When James Ellroy’s Perfidia was first released in 2014, it’s fair to say that my initial reaction was one of slight disappointment. That is not to say that it is a bad novel – it isn’t. In fact, I enjoyed the book and it was certainly an improvement on Ellroy’s previous effort Blood’s a Rover. Yet, for some reason I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel hadn’t quite lived up to my expectations. So was it that my expectations were too high? Or did Perfidia indeed fail to match the incredibly high standards set by some of Ellroy’s previous work?
Having recently worked on an article examining the complex representation of race in Ellroy’s novels, I found myself revisiting Perfidia for a second time. Straight away I can say this was a much more rewarding experience. Ellroy’s convoluted plotting, ‘real time’ narration and duplicitous characters certainly seem to benefit from a second appraisal. His depiction of an historical Los Angeles fraught with wartime hysteria is more vivid and engrossing second time around and the connections that he establishes between Perfidia and his previous works are doubly intriguing.
At the same time, this second reading also produced an adverse effect. It further crystallised some of my initial reservations, potently solidifying the underlying issues with certain aspects of the novel’s plotting and characterisation.
Perfidia represents the first volume in Ellroy’s planned ‘Second L.A. Quartet’, and sees a return to Los Angeles as the spatial and psychic epicentre of his work. Serving as prequels to his previous historical novels, this planned new series of books will revisit characters – as significantly younger people – from both the original ‘Quartet’ and the ‘Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy’, as Ellroy looks to furnish his already epic fictional history of the United States with greater depth and detail, creating one continuous and dialogic, novelistic history. The novel opens in 1941. The Japanese bombers have just attacked Pearl Harbor leaving America on the precipice of war. Gripped by war fever, the city of Los Angeles is thrown into turmoil, as Japanese Americans are indiscriminately rounded up and interned by the LAPD.
Meanwhile, the violently mutilated bodies of a Japanese American family of four – the Watanabes – are discovered strewn across the “blood-soaked, blood-immersed” living room floor of their suburban house. Staged like a ‘seppuku’ style ritual suicide, certain inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in the case evidence point to homicide. Enter Hideo Ashida. A gifted police chemist, Ashida is granted special dispensation due to his expertise and value to the force. Ashida is by far the most conflicted character in the text. Racked with guilt due to his association with the LAPD (a violent institution of white social power ruthlessly subjugating fellow Japanese Americans), he also battles his own latent homosexual desires, the central object of which is Black Dahlia protagonist Bucky Bleichert.
Perfidia is predominantly told from a limited third person perceptive, with each chapter focusing on – alongside Ashida – two other main characters: Captain William ‘Whiskey Bill’ Parker, an alcoholic yet ruthlessly ambitious senior officer, who seeks to use the war to facilitate his rise to the position of chief of police; and sergeant Dudley Smith, an unethical, violent and highly intelligent officer, who not only epitomises the corruption and vice that Parker aims to eradicate, but who also seeks to profit from the hysteria and heightened racial animus catalysed by the bombing of pearl harbour. Although vicious enemies both vying for power and control, through their various actions, Smith and Parker come to equally embody the discriminatory practices and violent authority of white establishments and white power structures, ones that utilise racial bigotry as means of sustaining such power. These three perspectives are interspliced with diary entries from a fourth central character, bored dilettante and eventual ‘Fifth Column’ infiltrator Kay Lake (another Black Dahlia character).
What follows over the course of Perfidia is a tumultuous maelstrom of war profiteering, crazed eugenics plans and racial exploitation. The plot is typically complex and the pace of the novel – again, typically of Ellroy – builds to a frenzied crescendo. As a huge Ellroy fan, it is very satisfying to see the return of many of the characters from his previous works. Not only do we get central characters such as Bucky Bleichert, Kay Lake, Lee Blanchard, Dudley Smith and Buzz Meeks, but Ellroy also furnishes his ever more detailed fictional world with background characters from his other novels. Although, as i said, this continuity is fascinating, it also creates its own problems.
Placing Dudley Smith as a central character in Perfidia was an intriguing move by Ellroy and one that, on the whole, pays off. The arch villain from Ellroy’s previous L.A. Quartet, Smith is certainly a fans favourite. Yet this is the first time that Ellroy has used Smith as a central character and I have to say that I prefer it when Smith is on the margins. There is something about Smith’s peripheral status in the original Quartet that makes him such an unpredictable and menacing villain. I can’t help but feel that the potency of this menace was reduced somewhat by centralising his perspective in this text.
The other problem with reintroducing previous characters as younger people is that many of their story arcs have already been decided. One of the most gripping aspects of Ellroy’s work to date is that he has never been afraid to kill off central characters (I still don’t think I am fully over Danny Upshaw’s suicide in The Big Nowhere). Yet by using Kay Lake, Dudley Smith and real life former police chief William Parker as the narrative focus in Perfidia, the text ultimately loses this element of jeopardy. To an extent, we already know what is going to happen to these characters and this nullified the action slightly for me.
Then there is the other considerable elephant in the room….Elizabeth Short. In Perfidia, Ellroy reveals that Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) is in fact Dudley Smith’s illegitimate daughter. This is a bold move from Ellroy, and I’m slightly concerned he has backed himself into a tricky ‘continuity corner’ with this plot choice. As Dudley Smith does not feature in The Black Dahlia at all, it raises some problematic questions that Ellroy will have to attempt to ‘write around’ in future novels. Most obviously: where is Smith during the action of The Black Dahlia? Why is he not involved in the investigation into his own daughter’s death?
Overall, Perfidia has its problems. The plot is overly complex and the denouement is a little unsatisfying. William Parker’s character is also slightly one dimensional and difficult to invest in. Nonetheless, the novel is skilfully written with an intricate and vividly realised historical setting. Ashida is also a complex and engaging character and i hope he returns in future books. Even if this isn’t his strongest book, it is still a masterful example of historical crime writing, as Ellroy continues to show that he is still the greatest practitioner of the genre working today.