As with all of James Ellroy’s fiction since the 1990s, I am infatuated with the novel. With the prose and the characters. Unlike Ellroy’s previous fiction, this one exposes something new, hinting at something that was never Ellroy before. Or maybe it is a change in my perceptions, seeing something that isn’t there, or was always there.
What I think connects me with Ellroy’s fiction most of all is an old-fashioned idea of passion. The kind that drives courtship and romance, but also anger and violence. It is the id unleashed to dramatic effect, where the base expectation is of chaste and civilised containment in an orderly, ordered society. Writing for The Telegraph, Chris Harvey relayed some of Ellroy’s thoughts on this powerful driver of life and dramatic tension:
Ellroy says he doesn’t understand the young men of today … “Today’s generation of males don’t seem to have an urgent need to impress women and I don’t get it. You have a generation hooked on off-handedness and irony and casualness. And I abhor the casual and the ironic and the uncommitted, especially in relation to women.
“Why are we here?” he asks. “And why is the conjunction of men and women at the heart of all great art.”
Without risking passion, you cannot have your breath taken away by it. You cannot feel the crushing weight of rejection or the soaring intoxication of affirmation. Without those experiences, you cannot feel the same passion infuse your idealism and self-direction. And, most importantly for Ellroy readers: you cannot be frightened by the untameable frenzy of unrestrained passion directing action and reaction. It is the id unleashed, making for visceral encounters with the fiction, and keeping intellectualised sterility at bay, to amplify reader responses in the registers of intuition, anxiety, and fear.
Without at least an intuitive understanding of this kind of passion, even the title might be lost on contemporary readers: perfidia means betrayal, the way lovers might betray each other. It comes from Mexican songwriter Alberto Dominguez’s canción of the same name, first recorded in 1937 by Lupita Palomera. Translated into English in 1939 and popularised in the USA by Xavier Cugat in 1940, it was adapted by many others, including Glenn Miller. It became part of the musical backdrop of the war era. The song is directly referenced several times in the novel. The bitter taste of that kind of betrayal infuses the story and Ellroy’s characters.
It is by working on the subconscious responses to uncivilised passion, I think, that Ellroy can be as effective as he has been. But in Perfidia, I also see a more mature author passing political judgement on his own society, hidden in plain sight within a story of mass hysteria and mercenary crime. I see, for the first time, an awareness of, and contempt for, American political economy. And a clearer condemnation of the endemically racist character of American people and institutions than ever emerged from the relentlessly, realistic racist language of Ellroy’s characters in the various milieus of the previous novels.
There is no way to come away from the internment of Japanese Americans in the novel without recognising it as a grotesque injustice. Fuelled, as in all American history, by the theft of property: the already wealthy stealing from the poor, and from those seeking to improve their fortunes in accordance with the great American myth that anyone can succeed. Anyone, that is, who is white-skinned and willing to incite mayhem.
I gave up on this novel a year ago, barely thirty pages into its 700-page bulk. My mistake had been to turn to it straight after the pyrrhic come-down of the manic final instalment in the Underworld USA trilogy—Blood’s a Rover (2009). It was too soon for more of that mania. I needed to think of something else for a while. Ellroy’s stripped and penetrating machinegun prose is wounding. Most obviously so when you cannot see it anymore, and begin to speak and write like it. In staccato bursts, missing all adjectives. Missing all sentimental sympathy for your subject.
Adam Rivett, writing for the Sydney Review of Books, offers an explanation for Ellroy’s register:
If a prose style can have a version of a superhero’s origin story, then here is Ellroy’s: White Jazz was, when first submitted as a 700 page manuscript, rejected by his publisher, who sent it back with a polite request to trim where possible. Ellroy proceeded to get the lawnmower out of the shed. Everything had to go: verbs, adverbs, any available fat. The telegraphic style was born. There is a touch of the too-neat about this tale – one minute Jackson Pollock is lost in idle thought, not noticing the paint dripping onto the floor, and the next … – but it fits the narrative of Ellroy’s increasing ambition perfectly: more with less. Each word serves a purpose, tells a tale, contributes to a scene or setting.
That sparseness is certainly still present in Perfidia, and I’m glad it is, because it defines for me, in part, who Ellroy is, and why I like his work.
When I returned to the novel in the final days of 2017, the book was already three years old, and the world had changed quite dramatically since Ellroy laboured over it. It was the Obama era when it was published. Turned to the deepest night of Trump’s America when I read it. Ellroy did not anticipate or respond to these developments, but, as a reader, I cannot ignore them. Nor can I ignore that I read large parts of the story in hospital beds and doctors’ waiting rooms, heightening the atmosphere of sickness and dysfunction. These influences found their resonance in the un-named fifth main character of Ellroy’s narrative-the mass hysteria that served as backdrop for Perfidia. A shared psychosis brought on by the Pearl Harbor attack that infuses everything and everyone in the story.
