Book review: James Ellroy’s ‘Perfidia’

Perfidia. James Ellroy. Knopf. 720 pages. $28.95.
Perfidia. James Ellroy. Knopf. 720 pages. $28.95.

Get in the ring with James Ellroy, he throws out words like a boxer amped on uppers. Bam. Bam. Bam. Head shots. Kidney shots. Gut shots. Low blows. Droplets of sweat and blood arcing into the ether.

He writes this staccato, manic, nasty, muscular prose. The man hates conjunctions. To hell with compound sentences. He gets at it. He pounds away at innocent expectations readers might harbor about such a big, ambitious American novel. You know ... that surely amid this amoral cast of mobsters, crooked cops, corrupt pols, war profiteers, deviant movie stars, Ellroy might have given us just one conventional, straight arrow protagonist to lead us through the sordid morass that was 1941 Los Angeles.

No chance.

Consider the reaction of Sgt. Dudley Smith, our Los Angeles cop hero in a novel without heroes, when he encounters a suspected rapist. Smith and his squad won’t waste time with legal niceties. And Ellroy doesn’t waste words: “He started to turn around. He started to say, ‘Say what?’ Six triggers snapped. The rape-o blew up. Bone shards took down palm fronds. Carlisle’s glasses got residual-spritzed. Big booms overlapped. Note those buckshot-on-wood echoes. 3:30 church bells pealed through all of it.”

Ellroy’s latest novel was written as a prequel (the first of four) to his famed Los Angeles Quartet, the dazzling set of novels that brought him recognition as one of America’s great crime writers. Perfidia has been peopled with younger versions of those morally bent rogues we met in The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid, including Dudley Smith, the villainous, charming, occasionally murderous Irish cop; the ambitious, conniving William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, drawn from the real life policeman who rose to become police chief; and Kay Lake, the beautiful communist sympathizer turned police informant. Oh, yes. And an occasional call girl.

The longest of Ellroy’s 15 novels, Perfidia takes place between Dec. 6 and Dec. 29th, 1941, beginning the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, when the four bodies of a Japanese-American family are discovered neatly arranged in their Los Angeles home. It might be ritual suicide. It might be murder. But amid the anti-Japanese hysteria sweeping through the city, solving the mystery is not exactly the first priority of the LAPD.

Ellroy gets at the ethnic hatred and war fever through the perspective of a brilliant L.A. police forensic investigator named Hideo Ashida, a closeted gay Japanese American desperate to keep himself and his family out of Roosevelt’s internment camps. Ashida will do anything to avoid those camps, even ally himself with the nefarious Dudley, who also happens to be working a side deal to grab valuable real estate becoming available as Japanese landowners are hauled away.

Perfidia serves as a historical novel, stippled with authentic details of that not very innocent era, disguised as a first-rate mystery novel. Ellroy fills it with hipster slang and racial invectives and makes it seem real. He weaves real-life celebrities into the story — Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Jack Webb — and they come off just as perverse as Ellroy’s fictional creations.

Maybe the gimmick is tiresome, maybe he’s too self-consciously addicted to his rat-a-tat style. Maybe 700 pages of him pummeling away at our last pathetic illusions of humanity’s better angels is too much. Maybe those of us who love this stuff are gluttons for punishment.

Ellroy borrowed his title from the popular Glenn Miller recording from that era, but “perfidia” is also the Spanish word for perfidy or treachery or betrayal, which perfectly captures the ethos celebrated in these pages.

Readers unfamiliar with Ellroy should be warned, I suppose, that his novel will take them down into a sump of racism, misogyny, corruption, murder, thuggery, laced with opium and amphetamines and whiskey. Yes, it may be too much for the unwary. First-time readers should be mindful of their usual sensibilities, ready to duck and weave, before stepping into the ring with Ellroy.

Fred Grimm is a Miami Herald columnist.