Musical Accompaniment: “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads
In retrospect, I probably wasn’t ready to fully appreciate Perfidia. For background, about five years ago, I tore through James Ellroy’s First L.A. Quartet over the course of a summer. I first got into them by way of Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential, which remains one of my favourite movies ever, and also through Brian de Palma’s ill-fated adaptation of The Black Dahlia, which I still don’t think is quite as bad as everyone says. I wanted to follow up by immediately reading the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which was just finishing up right around that time with the publication of Blood’s a Rover, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get ahold of the first two books, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. So I moved on to other things.
Perfidia makes me want to dive right back into Ellroy’s dark imaginings from the very beginning, and to finally follow up and track down the Underworld U.S.A. books. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, Ellroy’s (now) First L.A. Quartet charts the twisted, film noir-enfused world of the L.A.P.D. from right after the Second World War till the mid-1950s. Ellroy mixes real life events and personages from the era with the larger-than-life antics of a crew of ne’er do well bagmen, hoodlums and cronies who make up the benighted city’s police force, and also their opposite numbers in the city’s underworld. The Black Dahlia centres around the grisly real-life killing of Elizabeth Short, while The Big Nowhere (my favourite of the bunch) finds the city’s newly-formed Red Squad attempting to quash a Hollywood Communist cell. The aforementioned epic L.A. Confidential features three cops with nothing in common thrown together after a gangland slaying at an all-night diner while White Jazz is a stream-of-consciousness ride into hell with a cop-sanctioned assassin. Characters running through all four of these novels include Mickey Cohen, the real-life mob boss of L.A. (whose story can also be found in the fantastic non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin) and Dudley Smith, the crookedest goddamned cop in the city, memorably played in the film version of L.A. Confidential by the kindly-looking James Cromwell.
With Perfidia, Ellroy kicks off his Second L.A. Quartet, which will focus on the Second World War years in Los Angeles. The Ellroy universe is essentially kicked off by the discovery of a Japanese family horribly murdered in a relatively swank part of the city on December 6th, 1941. The condition of the bodies seems to indicate seppuku, the traditional suicide practice, but all semblance of normality in the admittedly unusual investigation flies off the handle the next day as the Japanese military attacks Pearl Harbor. Now, with war on everyone’s mind and internment for the city’s Japanese population on the horizon, the case takes on a whole new dimension as the police department’s useful cover for the racist anti-Japanese sentiment that sweeps the city. “Obviously the city cares about its Japanese citizens, look at the time and effort being put in to solve this horrible murder of their number!”, or at least that’s the idea anyway. The truth is a hell of a lot more complicated.
The story is related to us by four narrators: Hideo Ashida, a brilliant young American-born forensics expert, who finds himself in extremely dire straits once the war begins; Kay Lake, a dilettante artist who’s escaped from a hellish prostitution racket and shacked up with a crooked cop; Captain William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, ripped from real life as the alcoholic heir apparent to the L.A.P.D. chief, currently stuck managing the Traffic section; and last but not least, Dudley Smith, the mastermind behind many of the schemes that crop up later on in the First Quartet, at once charming with an Irish brogue and possessed of the most devious mind imaginable.
“That lad shouting racial slurs may be offending Dr. Ashida. Please take him somewhere secluded and kick the shit out of him.” – Dudley Smith
The impact of having Dudley Smith as a viewpoint character cannot be overstated. For readers like me who followed along with the hapless dupes who fall into his web throughout the First Quartet, this is essentially peeling back the curtain on things that were only rumored and briefly glimpsed across two books. If you’re familiar with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, imagine if the next book featured Lord Petyr Baelish, Littlefinger, as a main character, taking you step by step through his schemes against the Iron Throne. It’s kind of intense. He’s a Benzedrine-fuelled, super-cool Hollywood monster, a brilliant detective who on the one hand exists to fulfill Punisher-esque fantasies of instant justice for the worst people in the world, but on the other hand, cooks up plots of his own which are equally if not ten times as vile.
I do think that the Dudley-centric nature of the plot is potentially a bit of a downfall for Perfidia. You can tell that Ellroy loves the character, and he essentially plays on a whole different level than the other four narrators. For me, Dudley overshadows the rest of the cast, but this might also be dependent on whether or not you’ve read his later adventures, I’m not sure. His, and everyone else’s approach to the racism question is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The attitude Dudley takes towards someone like Dr. Ashida is one of convenience, of further pawns to be manipulated and cruelly dispatched as need be, with no thought given beyond what’s my next move. Sometimes he takes care of minorities, like his association with Ace Kwan, restauranteur and Tong chief, or in the above paragraph, but other times he threatens and cajoles until he gets what he wants.
Ellroy’s writing moves along at a fever pitch. Consider this scene, where Buzz Meeks, later to star in The Big Nowhere, shows a crowd of gawkers why they shouldn’t mess with a police investigation:
“He ran straight at the mob. He tore down cordon ropes. The blues stood back and supplied room. He hit a knot of sailors, low.
He pulled his belt sap and arced backhands. He came in low and stayed low. He went for their faces. He hit noses, he hit mouths, he hit skulls. The sailors froze. Their gawker comrades stood and watched.
Ashida watched. Meeks was a legendary sap man. His sap featured raised stitching and leather-laced lead.”
The fights and other action scenes are relayed through this calm yet completely descriptive narration. It’s tough to read sometimes, sure, but absolutely addictive and satisfying.
So when I said earlier that I probably wasn’t ready for Perfidia, I think that calls to mind to me the most challenging part of the book. The ideal reader will either be coming in completely cold on Ellroy, or be fully up to date on the events of the First Quartet and the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, as characters and events from these books are flung at you constantly throughout this narrative. I was neither of these things, sadly. Things that might be huge revelations come to light, but you might not understand the enormity of the situation without this prior knowledge. When various news sources were opining early this year that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks might be a bit much continuity for some to handle, I can’t imagine people who had trouble with that being able to keep Perfidia straight in their heads. Ellroy’s imagination is vast and dark, easily comparable to someone like George R.R. Martin, or a David Foster Wallace, and I think this could make Perfidia a little difficult to fully appreciate, at least it did for me.
Still, I am so happy to be back in the squalor and horror that is Ellroy’s Los Angeles. His bebop-lean writing and titanic plotting make Perfidia an instant classic for, addictively readable. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up in the Second Quartet.