Notes from the Underworld

Perfidia: A novel BY James Ellroy. Knopf. Hardcover, 720 pages. $28.

The cover of Perfidia: A novel

Given the thousands of pages that James Ellroy has published, the seven books that precede Perfidia in this super-series about the Los Angeles underworld, and the many critics who’ve chimed in over the years, a review of Ellroy’s new book, the longest one yet, the one that starts tugging the previous ones into a giant overarching narrative, is a thankless task. Ellroy is a cult. For many, he’s a you’re-in-or-you’re-out cult, because he’s intense and absolute and violent in every respect—emotionally, linguistically, and physically. He’s a brash writer who spins marvelously complicated, suspenseful plots. He is fluent in local period dialect that captures everything dirty, transient, prejudiced, profane, and provincial about the way cops and robbers, movie stars, and politicians talk. His thick, relentless dialogue (fully peppered with all the nasty racist and sexist things you might imagine that hard-boiled cops would say) combines with a compressed, impressionistic aesthetic that puts the language somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and Ulysses:They shagged to Elmer’s car and peeled northbound. They crossed the bridge. The shoreline blackout swaddled them. It pressed down the sky. It smothered the ground. You got white pavement lines and no more.” Readers either bolt or commit.

The Black Dahlia (1987) was the first of the LA Quartet, which included, in quick succession, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz. Starting with the city’s most famous cold case, the savage murder in 1947 of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, the series follows a cast, mostly of police, through two decades of violence and corruption. The characters and the crimes flagrantly blend history and fiction. After the LA Quartet, Ellroy produced the Underworld USA Trilogy—American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover—which worked through the years 1958 to 1972 and included national stories such as the Kennedy assassination, where Hoffa is buried, what Hoover knew. Perfidia inaugurates a new series, the Second LA Quartet, that involves characters and story lines from the other books, years earlier. According to Ellroy, these eleven books together “span 31 years and will stand as one unified novelistic history.”

Perfidia is set in Los Angeles in December 1941 in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. At the height of anti-Japanese sentiment, a Japanese family of four is found dead, the murder scene set to look like a ritual suicide. Among the police assigned to the case is a brilliant young Japanese forensics expert, Hideo Ashida; a soul-crushing and charismatic Irish sergeant, Dudley Liam Smith; and Captain William H. Parker, “Whiskey Bill.” The murder is a gruesome puzzle, and everyone involved has a different investment in the outcome.

Captain Parker is assigned to oversee the case, and yet from the beginning he knows the odds are stacked against him: “War headlines, war on the radio. Kill-the-Japs table chat. ‘Cold potato. The Japs sunk the Arizona. They’re going for the Philippines now. You can’t run a homicide case in this kind of atmosphere.’” Dudley Smith wants the case to be wrapped up before the new year—when half the force, himself included, will be shipping off to war. For the sake of simplicity he’d like for the perpetrator to be a criminally insane Japanese man, so that in the fearsome groundswell of post–Pearl Harbor sentiment the department doesn’t have to try to prosecute a white man for the murder of a Japanese family. While his partners are planting evidence and ferreting out a patsy, Ashida maintains a scientist’s curiosity about the murder and is driven to solve the case for real. He’s not chasing justice, or even on a mission—he just can’t resist the allure of stringing together clues.

The dead family, the Watanabes, provide an especially alluring set of clues. It turns out that they were fifth columnists, wartime saboteurs who operated domestic campaigns. They knew about Pearl Harbor ahead of time; they owned a farm that depended on illegal Mexican labor; the teenage son and daughter had some kind of incestuous relationship; and at the crime scene, the whole family reeks of shrimp oil and has bewildering scarring on the bottoms of their feet.

Meanwhile, in a bid for chief, Whiskey Bill is hunting Reds—not a sanctioned operation so much as a hunch about what might make him useful in the future. He enlists the aid of a young and excessively bored Kay Lake, girlfriend of department heavy Lee Blanchard (later one of the two main cops on the Black Dahlia case). Because she has a criminal record, Kay can’t enlist, and jumps at the chance to be useful when Bill asks her to infiltrate a cell of high-end Hollywood Communists. Bill is an intemperate square, who cultivates unrequited crushes and sanctimonious causes—causes that tend to ruffle (inadvertently or not) the corrupt status quo of the LAPD.

