Book Review: Perfidia

The first book in this new L.A. Quartet shows new depth, scope, and craftsmanship in James Ellroy's canon



by James Ellroy
Alfred A. Knopf, 720pp., $28.95

Dec. 6, 1941: The Los Angeles Police Department has nothing better to do than test a primitive surveillance camera developed by Hideo Ashida, a young chemist on staff, the only Japanese on the department's payroll. Across the border, Mexican radio blasts anti-Roosevelt propaganda courtesy of Father Coughlin, agitating right-leaning Angelenos with news of planned Japanese attacks on America. Near 11pm, a noise complaint yields the discovery of a homicide: an entire Japanese family, the Watanabes, murdered in seemingly ritualistic fashion. The next day, Hirohito's planes bomb Pearl Harbor. Now the Watanabe case takes on new headache dimensions.

Thus, roughly, begins Perfidia, the epic first book in James Ellroy's second L.A. Quartet. The first L.A. Quartet – comprising The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz – was an ambitious noir history of midcentury Los Angeles, told through the lens of the interworkings of the L.A.P.D. It made Ellroy America's best crime novelist, a terse, staccato, Bukowskian demimonde poet. The following Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy – American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood's a Rover – was an even more ambitious "secret history" of mid-to-late 20th century America, encompassing organized crime, politics, the Kennedy assassination, and foreign policy. As with the L.A. Quartet, real events and historic figures mix with the imagined, creating a more realistic, three-dimensional fiction.

The second L.A. Quartet brings Ellroy's nihilism and telegrammatic prose to World War II. Perfidia is told in real time, across the entire month of December 1941. Characters from all his previous work – be they real (future L.A.P.D. Chief Bill Parker, mobster Mickey Cohen, J. Edgar Hoover, young Ensign Jack Kennedy and father Joseph) or imagined (Kay Lake, Preston Exley, Buzz Meeks, Bucky Bleichert, Lee Blanchard) – appear as their younger selves, making the second L.A. Quartet the backstory to Ellroy's entire bibliography. New characters join them, including real-life former L.A.P.D. Chiefs "Two-Gun" Davis and "Call-Me-Jack" Horrall, Bette Davis, and Jack Webb, hilariously portrayed as a marginal police groupie. Through this densely plotted universe resonates the power struggle between Parker and Sgt. Dudley Smith, the textbook definition of corruption. Smith, in particular, casts the same shadow over this book as Arthur Fenstemaker does over Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place: central and inescapable, present even when he's not.

Perfidia represents new depth, scope, and craftsmanship in James Ellroy's canon. It is his finest work. You'll wonder how he can top it.

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