Ellroy’s Los Angeles will never be confused with
Disneyland. Teeming with corrupt cops, slumming movie
stars and grisly crime scenes, it’s a drugged-up,
beat-down jungle of vice, rendered in staccato sentences
and slang whose speakers don’t mix with polite
keeps coming back to it, in book after book, series
after series. First there was the L.A. Quartet, composed
of "The Black Dahlia," "The Big
Confidential" and "White Jazz."
Now he’s back with a second L.A. Quartet, which starts
with the twisting (and twisted) World War II labyrinth
66, doesn’t read so much as he performs. A typical
public greeting: "Good evening peepers, prowlers,
pederasts … punks and pimps." He plays the author
named James Ellroy and leads with a big persona: profane
how seriously should you take him when he claims he’s
got a brand new bag?
an exuberant human being, and a rather aggressive
one," he says by phone. "I’m learning to
modulate my affects and modify them to fit my new, more
mature persona in what is a different kind of book for
is, and it isn’t. "Perfidia" revolves
around the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the ensuing chaos
in the Los Angeles area. It also deals with the
internment of Japanese-Americans, and the plight of one
Hideo Ashida, a brilliant criminologist who, as Ellroy
says, is "in the deepest of [expletive]."
a closeted homosexual in 1941. He’s Japanese-American
in 1941. He’s a young man of conflicting loyalties and
conflicting ideologies, a feudal Japanese samurai
tradition and Protestant tradition. And he’s a
book also contains long first-person sections narrated
by a female character, uncommon in the hypermacho Ellroy
universe. "I think she’s my greatest fictional
you think he’s going soft, "Perfidia" also
boasts all manner of depravity, much of it perpetrated
by Dudley Smith.
Confidential fans will remember "Dudster,"
played with such charming menace by James Cromwell in
Hanson’s film. Here he’s a younger, more savage
beast, quick to have a group of Chinese gang members
hacked up with an ax and join the fun with his gun, all
in the name of a good frame-up. This younger Dudley has
his best thoughts after a few hits of opium, offset by a
few swigs of sturdy Dexedrine tea.
most Ellroy novels, "Perfidia" is
densely plotted and fast on its feet. Its 695 pages
include 43 characters, many of them familiar from the
first quartet. They include Dudley; Kay Lake, the female
lead of "The Black Dahlia," Sgt. Buzz
Meeks, from "The Big
Nowhere" and "L.A.
Confidential" and the tabloid reporter Sid Hudgens,
memorably played by Danny DeVito in "L.A.
of it as the first installment of a new prequel series,
unfolding in the years before the first L.A. Quartet
takes flight. "It’s about taking previously
established characters and supplying dramatic revelation
that in no way compromises the actions of the characters
in their later years. It has to be seamless."
phrase "shadow history" comes to mind when
describing Ellroy’s work. His Underworld USA trilogy
deals with Dallas and the Kennedy assassination. His
L.A. books feature real-life characters — Bette Davis,
former LAPD chief William "Whiskey Bill"
Parker, gangster Mickey Cohen — operating in a seedy
Ellroy says the idea that he mimics history detracts
from the accomplishments of his imagination. Fueled by a
pair of still-unsolved L.A. murders — his own mother
in 1958 and Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. the Black Dahlia) in
1947 — and a subsequent fascination with and reverence
for the LAPD, he has created his own sinister and wildly
entertaining universe. Historical figures drop in from
time to time, but only to do Ellroy’s bidding.
had to create my own shadow history. No one else’s
shadow history interested me. I never tell people what’s
real or what’s not. When I hire researchers, I tell
them they don’t have to go out and get me secret
documents. Just give me history as it is. I trust myself
to extrapolate fictionally."