Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Welcome Return to Form: James Ellroy’s Perfidia

He’s back! After a five year absence, James Ellroy has a new novel out, Perfidia (Knopf, 2014), and while it is a return to the characters who inhabited his earlier, and superb, L.A. Quartet series of books (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, 1987-92), it’s also a return to form for the writer. His last series, the Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover, 1995-2009), which played out on a national canvas of American history, the JFK assassination, the war in Vietnam etc., struck me as mostly lackadaisical, even pallid, as if Ellroy couldn't quite put his heart into it, realizing that authors like Don DeLillo (Underworld) had already visited the environs he was writing about and he thus couldn't and didn't do much that was new with the themes inherent in the books. (I did finish reading the trilogy so it was hardly a complete botch.) But with Perfidia, the first of a new quartet, titled The Second L.A. Quartet, the profane, vulgar and exciting Ellroy we all know and love is back to his old tricks; if Perfidia isn't exactly a literary stretch for the author, it’s nonetheless a book that plays to his strengths as a writer, offering up memorable characterization, staccato, powerful writing and a profane street level view of Los Angeles’ mean streets and institutions that is uniquely and memorably Ellroy’s own.

With Perfidia and the Quartet, Ellroy is going backwards from the decade that series was set in, in the 1950s, to the 1940s, thereby extending his time frame and casting his characters in a new light, often before they became the people we thought we knew in The L.A. Quartet. Set on the eve of Pearl Harbor (December. 7, 1941), Perfirdia revolves around four major characters: L.A. cops, Captain William H. Parker and Sergeant Dudley Smith, both Catholics on a largely Protestant police force and vying to become the next Police Chief; Kay Lake, a young troubled woman caught between them; and Hideo Ashida, a police chemist and the only Japanese American on the police payroll. When a local Japanese family, the Watanabes, is found murdered, in a (supposedly) ritually laid out ‘suicide’ pact, the stage is set for a complex mystery, revolving around Fifth Columnists, bent on betraying America to the Japanese enemy, various individuals hoping to profit from the incarceration of the Japanese American populace after Pearl Harbor and the confiscation of their property and bank accounts, and a police force rife with corruption, racism and brutality.

James Ellroy (Photo: Marion Ettlinger)
Ellroy’s forte has always been vivid portrayals of individuals on the edge, fortified by drugs, alcohol and caffeine and lurching their way from one crisis to another, often performing unsavory deeds in the process. Perfidia is no different, but Ellroy has considerably upped the ante here as everything that transpires in the novel has a heightened sense of unreality to it, unfolding as it does in a compressed time frame (Dec. 6 -29, 1941) with characters who are perpetually in motion even as the bodies pile up and the city’s warlike atmosphere, bolstered by the country’s belated entry in the Second World War, grows in ugliness and impact. We also see those characters in a new light, particularly that of Dudley Smith, a supreme villain in the second through fourth books of The L.A. Quartet but revealed here as a fine detective, too, when he wants to be. (His terrorist Irish background is also filled in in Perfidia.) William H. Parker’s guilt ridden, alcoholic policeman is also an indelible depiction as is Ashida’s non-stereotypical, and also troubled, Japanese detective, which is what he becomes in the course of the novel as he delves into the Watanabe murders. He’s also a new addition to the series, very briefly mentioned in The Black Dahlia, but the first time Ellroy has essayed a non- white lead protagonist in print. And while Kay Lake remains opaque to me, despite excerpts from her diary littering the book, the persona of Claire De Haven, a left wing, patrician and rich drug addicted character, on whom Kay is spying on at Parker's behest, comes to life much or strongly than she did in The Big Nowhere (where I barely recall her presence); she’s Ellroy’s best written female character since Elizabeth Short, the real life murder victim nicknamed The Black Dahlia. Short also appears in Perfidia but her provocative connection to one of the key characters in the book doesn't entirely parse since that person did not appear in The Black Dahlia. There are also inconsistencies in her story/history in Perfidia that don’t match up with her details in The Black Dahlia. I’d consider that more of a flaw in the novel than it is if Perfidia wasn't chock full of unreliable narrators, who make ‘facts’ up and also because The Black Dahlia has always seemed to me artificially grafted onto to the L.A. Quartet as its characters were almost all unique to that novel, unlike the many individuals who are consistently featured in the other three books in the series. Ellroy does get it a bit wrong in the book's dramatis personae, the index at the end which lists all the characters and where they appeared (if they did) in the previous novels; composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein is listed as appearing for the first time in an Ellroy book but that is inaccurate, as Bernstein already made an appearance in 2010's Blood's a Rover.

Smith and Parker also embody one of Ellroy’s regular tropes, the man obsessed with and scarred by a woman who either died or left him or has come into his life. Lee Blanchard, another cop in the series, is still haunted by the murder of a sister he was supposed to mind when he was a teenager, Parker is obsessed with a woman he never got to know in university and Smith has become besotted and romantically involved with actress Bette Davis – yes, that Bette Davis. (To understand why Ellroy writes about this subject of abandonment and desire , you need to know that Ellroy, himself, as he admits, is still and has always been affected by the murder of a his mother when he was ten, which he wrote about in his 1996 (pulpy) memoir My Dark Places.)

