Review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

I loved James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. They are about as perfect a series of crime novels as it is possible to get, and in White Jazz he produced one of the best novels ever written (in any genre). It works as a character study, a beautifully plotted mystery, a linguistic extravaganza, and the perfect way to bookend a brilliant series. It’s also got fucking Eyeball Man. Any book that has Eyeball Man in it is improved by exactly one hundred per cent. The Underworld USA trilogy of books (the superb American Tabloid, the excellent but difficult The Cold Six Thousand, and the fine but flawed Blood’s A Rover) were also massive achievements. However, some of his other recent works have been patchy to say the least: Shakedown was poor and the autobiographical The Hilliker Curse is very mediocre in comparison with the brilliance of My Dark Places. Also, he’s not a very good writer of short stories.

A few years ago, when he did a Q&A in London to promote Blood’s A Rover, Ellroy told the audience that he planned to do an earlier LA Quartet, running from Pearl Harbour right through to the period just prior to The Black Dahlia. Being a bit of a renowned practical joker (in fact, much of Ellroy’s shtick is an act), the audience laughed and chuckled and went oh, right, Jimmy, pull the other one. Nobody believed him.

So when the press release went out that Ellroy was indeed working on another earlier LA Quartet, everybody in that audience must have felt very foolish. I have a feeling that those people might have experienced some trepidation too. After all, a writer revisiting a previous success after years away can sometimes be a recipe for disaster.

So, is Perfidia a disaster?

No, it’s not a disaster, but it isn’t great, either.

The huge story concerns the ritual murder of a naturalised Japanese family and its proximity with the attack on Pearl Harbour. It also involves land grabs from interned Japanese Americans, eugenics, pornography, and Communist conspiracies. As with all Ellroy novels with plotting is superb with nary a foot put wrong, but to get to the point where you realise that this is a decent read you have to wade through the first quarter. From goosestepping Japanese snitches, to Dudley howling every time somebody cracks a joke, to over-abundant alliteration (more so than usual), there are a lot of the worst Ellroy excesses in this. And it’s frankly fucking tiresome. So much so that I nearly shelved it.

And then something clicked, though I’m not sure what caused that click, and I began to enjoy the novel. It has some massive flaws. Kay Lake’s diary for starters, which reads exactly like James Ellroy, with no modulation in the writing style. In the original LA Quartet, Dudley Smith was served up in small portions, and there’s a reason for this – a little Dudley goes a long way. In large portions he becomes dull – particularly his ridiculous speech about communing with a wolf in Ireland (especially ludicrous if you know that there haven’t been wolves in Ireland since the 18th century), and his doomed and somewhat pointless affair with Bette Davis. Also get this, Dudley is Elizabeth Short’s father – that’s right, folks, the Black Dahlia herself – which really isn’t necessary because it adds nothing to the story. However, the bits involving Hideo Ashida and Bill Parker do work well, particularly when they interact with Dudley, and the plot mechanics are well assembled and mesh beautifully. The language (aside from the over-use of alliteration in places) is as sharp as ever. The style is less telegrammatic than that used in the Underworld USA trilogy and is all the better for it (though he really should have altered his approach for Kay Lake’s diary). And the man’s storytelling chops remain impressive, even if there is too much padding and the first quarter is a chore. I can recommend it to seasoned Ellroy readers (you folks are going to read it anyway), but those new to Ellroy would be better served by reading the first LA Quartet, The Underworld USA trilogy or the Lloyd Hopkins novels first.

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