection between the characters which will be developed in later novels. According to this surname database Conville has quite an interesting genesis, ‘this unusual surname is of Irish origin, and is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic “MacConmhaoil”, the prefix “mac” denoting son of, plus the personal name “Conmhaoil”, composed of the elements “cu” meaning hound.’

In short, Son of the Hound, or perhaps Demon Dog?

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2015 10:57 pm

    Reblogged this on Crimezine and commented:
    Thoughts on James Ellroy’s masterwork Perfidia by Ellroy expert Steve Powell

    • January 17, 2015 9:30 am

      Thanks Tony. It’s been fun to reread the text and spot new connections. I may be doing this for some time.

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