Ms. Davis, incidentally, fares better than other famous Hollywood figures, featured in previous Ellroy books, like actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, whose private lives as depicted by Ellroy, have always struck me as salaciously unfair and exploitative. (His take on Wood’s off-screen life, for one, doesn’t echo anyone else’s, likely because it isn’t true.) That may be because Ellroy probably has a crush on Davis as well; as she comes across in Perfidia, she’s a fascinating, warts and all strong-willed character, not all that different from any of her best known roles in movies like Jezebel and The Petrified Forest. (We’ll see how Ellroy treats the accidental death of her second husband, Arthur Farnsworth in 1943, in his future books, a demise which some have always seen as suspicious.) I do wonder though about Ellroy’s disgusting portrait of Columbia studio mogul Harry Cohn, whom Ellroy has opine that he doesn't give a fuck how many Jews Hitler kills as long as he doesn't kill him. Would Cohn really have said that about his endangered Jewish brethren in Europe? He was crass but that goes beyond even his bad taste, though Cohn reportedly kept a bust of Il Duce, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in his office until the outbreak of the Second World War. Other equally damning portraits of real life people like long serving L.A. mayor Fletcher Bowron or L.A. Police Chief Clemence B. (“Jack”) Horrall seem more realistic as their careers were quite checkered. The depiction of a young John F. Kennedy seems fair to me, albeit not all that flattering. I do wonder though if FBI head J. Edgar Hoover’s reputed homosexuality would have been treated as fact by various law enforcement personnel as Ellroy lays out in his book.

L.A. mayor Fletcher Bowron in 1946.
One thing that has been clear and laudable about Ellroy is that he fancies himself a shit disturber and agent provocateur. Who else would label chapters of a book "The Japs" or "The Chinks"? But he is also reminding us that casual racism was the order of the day in 1940s Los Angeles and, unlike today, racial epithets were uttered far more openly and routinely. Remember a lot of Americans always felt that WWII was, in their racist terminology, “a Jew inspired war", arranged to benefit that group at the expense of everyone else. (His earlier novels dealt with black-white race relations, not much of a factor in Perfidia.) But though Ellroy condemns the virulent racism that lay behind the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and an awareness that it may not play out sympathetically in the press, he also doesn't hesitate to point out that there were indeed Fifth Columnists in the USA, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, who were ready to betray their country to the Axis enemy. And Ashida, desperate not to be booted off the police force because of his race isn't above selling his soul in order to ingratiate himself with Smith and/or Parker though unlike his superiors he does want justice done in the Watanabe case.

Ellroy also dwells on the longstanding racial animus between the Japanese and Chinese, the latter of whom are tied into the police, as shown through the relationship/friendship, in particular, between restaurant owner Uncle Ace Kwan and Smith. The Chinese in L.A are treated with much more benevolence than the Japanese but, then again, their home country is not at war with America. But the likes of Kwan are perfectly happy to mistreat and exploit the beleaguered Japanese Americans in order to curry favour with their racist American neighbours. (And many of the cops, like Smith, harbour Nazi sympathies, as well.) It’s not fashionable in today’s politically correct climate to admit as such, in much the same way as revelations that there were actually Communist-influenced folk, also Fifth Columnists, making movies in Hollywood, but it’s undeniably true. (Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s disturbing and devastating 1998 non-fiction account Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s is Exhibit A here.) And that uncomfortable truth-telling is one of the reasons, besides the sheer entertainment value of most of his output, to read Ellroy, even if some of his use of true to life characters is, admittedly, problematic. Perfidia embraces a complicated moral ambiguity as well: Smith is very smart, and knows deep down that his racist, anti-Semitic views are inherently vile and unjustified, but he persists anyway in sticking to them even as he carries out dark acts like the Japanese relocations. Smith also develops a deep admiration for Ashida, whom he protects – this moral complexity may be one of the reasons not all film adaptations of Ellroy's work, despite their appealing film noir characteristics (book noir, perhaps?), translate equally well on screen. They've run the gamut from the excellent Curtis Hanson directed L.A. Confidential (1997) to the not bad James B. Harris movie Cop (1988), adapted from Ellroy’s 1984 novel Blood on the Moon, to the disastrous 2006 Brian De Palma adaptation of The Black Dahlia which could have been as great as L.A. Confidential. ( I haven’t seen, or even heard of until now, Stay Clean, a 2002 film adaptation of Ellroy’s remarkable serial killer novel Killer on the Road (1986), but by all accounts, it seems undistinguished.)

I do feel that Ellroy ought to have mined a more original tale than Perfidia – its plot is familiar in its scope if not its specifics – but since his last literary endeavour didn't quite gel, it makes sense that he is revising old haunts and to a large degree deepening the colours of his palette. Perfidia, despite some flaws, is good enough that I’ll be sticking with it through the rest of the series. I really can’t wait to see how it turns out for Smith and company. (Ellroy may fudge some of the background details when he wraps it up circa 1946, adding five years overall to the time frame of both the L.A. Quartet and the Underworld USA series.) I predict when you read Perfidia, you’ll be on the same anticipatory page, too.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9, at Ryerson. On October 10, he’ll be starting a new course: My Favourite Movies – And Why.

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