Book review of James Ellroy’s Perfidia, Penguin, 2014
In the age of sail it was an acceptable ruse de guerre to sneak up on an enemy ship flying his own colours as camouflage to get oneself to a position advantageous to a swift and successful assault; but to fail to run up one’s own colours before actually attacking and attempting to kill or seize the prize was ungentlemanly conduct known as perfidy.
The theme was applied to love and betrayal by Mexican composer Alberto Domiguez for his song Perfidia which became a 1940 hit for Xavier Cugat, band-leader at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City during WWII – and now crime noire don James Ellroy has employed it as the treacherous heart of his latest novel, Perfidia, revolving around Japanese fifth-column activity in LA in the weeks after Pearl Harbour.
In tune with this age’s fascination for prequel narratives of popular works, Perfidia lays the groundwork for Ellroy’s LA Quartet of novels: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz. Of those, the first three – Dahlia and Confidential were made into compelling films – are masterful but the final volume runs out of steam and appears to lose its way off the central narrative.
That is despite the fact that the central figure in the last three novels is former IRA gunman turned brutal LA policeman on the make Captain Dudley Smith, a great literary creation at the nexus of the torsion between shady cops and the criminal underworld of 1946-1958 Los Angeles.
But in Perfidia, which covers only 6-29 December 1941, the Dudster, then just a sergeant, is on the rise, exploiting his confessional ties to JFK’s bootlegging father Joe Kennedy, to Chinese tong boss Uncle Ace Kwan, and to Mexican blackshirt state policeman Carlos Madrano, his killer instinct honed by a racist and yet entirely opportunistic Irish Catholicism, and abetted by a deliciously droll patter delivered in a seductive brogue.
Many other Quartet figures find their first breath here, but one stellar entry who only passes by in The Black Dahlia is 21-year-old Midwestern farmgirl Kay Lake, an arriviste ingénue and quick-study whose penetrating personal diary forms the connecting tissue of the narrative. Lake’s pitiless yet charming self-assessments of her own perfidy are stunning and deliver a nuanced, flawed, dynamic character worthy of big screen treatment.
Ditto for the rapid evolution of the moral ambivalence of closeted young queer Japanese police forensics buff Dr Hideo Ashida, desperate to prove his worth to bad men like Sergeant Smith in order to gain protection for his brother Akira and their drunken, Tojo-supporting mother Mariko as it swiftly becomes clear the country’s Japanese population are headed for mass wartime internment.
For Ellroy fans, although his inimitable blend of fictional and true-life characters remains, there are several departures from his usual style. For one thing, James Ellroy is the anti-James Lee Burke; where Burke’s denouements resolve high dudgeon with an unusual quietness, Ellroy is infused with the Götterdämmerung of his native Hollywood and his novels end not with a whimper but a bang – yet here, the key mystery of the novel – who murdered the fifth columnist Watanabe family, trying to make it appear like a family suicide, and how is this linked to plans to profiteer from the looming mass internments – is resolved with somewhat unseemly, almost offhanded speed.
Then, apart from Lake’s diary, Ellroy’s usual technique of using FBI memos and other quasi-documentary snippets to link the narrative are gone. And despite the fact that the entire book is driven by a visceral exploration of post-Pearl Harbour anti-Japanese animus, often referencing a then-still-potent domestic and international fascism, Ellroy has tempered the racist language that marked – some would argue, marred – all his other works, in particular the brilliant Underworld USA Trilogy which covers the dramatic seven years from 1958-1972 covering the JFK assassination and its aftermath from the perspectives of them what done it. Perfidia is not quite up to the Trilogy’s standard, but will prove more than satisfactory to those readers hungry for a foretaste of the characters that made three-quarters of the LA Quartet great.