Ellroy and the City of Angels

Life is full of strange confluences. Especially when you live in Southern California, where everything flows out of the LA River and into the ocean. To wit, as October hit, I received James Ellroy’s new novel PERFIDIA for my birthday, just before starting a new job in Hollywood. Riding the Redline to work the first day, reading Ellroy, I come up onto Hollywood Boulevard, and within steps I was staring at Ellen Drew’s star on the pavement. The building I work in is across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel, I can look down on its original sign. Both Drew and the Roosevelt figure in Ellroy’s novel. For better or worse, you live in Los Angeles, you’re bound to run into a place Ellroy paints.

PERFIDIA is trumpeted as the start of the Second LA Quartet by Ellroy, predating the original LA Quartet and the Underworld USA trilogy. What that means, as exemplified by the five page dramatis personae at the end of this 700 page novel, is that we have a cross section of every character Ellroy has ever written making an appearance over the slim expanse of December 1941 Los Angeles and local environs. It’s all a tightly wound ball of people, real and fictional, running around doing brutal things to each other, physically and mentally. PERFIDIA can be translated as betrayal or treachery, and that perfectly encapsulates the novel from the first page to the last.

Unfortunately, that tight ball unravels very quickly. What seemed fresh some 28 years ago in THE BLACK DAHLIA, the mix of the real and the fictional, the functional brutality, the coarseness, the relentless beat of Los Angeles in decay, seems almost parody in the present in PERFIDIA. The specter of Pearl Harbor allows Ellroy to wallow in grotesque hate visions and twisted race politics, trading his traditional Latino invective for Asian, including a Jewish-Chinese plot to charge rich Japanese to be plastic surgeoned into faux Chinese to live free and incognito in Southern California instead of being interned in camps. And, that’s not even the strangest plot point in the book. The grand guignol bubbling in THE BLACK DAHLIA and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL takes center stage page after page. The delirious staccato of Ellroy’s sentences, still his real strength, carry you on waves such that you almost forget, until you have koi fish on the brain. The entire Bette Davis interlude strung throughout simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Worse the Ellen Drew. What was hip in THE BLACK DAHLIA just seems tawdry here. The blank slate Elizabeth Short of reality helps carry the day, and it doesn’t work with Davis. The reappearance of a younger, naïve, Short in this narrative only underscores the disparity.

Indeed, the use of prior characters only underscores the weaknesses of this book, and makes you want to re-read Ellroy’s originals instead. The entire Exley pére sequences, built upon housing schemes in Los Angeles, ostensibly to echo L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, only puts into the reader’s mind you much tighter that narrative was – even as it encompasses years rather than a month. Ellroy has lost his judicious touch for leaving the scene on a high note and instead pulling them well beyond the veil. And, I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but there is just too much Dudley Smith in this book. All of the recurring characters have lost their luster in this prequel. We already know where they are going. We already know that they are damned. We have already seen them damn themselves. This doesn’t add to the tapestry of their lives, it only strings them along further, just more balls unraveling. The one true interesting character in the novel is the “new” one, Nisei Los Angeles Police Department Crime Lab Whiz Kid Extraordinaire Hideo Ashida. Ellroy notes in his dramatis personae that Ashida had a walk on in THE BLACK DAHLIA, unremembered by most, and essentially a brand new character. His story, his betrayals, drive a significant portion of, and the best parts of, the novel. For all his potboiler language and grand-standing, Ellroy does prove several times with Ashida that he can still write effective, raw, real emotion, and not just invective and dross. Hidden with the sprawl, we do find a line of amazing work.

So, like all of Southern California, you’re mileage will vary depending on where you want to go, whether you want to travel the road all the way. Did I feel like I got my dinero’s worth? Sadly, no. But did I feel betrayed? No. As always, approach Ellroy at your own peril, even at his ripest, he can draw you in … and leave you passed out on the street corner, dreaming of lost innocence.