James Ellroy’s ‘Perfidia’: dark doings on the eve of WWII
James Ellroy’s dark new novel, “Perfidia,” returns the “L.A. Confidential” author to the City of Angels — this time, it follows the LAPD as it investigates a murder committed on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Ellroy appears Friday, Sept. 12, at the University Book Store
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Perfidia” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com). He will sign “Perfidia” at 3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St.; free (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com).
James Ellroy can be ornery. “I hate hipsters, I hate liberals, I hate rock ’n’ rollers, I hate the counterculture, I hate movie people,” he said in an interview promoting his new novel, “Perfidia.” He also hates Presidents Clinton and Obama and has no use for the modern world.
Ellroy’s mother was murdered in Los Angeles when Ellroy was 10. The case was unsolved. “The Black Dahlia,” the first novel in Ellroy’s LA Quartet, was based on the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, which bore some similarities to the murder of Ellroy’s mother. Short’s body was found in an abandoned lot, mutilated, severed in half and posed. The press went crazy. Ellroy blended the facts of the case with fictional police officers and his own theories, which resulted in his 1987 breakout novel.
Three more novels completed Ellroy’s LA Quartet: “The Big Nowhere,” “LA Confidential” and “White Jazz.” Two of the books — “The Black Dahlia” and “LA Confidential” — were made into movies, and Ellroy became a literary celebrity of sorts. He followed the LA Quartet with The Underworld Trilogy: “American Tabloid,” “The Cold Six Thousand” and “Blood’s a Rover.” Writing about crime, corruption, greed, lust, brutality, drugs, madness and all the dark corners of the human psyche, Ellroy commingles fictional characters and incidents with historical characters and incidents, creating a weird pastiche of American life. His style, like his subject matter, is coarse.
“Perfidia” is a prequel to the LA Quartet and the Underworld Trilogy. Ellroy introduces us to younger versions of the characters who made him famous. Your appreciation of Ellroy’s unabashed attempt at the Great American Novel will depend, in part, on your familiarity with his oeuvre. I’ve read three of the seven books “Perfidia” riffs on and felt I was missing some pieces.
Still, it was a great read.
On the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese-American family is found dead. Either they committed a ritualistic suicide, or they were murdered. Los Angeles Police Department Police Chief William H. Parker from “LA Confidential,” who was the actual police chief of the LAPD from 1950 until 1966, appears as Captain William H. Parker and oversees the investigation. Hideo Ashida, a police chemist, and the only Japanese-American employee of LAPD, is assigned to work the case.
Kay Lake, from “The Black Dahlia,” appears as a 21-year-old adventuress learning her way around LA. “I wanted to run away to Los Angeles and become someone else there ... I was equal parts innocence and lunatic grit.” Kay’s chapters, written in first-person diary form, were among the most engaging for me, illuminating the motives and desires of the men who are intertwined by the investigation.
Beginning on Dec. 6, 1941, and unfolding in 23 days of real-time narration, “Perfidia” is a murder mystery, a subversive historical novel, and a dark meditation on power, politics, race and justice.
Perfidia, a Spanish word meaning treachery or betrayal, is the title of a song from the big-band era. Ellroy used the song in “The Black Dahlia,” and it obviously still speaks to him. With “Perfidia,” he repeatedly returns to the scene of the crime.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist is the author of “Carnival Desires” and other novels.