re:View – Going back to the future with James Ellroy’s Perfidia
So James Ellroy is writing a new L.A. Quartet and this is a BIG FUCKING DEAL because the original L.A. Quartet is easily the best thing that ever happened to noir crime.
After covering the brutal, corrupt world of the L.A. Police Department from the late 1940s to late 1950s in The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, and then going on an international scale with the political history of the 1960s and 1970s – from JFK to the Cuban Revolution and Vietnam – in the Underworld USA trilogy, the master of noir has circled back to 1941 in the first of four L.A. Quartet prequels.
The place is, of course, L.A. and the time is Pearl Harbour. Ellroy’s new 740-page monster Perfidia follows four characters through the chaos of early-days war in December 1941 as they converge, collide and set in motion the relationships and conspiracies that create a densely intriguing back story to the four existing novels. We have Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese-American on the LAPD’s payroll, a brilliant and obsessive forensic who finds his identity turned inside out by the new ‘anti-Jap’ hysteria. And we have Kay Lake, megalomaniac dilettante and police world hanger-on, as well as Ellroy’s most infamously corrupt and charismatic character, Dudley Smith, and the real-life police caption William H. Parker – who will all go on to play central roles in the original L.A. Quartet.
What starts as a routine investigation of the slaughter of a Japanese family on the eve of Pearl Harbour soon pans out into a mind-blowing tangle of narratives which reach from the very heart of the L.A.’s underworld all the way to the federal government, and where coercion, betrayal, mass internment, eugenics and cold-blooded murder serve as means for personal or political advancement for individuals and the agencies that run the nation. And while your mind still struggles to keep up with the whodunnit of the quadruple homicide of the early chapters, you find yourself in the middle of an epic tale of international espionage, the birth of the Red Scare of the 1950s and the formation of a host of police-underworld alliances that will come to dominate the city throughout the later books.
Perfidia is pure Ellroy skill, refined over the years and condensed into the essence of what makes his writing so utterly breathtaking: it’s tough; it’s fast; it hits you with a constant crossfire of names, facts and connections that leave your mind screaming and desperately clawing its way through this barrage of information to get a grip on the truth before you are dragged under by the immensity of this man’s dark and twisted imagination.
I’ve said recently that I would quite like to be inside James Ellroy’s mind when he writes one of his novels, to figure out how he can stay on top of this overwhelming, interconnected narrative he has created over the past two and a half decades. But, to be very honest, I think that after five minutes inside James Ellroy’s mind, my brain would melt out of my ears.
Pens: 5 out of 5
…plus gold stars to Waterstones for publishing this gorgeous beast of an edition: