James Ellroy has long been one of America’s finest, most successful crime novelists. His 1990 masterwork L.A. Confidential cemented his place in the world of crime literature. His 2014 novel Perfidia follows in the same vein.
Perfidia opens in Los Angeles, December 6, 1941, the night before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Ellroy is a master of the ensemble cast, and this novel has a staggering four chief protagonists. Hideo Ashida is a talented forensic chemist with the LAPD; he is also Japanese-American, and the racial tensions that explode across L.A. after the bombing affect the course of his career. Dudley Smith is a corrupt LAPD detective. He is elegant, brutal, and viciously charming. Kay Lake is a suave dilettante: a former heroin addict, she now tries to ingratiate herself into the glamorous world of the LAPD. William “Whiskey Bill” Parker is the curveball: Parker became the real-life LAPD chief in 1950. Ellroy portrays him as a manipulative, morally-conflicted alcoholic. Each of these protagonists becomes intertwined with one another over the course of the novel, resulting in a beautifully labyrinthine plot.
Indeed, Ellroy’s plotting is perhaps the apex of his genius. A string of drugstores are robbed by a junkie with a Nazi Luger. A Japanese family is brutally murdered in an upscale suburb. A secret cell of the L.A. elite distribute seditious Communist propaganda. And, of course, Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese. All of these events are intricately explored by Ellroy and his protagonists, and the author masterfully ties them all together into one cohesive, coherent thrill ride.
Another of Ellroy’s great talents is his ability to deftly weave fact into his fiction. Bill Parker is, of course, a real-life individual, but other famous (and infamous) historical figures abound. Dudley Smith has a crush on movie star Bette Davis and chauffeurs a young John F. Kennedy around town. He also brokers deals with film studio executives like Harry Cohn. Hideo encounters J. Edgar Hoover. Kay Lake meets a drunken Leonard Bernstein at a party. Other real-life characters – often embellished for the purposes of Ellroy’s narrative – include gangster Mickey Cohen and his associate Brenda Allen, former LAPD chief Jim “Two Gun” Davis, and a host of movie stars such as Joan Crawford.
Perfidia is a brutal novel. Violence is commonplace in Ellroy’s world, and it is often hellish. The complex, labyrinthine plot has a feverish feel at times. But Perfidia is also a beautiful novel. Kay Lake’s relationship with the young, chivalrous Scotty Bennett has all the hallmarks of a classic romance. Dudley Smith’s crush on Bette Davis reveals the ordinarily-volatile detective’s softer, more innocent side. And amidst the fever-pitch racism Ellroy’s prose is also a source of beauty. He writes in short, staccato sentences that function to simultaneously clarify and beautify his carefully crafted vision of L.A. He has been writing this way ever since the publication of L.A. Confidential in 1990. Evidently, his editor told him he needed to shorten the (lengthy) novel by about 100 pages. Rather than eliminate any characters or subplots, Ellroy combed through his work and excised every word he deemed unnecessary (Rich). This resulted in what is now considered his trademark style.
Ellroy has almost always set his fiction in Los Angeles. He rose to prominence with his L.A. Quartet, a series of four loosely-connected novels spanning the late 1940’s to the very end of the 1950’s. The original L.A. Quartet is comprised of The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. Both L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia were adapted for film, in 1997 and 2006, respectively, and L.A. Confidential was nominated for numerous Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and won Best Adapted Screenplay. Perfidia is the beginning of an intended second L.A. Quartet, which is supposed to take place in the early-mid 1940’s and lead up to the events of the original L.A. Quartet. Perfidia was published in 2014 and, as of yet, Ellroy has not yet followed it up with another novel. He has, however, been working on several collections of short stories and an historical “coffee-table book” entitled L.A.P.D. ’53, which is a collection of photos from the LAPD archives annotated by Ellroy. He is also in talks with HBO to develop a television series with David Fincher. In 2015, Ellroy was given the Grandmaster Award by the Mystery Writers of America.
Perfidia is a masterful novel. The plot is complex enough that it demands at least a second read, and the prose is brilliant enough that the second read is a joy. Ellroy’s characters, however, stand out above all else. Despite his vicious nature, Dudley Smith is one of the most compelling characters in the world of fiction – his Irish charm deftly strong-arms the reader into liking him, even as he commits brutal injustices. Kay Lake and Bill Parker are both enigmas, and it is in them that Ellroy finds room to play philosopher: Lake’s compassion and zeal for life stand in stark contrast to Parker’s cynicism and calculating nature. And Hideo Ashida is the heart of the novel. He is the most sympathetic character of them all, despite being a marginalized minority: Ashida is both Japanese and homosexual. Yet this timid, out-of-place little chemist earns the respect, and even trust, of both the novel’s chief male figures, Parker and Smith, and the friendship of Lake. Amidst the ugliness and inherent brutality of the world and reality, Ellroy seems to suggest that there is still beauty. Ellroy’s magnum opus will always be L.A. Confidential, but Perfidia is its direct heir.
Overall, Perfidia is an intimate, hellish, glamorous tour of War-time L.A. The style, characters, and plot are all superb. The novel’s length may be daunting to some readers, and the caveat posted below should not be taken lightly; but if you can stomach the violence and language and sustain the almost-800-page length, you will find Perfidia is a brutal, beautiful American novel written by a literary master.
James Ellroy’s website can be found here.
*Caveat: Perfidia contains strong, graphic descriptions of violence; frequent strong profanity; and instances of lewd sexual references.*
Ellroy, James. Perfidia. Vintage, 2015.
Rich, Nathaniel. “James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201.” The Paris Review. 11/28/2017. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5948/james-ellroy-the-art-of-fiction-no-201-james-ellroy.