James Ellroy in Nighttown

James Ellroy's 'Perfidia'

4 minute read
Literary wild man James Ellroy (photo by Mark Coggins via Creative Commons/Flickr)
Literary wild man James Ellroy (photo by Mark Coggins via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Before Ernest Hemingway was famous, Gertrude Stein told him, “Simplify, Ernest, simplify.”

He did. And became famous, using short, flat, distant sentences. His became the most imitated literary voice in America ever.

James Ellroy has done old Papa one better. His sentences almost disappear. Brutally short. But Ellroy has gone back past Hemingway and dropped anchor in the whirlpool that is James Joyce. The ghost of William S. Burroughs hovers over his prose, too.

Dig this passage from Ellroy’s latest, Perfidia: “The job oozed hybrid. It was Fifth Column meets loot-and-slay. The Japs bolt their hillside hideout and hit C-town. Drop cars, getaway cars. Do they head back north or south? The posse’s all over the hills. The job oozed oddball and skewed.”

This is the crafty/crazed diction of a writer who when he is rolling is James Joyce on crystal meth or a needled-up Burroughs with a slice of Hemingway on the side (hubba-hubba). Ellroy’s Dublin is Los Angeles in all its dark, glowing glory, a Valhalla of the venal where all good intentions go to die.

An infamous day

Perfidia is centered around that infamous day, December 7, 1941, and the popular song for which it is named is totally apropos because this is the story of endless perfidy among the police and politicians of Los Angeles, who see World War II and the shameful internment of Japanese-American citizens as a potential bonanza for any number of their shady, whacked-out schemes. They are cheerfully breaking every righteous vow they ever took. Even the archbishop is on board. And the strains of “Perfidia” hum low in the background.

Ellroy is not for the squeamish. He might be as half-cracked or fully crazed as his lead characters. His mother was murdered. To him, she was the legendary Black Dahlia, one of L.A.’s unsolved crimes of the century. High as a jackrabbit, he creeped houses as a teenager, driven, driven. He knew life was brutal and men venal. His writing proceeded from that knowledge.

His cops are brilliant and totally flawed, driven, driven. They murder as a matter of course. They are supremely scary. And one is totally fetching in his way. Homicide sergeant Dudley Liam Smith is an Irishman who was Joe Kennedy’s Dublin muscle. Smith’s father and brother were killed by the hated Black and Tans, and Smith had his revenge when he roasted 14 Brits in an armored car. Later, he became overzealous in beating “a Jew banker” who had crossed Kennedy, and the man died. Kennedy arranged a berth on the LAPD for Smith, saying he could “fuck movie stars and make mischief.”

Which he did, becoming Bette Davis’s lover and getting his hands into every illegal scheme he could find or invent — all while married and the father of four doting daughters. The Dudster, as he is known, is big and handsome, a totally charming cobra, calling his underlings “lads” and blarneying of “grand” payoffs in that carefully modulated brogue.

Here’s the Dudster’s self-description: “There’s a beast in me. I destroy those I cannot control. I must be certain that those close to me share my identical interests. I’m benevolent within that construction. I’m ghastly outside of it.” Whoa.

A twisted labyrinth

The Dudster’s sworn enemy is Captain William H. Parker — known as “Whiskey Bill” — who in real life became the most famous of the Los Angeles police chiefs. In Ellroy’s telling, Whiskey Bill is a functionally insane, God-praying, devout, alcoholic Catholic whose every step and breath is devoted to his own advancement. No crimes are too high for Whiskey Bill in his relentless climb.

James Ellroy makes hundreds of pages of notes for each of his crime novels. The result here is a twisted labyrinth of plot and counterplot, casual racism, murder most bloody and foul, and hypnotic prose, with real-life big names passing through or nudging the story along: Bugsy Siegel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson (who is wrongly listed as a Princeton graduate when he in fact went to Rutgers), Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fiorello LaGuardia, Bob Hope, J. Edgar Hoover, Mickey Cohen, and Lenny Bernstein. Young Jack Kennedy rushes from the airplane to fuck a starlet and then on to Gloria Swanson’s to fuck his father’s longtime mistress. One whore describes Jack Kennedy’s cock as a pecan.

Ellroy, who resembles an updated Eric von Stroheim, is a true literary wild man in both his life and fiction. Hunter S. Thompson can’t carry his jock. Jean Genet could be his cousin. He is a prophet of wrath.

Perfidia is the first novel of Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet, joining the seven novels of the L.A. Quartet plus the Underworld USA Trilogy in Ellroy’s relentless roam through all that is dark and seamy of the American soul.

Fittingly, the last words of the song are “Perfidia’s won. Good-bye.”

What, When, Where

Perfidia. A novel by James Ellroy. Knopf, 2014. Available at Amazon.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation