Perfidia – James Ellroy


Perfidia is the first novel of James Ellroy’s second LA quartet. The first quartet includes LA Confidential, which along with American Tabloid, are the other two James Ellroy novels I have read.

The first LA quartet covers the years 1946 to 1958 and this quartet starts in December 1941, coinciding with the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

There are four protagonists in Perfidia. Kay Lake is a 21 year old woman from South Dakota who has thrown her lot in with an LA police officer. Hideo Ashida is a police chemist who is concealing his homosexuality and reliant on the loyalty of senior police offers to protect him against the internment of all Japanese that happens after Pearl Harbour. William H Parker is is a captain in the LA police and appears in LA Confidential. He is ambitious for the job of police chief and spends a good chunk of the story drunk before he puts himself through his own brutal dry out. The final player is Sergeant Dudley Smith, one of the main stars of LA Confidential, also ambitious but keen to make money and not afraid to use his police advantage to do it. There’s a huge cast of characters, many of them real and several of them famous, including Bette Davis.

The story starts with the investigation of what appears to be a murder suicide involving a Japanese couple and their two children. But across nearly 700 pages, this crime and all of the many other stands of the plot, is much more complex than that.

What I love about James Ellroy’s writing is his unique and unmistakeable voice. His language sounds like gunfire and is graphic, crude and brutal:

“Harry (Cohn, the real life boss of Columbia pictures) was an honorary white man. He ran Columbia tightfisted. The studio scrape doc was a lez named Ruth Mildred Cressmeyer. Ruthie owned a dyke slave den with Deputy Dot Rothstein. Ruthie botched a scrape on Bill McPherson’s coon squeeze and lost her M.D’s licence.’

This language, together with the violence, boozing, eugenics, and ubiquitous racism means Perfidia is not for the faint-hearted. But some of the scenes, for example one with Bette Davis entertaining some stage hands by firing off the full clip of Dudley Smith’s gun into the ceiling, are just brilliant. As with LA Confidential, you really feel you are in 1940s LA.

But while the plot of Perfidia is a complex interplay between the main crime, the bombing of Pearl Harbour, sedition and corruption, I just didn’t enjoy this as much as LA Confidential. One problem is the 700 pages. It was just too long to sustain my interest and I think would not have lost any of the plot complexity if it had been significantly edited down.

The second problem is the characters. Dudley Smith is the strongest, perhaps because he had already been so well developed in previous books, followed by Hideo Ashida. But Kay Lake just was not believable to me. I didn’t understand her motivations or her personality at all. William Parker was also confusing, though Ellroy is clearly better at male characters than women. And any depth of character or their motivations just gets swamped by the violence and hard-hitting language to have much effect on the reader.

If you can persist with the length and you like LA noir, this is another well-plotted and complex crime story from Ellroy but I struggled to get through it.