Perfidia by James Ellroy
Knopf, 2014; 721 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
No author working today captures my attention the way James Ellroy does. When I read my first book by him, The Black Dahlia, I was only sixteen. Like many fans of the author, I found myself drawn to the staccato rhythms of his prose, the hyper-violence committed by and against his many characters, and the upending of mid-twentieth political and social history as we know it. I consumed his work and tried to imitate his style. He inspired me to pursue writing, specifically historical fiction. More importantly, Ellroy taught me how to reexamine history. Even though he filters his work through his own stylized, nihilistic worldview, I believe his work asks the reader to look at aspects of American history without rose-tinted glasses and at the same time rips away an inclination for us to impose our twenty-first century morals on the past.
After completing his acclaimed Underworld USA Trilogy (which began with the author’s masterpiece American Tabloid), Ellroy has again rooted his work in Los Angeles, starting his second series of interconnected novels set in the City of Angels. The first entry, Perfidia, is, at 721 pages, Ellroy’s longest book to date, and sadly his most laborious. The novel primarily focuses on Los Angeles at the dawn of World War II, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor leading to many of the city’s Japanese citizens getting sent to internment camps. The whole town has entered an upheaval as citizens prepare for social unrest both at home and abroad. Meanwhile the Los Angeles Police Department investigates the brutal, ritualistic murder of a Japanese family killed just before the bombing, whose deaths may lead to corruption infecting the entire city.
Ellroy has a terrific premise and the book holds its own for much of the first act, but the more I read through Perfidia the more exhausted I felt. In part this stems from the overwhelming number of characters (major and minor) that have appeared in prior Ellroy novels. So much of the book assumes that the reader has an immersive relationship with these characters that span close to thirty years of writing. Even when I did recall characters, I felt that Ellroy depended too much on these other novels to inform how I should read them here. The index at the back of the book that explains what characters came from earlier works did little to help me make sense of the relationships. All the more confounding was how Ellroy began reworking their stories for this new context, like taking Elizabeth Short, the titular Black Dahlia, and refashioning her to become the daughter of Dudley Smith, a longstanding Ellroy character who again returns as one of Perfidia’s conflicted protagonists.
Smith commits some of the book’s most horrific violence, like when he murders a man to impress his lover Bette Davis. Ellroy has made a name for his brutal violence and language, part of what I’ve always admired about his work. Here, though, in a book that feels more undisciplined and self-serving, these same qualities I once championed now feel indulgent and unsavory. As the book carries on, the writing feels more like posturing. I only felt like it came alive when focusing on Hideo Ashida, a Japanese American chemist completing the first forensic work in the department, allowing him to avoid internment. Ashida is a meeker character than what you’d typically find in Ellroy’s work, made all the more interesting by his homosexuality he hides from an already ruthless department. This character offered a welcome respite from the jacked-up intensity of so many other players in the book. I certainly don’t want the author to stray from the world he knows best, but Perfidia felt hollower than I had hoped.