Unlike his other novels, which often span months or even years, Ellroy restricted Perfidia to just 23 days in December 1941. Making for a pressure cooker atmosphere in an already intense environment.
The other characters from whose perspectives the story is told include the spectral forensic scientist Hideo Ashida, the half insane police captain ‘Whiskey Bill’, his relentlessly malevolent counterpoint, Sergeant Dudley Smith, and the wholly alien ex prostitute, Kay Lake.
Ashida is an American-born Japanese homosexual attached to the very police department overseeing the internment of Japanese Americans. A character with almost no independent presence, moving through the events as if he were a mathematical theorem, or a law of physics. He serves to uncover the evidence others miss, and to observe his own increasing alienation from even the ephemeral, self-effacing presence to which he restricts himself.
Whiskey Bill is based on William Henry Parker III, LA police chief between 1950 and 1966, set here in a fictional pre-history that sees him teetering between alcoholism, rivalry with Dudley Smith, wrestling with a conflicted religious conscience, and a zealous anti-communist mania as cover for pursuing unattainable women, like Kay Lake.
Lake is the odd one out. Her presence is felt mostly through journal entries in which she reflects on her adventurism in a narrative style quite different from the Ellroy third-person express train thundering past all stations. Her dialogue, in more conventional exegesis, is presented like lines out of some academic essay. Not at all an Ellroy character. More like a personal fantasy of an idealized inamorata.
Dudley Smith is the anchor-point to it all. Reliably amoral and relentlessly violent to get his way, he is a kind of black hole, devouring or destroying those in his orbit with a casual indifference that frightens, and conjures comparisons with Conrad’s Kurtz. His mercenary instincts resolve all the loose ends, but also set in motion a few unexpectedly humane outcomes. I could not help but nod understandingly when I read of a coldly calculated murder late in the piece:
Scrub mounds on the land side. Roadhouses by the beach. Narrow parking strips. No cars tucked in. Storm clouds right at dusk.
“Two young Marines have grievously harmed a young woman who is quite dear to me. I’ve been told that they cast their lines at the same spot every Saturday. They’re intrepid lads, undeterred by wind and cold air. We’ll take them as they get into their car.”
Scotty blinked. Dudley touched his wrist. Scotty’s pulse skipped.
He saw their fishing spot. He saw their ‘40 Ford coupe. He pointed over. Long poles swooped toward the sunset.
Scotty pulled up by the Ford. He kicked off the ignition and set the brake.
Dudley reached back and unzipped the seabag. The silencers were screwed on tight.
Scotty said, “She’s a good girl, right? It was bad what they did.”
Dudley passed him his piece. “Am I a frivolous man, lad? Have you not sensed conscience and a fond regard for women beneath my raw streak?”
Scotty smiled—So be it.
Two men walked over the rocks. They wore Marine fatigue jackets. They carried surf poles and wicker baskets. Fish tails drooped out the top.
They walked to the Ford. One tall man, one stout man. The stout man checked out the Dodge.
The tall man popped the trunk. He loaded the baskets. The stout man dropped the poles in the backseat.
They got in the front. The stout man kicked the engine. The tall man lit a cigarette.
They knew it. They were cop-wise. They were too nonchalant.
Dudley stepped out. Scotty stepped out. They went in, flanking.
The rape-o’s caught it. Intent, gun-barrel glint—something.
The tall man dropped his cigarette. The stout man fumbled at the wheel.
Dudley said, “For my beloved child, Beth Short.”
He fired. Scotty fired. They aimed at their wide-open mouths. They blew up their faces and took all the windows out.
Ricochets took out the engine wall. The crankcase threw hot oil. The radiator threw steam.
The Ford rocked on its struts. Dudley and Scotty got back in the Dodge and pulled out.
The sun went down. The Ford sat on the blacktop.
At the centre of Perfidia’s characters and their interactions is the murder of the entire Japanese-American Watanabe family, exposing by turns fifth column activities, Chinese-Japanese enmity, endemic corruption at all levels of government, and the expected, uniquely Ellroyesque, bone-crunching violence.
The novel cannot be read by anyone who knows Ellroy’s work without being struck by the re-appearance of so many characters from his previous novels, albeit as their younger selves. It has the feel of revisionism about it. I already know what these people will do in their futures. Now I get to see why they will do that? Or is it more about Ellroy returning to some pre-history to talk about why his life is what it has become? Or is it more about why LA became what it was in the earlier novels, and what it is today? I can’t help speculating, even if I have no answers.
