Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

James Ellroy begins his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia

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James Ellroy has spent half his career—the more successful, more engaging half—on a pair of fantastic series: the L.A. Quartet and the Underworld, USA Trilogy, both of which draw fictionalized histories of America’s dark side via stories about cops, criminals, and criminal cops. With the bursting-at-the-seams Perfidia, he begins the Second L.A. Quartet, with this first book in a prequel series covering a shorter period of time than the others, from just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor until the end of December 1941.

Characters from his other books live here as well, presented again with Ellroy’s famously short, sharp phrasing. (“Dick Carlisle cracked his knuckles. Elmer Jackson flipped through his notebook. He’d worked the rape string from the start.”) The story—which starts with a drugstore heist, then leads to the gruesome murder of a Japanese family and so much more—is relayed from four rotating perspectives, one of Ellroy’s go-to moves. He’s explored three of these characters before: Kay Lake was a key figure in The Black Dahlia, and here she begins to find her strength and edge. William Parker, the real-life, massively controversial L.A. police chief, appears in L.A. Confidential and White Jazz. The fearsome, brutal Dudley Smith gets the greatest workout here—a glimpse into the nefarious, corrupt dealings that would color the entire first L.A. Quartet. He’s clearly Ellroy’s favorite, and not coincidentally his most broken and brutal.

But the star of the show is the moral-but-flawed Hideo Ashida, a brilliant police scientist who’s willing to bend the rules if it means more access to evidence—he’ll buck the chain of command to satisfy his own curiosity. When the Watanabe family is killed in what looks like a ritual murder—and when Pearl Harbor is bombed the very next day—Ashida must scramble to puzzle out clues before his ethnicity puts him in danger. Eventually, the threat of internment camps will even reach a Japanese cop, and Ellroy paints the blistering anti-Japanese sentiment in scary detail.

To attempt some kind of plot summary beyond that would be a fool’s errand: As with Ellroy’s other books, Perfidia is crowded, complicated, and filled with dozens of richly detailed characters and multiple double-crosses. It’s also brilliantly obsessed with guilt, a motivation rarely dealt with well in crime novels: A fairly minor character, Scotty Bennett (he appears older and wiser in Blood’s A Rover, from the Underworld series), jumps into life as a thug cop with verve but almost as quickly jumps out. Ashida is motivated to search for the truth about the book’s main case far longer than anyone else, out of a sense of obligation and compulsion. With the exception of Lake, whose story is told—sometimes clumsily—via her diary entries, each character feels intensely alive, and frequently desperate. (It could be argued that the writing in Lake’s diaries is purposefully less engaging, considering it’s delivered in her voice, not the writer’s.)

Perfidia can occasionally be too dense—it’s Ellroy’s longest book yet—with motivations and machinations lost in a miasma of violence and abundant detail about tangential business deals, side investigations, and real-life celebrities. (Jack Webb, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford make appearances, none particularly flattering.) But Ellroy reminds throughout—with references to the titular song—that Perfidia is at its heart about betrayal, and he reminds with his structure that it’s chiefly about the four characters he’s chosen to represent his complicated, corrupt, beloved city.