Book review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia is the first volume of the Second L.A. Quartet. The L.A. Quartet–The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz–covers the years 1946 to 1958 in Los Angeles. The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy–American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover–covers 1958 to 1972, on a national scale.

The Second L.A. Quartet places real-life and fictional characters from the first two bodies of work in Los Angeles during World War II, as significantly younger people. These three series span thirty-one years and will stand as one novelistic history.

–James Ellroy, Perfidia

The event that kicks off Perfidia, the first novel of James Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet, is death, which should surprise no one familiar with Ellroy’s other works. On the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bodies of a Japanese family are discovered, with a mysterious note apparently left by the patriarch possibly indicating foreknowledge of the Day Which Will Live in Infamy. While the family appears to have committed the act of Japanese ritual suicide known as harakiri or seppuku, there are enough oddities at the crime scene to spark doubts in the mind of Hideo Ashida, a brilliant Japanese-American police chemist.

However, for political reasons related to the swiftly-ramping-up internment program for people of Japanese descent, the Mayor’s office and the LAPD want the investigation wrapped up quickly, either ruled a suicide or Jap-on-Jap homicide.

In the aftermath of the bombing and US entering World War II, the citizens of L.A. go a bit mad, as if the world is ending soon so earthly pleasures must be indulged in as much as possible before the Japanese subs off the coast and planes in the air pulverize the city into dust. No one is sleeping (except for with each other), most definitely including LAPD officers Capt. William H. Parker and Sgt. Dudley Smith.

Parker, the sometimes-tarnished conscience of the LAPD is locked in a mostly-undeclared cold war with Smith, the sometimes-saintly representative of the corruption of the institution, often without either of them realizing it.

Caught up in the current of both the metaphoric war and the real one are Dr. Ashida and Kay Lake, the latter a young bohemian brimming with the urge to tap into the excitement of the day, whatever that is. The three cops and the young lady will see and experience more before January 1, 1942 than many will in a lifetime.

James Ellroy thinks of himself as more of a writer of historical fiction than as a crime fiction novelist these days, but readers of his previous works need not fear on that count. Perfidia, named for a popular song of the era, translates as “perfidy.” The murder, intrigue, corruption, betrayal, and shifting alliances of an Ellroy epic are all here.

However, Perfidia has a number of problems. As Scott Timberg notes about Ellroy tying his vast canon all together, “Reading Ellroy can be overwhelming in any setting, but the new novel might be incomprehensible without some sense of his earlier books.” As chronologically, this is the first, there is no need for this, but the reader is subjected to a torrent of names, often without context. The quote that opens this review precedes the Dramatis Personae at the end of the book. It says something about the book that it needs one.

Ellroy is also constantly dropping in references to obscure pop culture figures and sticking in foreign phrases. I think of myself as pretty culturally literate, but I was using Kindle’s X-ray and translate features constantly.

Characters frequently talk like no human would, the worst example being Kay Lake, with Dudley Smith sometimes a close second.

But the biggest problem is that the events seem too small for such a big book. Those expecting an epic like L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid are likely to walk away saying, “Is that all there is?”

Which isn’t to say the book is bad or boring. I found myself reasonably enthralled with the twists and turns and gave no thought to putting it down. But of the books in this continuity (I’ve read all but The Big Nowhere and White Jazz), Perfidia is easily the least. Longtime fans of Ellroy will want to check it out anyway. New readers should start elsewhere (Underworld U.S.A. should be read chronologically; it does not matter for the first quartet). I do fear that because this one is the first chronologically, readers new to Ellroy may start here and go no further. They would be missing out on some of the best American fiction, crime or otherwise, of all time, so let us hope that doesn’t happen.

Related Posts:

Review: American Tabloid by James Ellroy

Review: The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy

Review: Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy

“Perfidia” by Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra


The Second L.A. Quartet

The First L.A. Quartet

Underworld U.S.A.

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