A counterplot revolves around Whiskey Bill suborning Kay Lake to become an agent provocateur in the circles of Claire de Haven, the ‘Red Queen’ matriarch of a Hollywood circle of communist agitators. Parker is obsessed with an anti-communist fervour that has not yet come into its own, historically speaking, but also with Lake as an unattainable woman, and, perhaps, with de Haven as the archetype of the initially anonymous, tall, red-haired woman that haunts him.
Ellroy has revealed that Perfidia’s Bill Parker is, to some degree, a stand-in for himself. Kay Lake might be a contemporary obsession, or his former wife Helen Knode. The red-haired woman is the archetype of Ellroy’s mother, murdered when he was a boy. It is pretty clear that Parker is an obsessive, and most obsessed with Lake. It is in that state of obsessed distraction that Parker conducts a kind of civil war with the fearsome Dudley Smith. Two sides to the same coin? Back to Ellroy’s earlier fiction with Lloyd Hopkins and Fred Gaffaney in Suicide Hill (1986)?
Smith is big, gregarious, lyrical, murderous, and entirely unscrupulous about cutting himself into the profits of various underworld enterprises. We have seen him before, later in his career, in earlier novels. Now we get to know him as a former IRA enforcer, protégé of Joseph Kennedy, and father of an illegitimate child: Elizabeth Short, known more famously as the Black Dahlia. To top off the absurdity of the character, he is the brief lover of Bette Davis, and the sponsor of Ashida, protecting him from the great wartime Japanese-American internment.
Through Smith’s entirely absent morality we understand his alliance with a Chinese Tong warlord, the absence of any real racist rancour despite the ever-presence of its language, and the fragility that is an unspoken exemption for other characters from Smith’s attentions. Blackjack and pistols in his belt. Fearless havoc on his mind.
Amid all these elements, I came to appreciate Dudley Smith the most. For his fierceness and unpretentious mercenary instincts. Undoubtedly, I would be scared in the presence of such a man. But I would prefer him to all the others who might get me killed as if by accident.
Ellroy told a reporter years ago that he visualized the man like Matthew Macfadyen in his Ripper Street (2012-2016) rôle. I had a mental image more of a Ray Stevenson type, from Kill the Irishman (2011), though I did not object to the portrayal by James Cromwell in LA Confidential (1997). It doesn’t much matter. In either case, you have a man who completely dominates every room he walks into. Who puts everyone on edge with barely contained kinetic violence. Only women seem to tame him. His illegitimate daughter Beth. His lover Bette. The unseen wife and his legitimate progeny.
It wasn’t Smith or the violence of the story that shocked me. In the chaos that is the 23 days of Perfidia, unwinding furiously, like an overtightened watch spring, there is a passage that confronted me like a slap in the face with an icy hand:
Ruth Mildred loved cheesecake. The office celebrated her Sapphic bent and rogue-doctor status. Note the medical diplomas and framed glossies.
She pointed to Rita Hayworth. “I scraped her. She had a thick bush.”
Dudley laughed. He felt fit. He slept at home and played patriarch. The visit would hold his brood to Christmas.
Ruth Mildred ogled Jean Arthur. “I scraped her. I licked her snatch while she was anesthetized.”
Dudley roared. Ruth Mildred lived to entertain. Nice girls in a jam flocked to her. She did King Cohn’s scrape jobs. Dot Rothstein lured in outside work. Ruth Mildred was L.A.’s scrape overlord.
She ogled Ginger Rogers. “I scraped her. The baby had two heads.”
Dudley smiled. Ruthie was big at Columbia. She had a chic corner office with a waiting room. The latter was packed now. Dot and Huey C. Mickey Cohen, Hooky Rothman. Carlos Madrano, up from T.J.
He spoke to Carlos. He quizzed him per his Jap-farm schemes. Carlos refused to divulge. He quizzed him per the Jap house/farm buyouts. Carlos said, “No más, my friend. I will not talk about that.”
Ruth Mildred ogled Carole Lombard. “I scraped her. The daddy was a jigaboo.”
Dudley rocked his chair. “Did you scrape a Jap girl named Nancy Watanabe?”
Ruth Mildred lit a cigarette and threw her feet up on her desk. Her skirt flew wide.
“I don’t scrape Japs. That species of gash in no way intrigues me.”
“You’re not freelancing at MGM? I heard rumors about that stunning lass who played Scarlett O’Hara.”
Ruth Mildred said, “Okay, I did a job for Warner’s. Bette Davis missed two cycles, and I treated her for a miscarriage.”
It sandbagged him. His breakfast curdled. He heard chants out on Gower.
“End the feudal system! King Cohn must go!”
Mike Breuning called him. Sid Hudgens was bird-dogging Baaaad Bill McPherson. He’d been on a cooze run at Minnie Roberts’ Casbah. He might return today.
Ruth Mildred ogled Barbara Stanwyck. “I scraped her. I sold her snatch hair to Frank Capra.”