The communist threat seems ultimately to be about making bad propaganda movies, and Kay’s passionate instincts get tangled. She’s patriotic, lustful, and really good at reading people. She falls for her own undercover rhetoric, can’t resist her symbiotic connection with Bill, wants to do something for the Japanese Americans who are being rounded up like cattle, believes in the possibility of ethical superiority, and is actively seducing four policemen (including Bill and Hideo Ashida) while living in chaste sin with a fifth. She sabotages her own operation, and Whiskey Bill falls into the vacuum left behind.

All of which mayhem fits perfectly into Dudley Smith’s maniacal plan to commandeer LA’s underworld, profiteer off the war, and make Bette Davis fall in love with him. These lunatic threads, and these four unhinged characters, come together to dramatize the emotional chaos that floods a country at war.

Katherine Ann “Kay” Lake, who first appears, wedged into a thankless love triangle with detectives Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert, in The Black Dahlia, is Perfidia’s moral compass. Her deathbed incantation—eighty-four years after the story’s events—prefaces the novel: “It was a fever then. It remains a fever now. I will not die as long as I live this story.”

Kay is a convincing spy, an irresistible chameleon. This is her gift and tragic flaw. She ingratiates herself with the Reds, and before long is spearheading the making of an antiracist propaganda film, a believer not a double agent. It’s not that her loyalties are split—she may in fact be the most steadfast soul in the book. While everyone else is shifting allegiances and slopping in a morally relativistic puddle, she sticks to her guns and in her own way cleaves most articulately to the point of Perfidia. “War. Blood libel,” she sums up. “Here we were in Los Angeles. We were at odds with one another and afire with crazed duty. We were as one and bound by a terrible allegiance in the time of Pearl Harbor.”

As he does in his other appearances—The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz, and the very early Clandestine—Dudley Smith nearly steals the book. A magnetic brute with a flamboyant way of talking—all Irish bard, his killer wink, the way he always seems two steps ahead of everyone. Dudley is a gangster. He manipulates people. He’s always looking for a profit and he’s more than a little sociopathic in his pursuit of it: a noble savage, a lovable killer. He meets his match in Bette Davis. He pursues and seduces her, only to find in her someone who has more control (or more need of control) than he does. She not only calls the shots, shaming him when he sends her flowers by telling him the gift “inconvenienced” her, she plays him. Perceptive Kay Lake identifies their impossible conflict for what it is: “Miss Davis was all artifice,” she explains, “save for her fear and rage. It was fear of nothingness and rage at the prospect fulfilled. It was her appetite for men at war with her need to orchestrate her every life’s moment. Dudley Smith terrified her. He was the brutal blank page of her unconscious and had hurled her beyond her ken. They had breached each other’s façades.” In a moment of passion Bette asks Dudley to “kill a Jap for her,” and as if on autopilot he blows the head off the first he sees. “For Bette,” he says, looking down on the carnage. Bette thwarts his ethical code, clouds his sense of agency. Dudley fumbles, and we’re brought into one of Ellroy’s classically jangly moral ambiguities. Everyone loves Dudley, and fears him. He’s a coldhearted killer with outsize power. He’s an immigrant cop in love with a movie star. We can’t enter his black heart unless we suspend all moral judgment. When he pulls the trigger, he transcends the limits of his own psychopathology. It’s as if this moment is his fall, but Ellroy’s war-fueled landscape is hell, so Dudley has nowhere to fall to.

While reading Perfidia, it dawned on me that even if the book turned out to be at least as good as, say, The Big Nowhere or The Black Dahlia, there would be nothing much more to say on the subject: Not only because it is unnecessary to squander more words describing Ellroy’s signature fuck-you-like-a-Brancusi style and his hell’s-bells persona (which is so calcified even Ellroy has it down to an elevator pitch), but also because the new book treats the same subjects, same characters, same landscape, and same moral anarchy as the seven previous novels. Nonetheless, Perfidia is a revelation. After all these years, there’s more to learn about Dudley Smith. Eight books into the LA underworld, the material should be tired, beaten to death, pickled. But it isn’t. These novels (and, it must be said, the astonishing memoir My Dark Places) aren’t mere installments in a detective series; they are part of an ongoing literary project—or quest. Ellroy keeps scratching away at this same material, this same city, these same windblown souls—as if he’s going to figure It out. Sooner or later, if he keeps scratching, he’ll get there. Every scratch moves closer, shifts the stakes a little. Something larger will be revealed. Perfidia is high Ellroy. The language is on fire, the complexities are grueling. If you can bear the queasy darkness, even revel in the spastic pummeling, you can’t stay away. You’re a fellow traveler on this brutal quest. It is perhaps this deeper allegiance that gives Ellroy’s inferno its glimmer of humanity.

Minna Proctor is the editor of the Literary Review.