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.

My favourite crime novels – no. 13

White Jazz – The last novel in James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is like a literary kick to the swingers. And what a way to sign off one of the great series in all of crime fiction. The formal language experiment that Ellroy began with LA Confidential, with the use of staccato sentences that get rid of all those pesky adverbs, really came into its own here. Hell, Ellroy pretty much invented his own language in this novel. White Jazz is like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. It moves at a rate that makes LA Confidential seem like a slow-burning cosy in comparison. It meshes a complex, satisfying plot (and Ellroy is the supreme plotter in crime fiction) with a captivating anti-hero in Dave Klein. It also sets the groundwork for Ellroy’s next great novel American Tabloid. Pure brilliance.

My all-time favourite crime fiction writers (in no particular order):

Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.

Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.

Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.

Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.

James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.

Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.

Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any  crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!

Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.

There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.