Review: James Ellroy's 'Perfidia' a perfect start in new L.A. Quartet

Published Sep. 2, 2014

James Ellroy is back at work on his version of the 20th century. And if, like me, you are among his legion of fans, you will dive into Perfidia with a shiver that is equal parts anticipation and fear — because you know it's going to get very dark very fast.

The California writer has published 13 novels since his first, Brown's Requiem, in 1981. Ellroy began as a classic noir crime writer, but his seven major works, published between 1987 and 2009, have showcased his idiosyncratic, propulsive style and formed an interrelated body of historical fiction that focuses on the intimate entanglements of crime, law enforcement, politics, corruption and violence.

The first four of those volumes, called the L.A. Quartet, included The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, set in Los Angeles between 1946 and 1958. The Underworld USA Trilogy, American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's a Rover, is national in scope and set between 1958 and 1972.

With Perfidia, the first in a planned Second L.A. Quartet, Ellroy moves back in time to 1941, to Los Angeles in the very first days of World War II. The book's plot is set in headlong motion by two events: the discovery on Dec. 6 of a Japanese-American family of four, the Watanabes, in their L.A. home, dead apparently by ritual suicide; then, little more than 24 hours later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ellroy depicts a Los Angeles that, even before the bombs dropped, was in a war fever, with military presence everywhere and emotions running high. And he makes clear that, despite the simpler, rosier picture painted by official history, there was not exactly unity on the home front. In America, isolationism and even support for the Nazis — born of anti-Semitism, anticommunism or both — were far from rare.

Many of the characters who appeared in the L.A. Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogy populate this book, so many that Ellroy provides a helpful key at the back of the volume listing their other appearances. In Perfidia, they're all much younger — but not nearly young enough to be innocent.

As he often does, Ellroy tells the story by shifting among the points of view of several major characters. This time around there are four. One is based on a real person, William H. Parker, who in later years became the longest-serving chief of L.A.'s police force. But in 1941 he's Captain Bill Parker, a.k.a. Whiskey Bill. Hailing from Deadwood, S.D., he's a man who doesn't flinch at violence but is appalled by the endemic corruption of the police force and city government. He's a workaholic and determined reformer who can't keep his own drinking under control, a man of "superhuman focus and lunatic rectitude."

His nemesis and sometime ally is Sgt. Dudley Smith, who cut his teeth as a boy assassin with the Irish Republican Army before emigrating under the wing of Joseph Kennedy and shooting up through the ranks of the LAPD. Smith is a handsome, brilliant, charming fellow and a psychopath who revels in bloodshed. He sees his badge as a license to kill; to take just one example, he detests what he calls "rape-os" and enjoys solving sexual assault cases by finding the man and executing him on the spot, sans any of that pesky due process — and then sending flowers to the victim. Dudley is also, however, a gifted and meticulous investigator, sort of a Sherlock without the self-control (and with a raging opium-and-benzedrine habit instead of a predilection for cocaine).

Dudley's Dr. Watson, after a fashion, is Hideo Ashida. A chemist and criminologist for the police department, Ashida is an ambitious young Japanese-American man who earned two doctorates from Stanford by the time he was 22. Dudley values him as a talented investigator — particularly on the Watanabe case — and protects him as white rage against the city's Japanese population boils over in the days after Pearl Harbor and thousands of them are imprisoned and brutalized, their homes, businesses and bank accounts confiscated. Ashida is grateful but also (rightly) terrified by Dudley's secrets, not to mention worried about secrets of his own.

And then, of course, there is the woman. Kay Lake, a central femme fatale in L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, is barely out of her teens here, a Midwestern runaway turned L.A. prostitute who has been rescued by a cop named Lee Blanchard and is now ensconced in an elegant house and busy making high marks in her classes at UCLA. Kay is sexually and intellectually precocious, ravenously curious, skillfully manipulative, stunningly beautiful — "the sorority girl Mata Hari."

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Kay's relationships with Parker, Dudley and Ashida are part of the novel's complex, paranoiac plot — a tangle of crimes and conspiracies that, rather than resolving, becomes more complicated with every stone that is overturned.

Ellroy connects his characters to the famous and infamous as a way of reinforcing that world view of hidden connections. Dudley, for example, is not only Joseph Kennedy's protege and host for a young Jack Kennedy on his way to his post on a PT boat; the police officer also has an affair with Bette Davis and has a teenage illegitimate daughter named Elizabeth Short, who will in the future become notorious as a murder victim dubbed the Black Dahlia.

Ellroy's singular style has been described as jazzlike or telegraphic; here it is insomniac, hallucinogenic, nightmarish. It also bursts with racist and sexist terms, profanities and obscenities of every variety that realistically reflect the way his characters would speak, so if you're easily offended by language (or grisly violence), don't even read the first chapter.

But if Ellroy's bitter visions entice you, Perfidia will take you once again to the underbelly of American history, seen through a glass darkly, as Ashida says: "All these covenants and agendas. They supersede human logic." Or, as Kay puts it, "All I had was a recounting of pratfall and eros."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.