Dudley lit a cigarette. “Huey pulled a caper. I’ll need to stash him in Mexico for a while.”
“My baby never works single-o.”
“There’s a grand chance that his partners will evaporate.”
“Keep him safe, Dud. My baby’s frail.”
“King Cohn must go! King Cohn must go!” This Red roar in Gower Gulch.
Dudley zipped to the waiting room. Mickey and Hooky sulked. Captain Carlos read Time magazine. Huey quaked. The Dotstress thigh-massaged him.
Dudley said, “Bid good-bye to your mothers, son. You’ll be leaving in a moment.”
Carlos said, “You’ll love Tijuana, Huey. We will go to the donkey show tonight.”
Huey ran to Ruth Mildred. Dudley admired his speed. Huey threw his arms around her. Ruthie consoled him. Note her tongue in his ear.
Harry Cohn walked in. Mickey and Hooky stirred and displayed brass knucks. The gang adjourned to Ruthie’s office. Ruthie slid Huey off her lap and opened the curtains. The gang peered out.
Picketers and chanters. Raggedy exemplars of specious discontent.
Mickey and Hooky slid out the door. Harry lit a cigarette and flushed sclerotic. Standing room only. Exclusive sneak peek. Red Riot on Gower Gulch!
It stars Mickey and Hooky. They’re two-fisted Jewboys, wielding steel knucks. “King Cohn must go! King Cohn must—”
The Hebrew hard-ons hit. They ducked their heads and came in low. Picket signs flew. Picket fucks fled. Dudley saw ripped cheeks and hairlines. Someone’s dentures bounced in the street.
Harry said, “Thanks, Dud. And thank Ben Siegel for me. I’ll consider your smut deal.”
The gang enjoyed the show. Dot tittered. Huey burrowed into Ruth Mildred.
She ogled Lupe Vélez. “I scraped her. The daddy had a two-foot schlong. I had to stitch Lupe up.”
It was a double-take moment. Was it the crass language from the lesbian abortionist that gave me pause? The casual way it was said while they all watched a Hollywood strike being broken up by thugs? It came to me that this was, in microcosm, an image of modern America as Trump’s Republicans would like to see it reconstructed: recidivist, brutal, unmitigatedly corrupt, with nominal rights only for white men, and those could take what they wanted by force. A free-for-all. Survival of the most murderous. Lord of the Flies rules.
I do not propose that Ellroy wrote to explicitly target these politics, even if all the elements long pre-existed Trump’s political run. But I do say that the impact of the novel on me could not have been what it was had I read it years earlier.
There is something about Perfidia that is new in Ellroy. He recognizes political economy as the prime mover in his fable. The Watanabe murders, the rivalries, and even the fifth column activities that litter the plot like the broken toys of a colic child – they are all driven by coldly economic considerations, turned to action in the political context faced by Ellroy’s protagonists. Much of the plot is explained as arising from an unprincipled land grab, capitalizing on dispossessed Japanese-Americans, and eyeing them as slave labour. Other parts of the plot are predicated on new ways that illicit profits will be split by dint of the violent power and the political intrigue the players can bring to bear on each other.
The presence of Preston Exley’s scheming brings a touch of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown to the tale, explaining a mystery in terms of the money-trail. In Chinatown it was water rights. In Perfidia it is land rights, and a share in drugs, prostitution, and illegal labour: the economic building blocks with which LA was built and sustained.
It made me think that Ellroy had matured somewhat. That he has added to his repertoire the realism of what makes the big wheels spin. Even in the midst of absurdities like LA cops wearing shrunken heads around their necks, and mad plastic surgeons contemplating a production line to make Japanese Americans look like Chinese, and prostitutes look like film stars.
It remains to admit to myself that Perfidia has flaws. Though I longed to stay under the novel’s spell when I had finished it, the book was too long by at least a hundred pages. There is repetition, and needless excursions into blind alleys.
I feel confirmed in the feeling of excess length by the 11th hour, deus ex machina resolution of the Watanabe murders. By means of a stilted and absurd confession without consequence.
Reluctantly I must also admit to myself that if Ellroy still pursues an ambition to create great literature, this novel is not the end of that quest. The Underworld USA trilogy remains his finest work.
There is still some prospect that a finished second LA Quartet might eclipse Underworld USA, but I think it is a slim prospect, as much because of timing as anything else. With an average six years between novels, the next is due in 2020, a third in 2026, and the final instalment in 2032, by which time Ellroy will be 84 years old, and I will have aged considerably myself. If we are both to see those days at all. The prospect that the second quartet might be an unfinished work is a depressing thought. But less so than contemplating the possibility of a great writer no longer able to aspire to his highest ambitions.
See also my other reviews of James Ellroy novels and adaptations.