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. 25

Dirty Snow – Georges Simenon

Not done one of these in ages, probably because I’ve not had the time. But here’s a stone-cold classic to make up for it.

As many of my regular readers will know I love Georges Simenon. His novels are a lesson in how to tell a good tale as leanly and meanly as possible. He is most famous for the Maigret police detective books, which are much harder and darker than their reputation might lead you to believe, but his reputation as a writer has been made by his roman durs, which are noir in everything but name. They scour the gutter and focus on societies’ rejects or, on quite a few occasions, they focus on those who, for whatever reason, drop out and reject society. Redemption is rare, happy endings rarer still.

And Dirty Snow is probably the apotheosis of this art. In that it is probably the darkest and nastiest of these books. Which is really saying something. It focuses on France during the occupation, and offers up an existence of hunger, poverty, and constant fear for normal folks trying to live their lives during WWII

However, the protagonist of Dirty Snow, Frank Friedmeyer, isn’t one of the normal folks. He’s one of the nastiest pieces of shit you will find in any kind of fiction. At nineteen, he’s already a pimp, a thug, and, as the novel begins, he’s just committed his first murder – of a fat officer from the occupying forces. He doesn’t commit it because of hatred, he doesn’t commit it because of fear, he does it for no other reason than because he wants to, and because he feels that now is as good a time as any to do it. He takes the officer’s gun, again because he wants to. And later, when he arranges to steal some watches for a General – for a lot of cash and a much sought after green card (which allows him to go anywhere) – he uses the gun to shoot an old woman who has the misfortune to recognise him during the robbery.

His one chance at redemption is Sissy, who for some reason sees something that nobody else can and falls in love with Frank, but even this he messes up when he sees the opportunity to use her love to his advantage with his ‘friend Kromer. (I use quotation marks because both men dislike each other, they just hang around together due to criminal connections).

Then Frank is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the occupying forces. The same elements that make him so wrong for the outside world (his lack of fear, of empathy, his coldness, and distrust of others), give him an edge inside. He doesn’t inform, he doesn’t compromise, and – by looking out of his window at a woman in a building across from the prison – he finds a spark of humanity.

Dirty Snow is one of those rare books that’s as dark and destructive as a black hole. It sucks away all light, all hope, and pushes the reader face first into the dark snow that builds up in the gutters.

It is also beautifully written in lean prose that strips away all the excess fat to find the meat and bone of the story beneath. Dirty Snow doesn’t waste words or paragraphs on things the story doesn’t need, it uses them to build a dark world that pulses with life.

Simenon tells the tale without sentimentality, and never resorts to cliché. In fact, it’s rare to find a book of his that does resort to clichés (for instance, Maigret isn’t a tortured soul with addictions and no home life, he’s a happily married man who does his job with distinction, even when he doesn’t like it). It presents the world to us and says this is how it is. If you don’t like it, look away, but this is how things are.

Even now, it stands up as a hostile, dark masterpiece.