by James Ellroy
Published September, 2014
The Black Dahlia (1987) was James Ellroy’s first novel. While it is true that he published six novels prior to this noir masterwork, when we speak of Ellroy’s world – his voice, his style, his inimitability – we speak of something that formed and cooled on the day of that book’s publication. The earlier novels – from Brown’s Requiem (1981) to Killer on the Road (1986) – are dry runs, tyro efforts, a slow walk to mastery. Not counting the last of those titles – a serial killer story published pseudonymously, for which Ellroy has since shown little fondness – the early novels have narratives that run on single rails. They invariably feature a private eye or detective, a criminal, and the sort of case that could be boiled down to a single manila folder. There exist in these slim volumes archetypes that Ellroy would later expand upon, but nothing else in them suggests what was to come.
The Black Dahlia was a massive advance from his earlier work, and it has provided the template for everything he has done since: the remaining three books in the LA Quartet – The Big Nowhere (1988), LA Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992) – and the Underworld USA trilogy, consisting of American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009). These seven novels, ignoring a very fine work of non-fiction – My Dark Places (1996) – one certifiably bonkers work of non-fiction – The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women (2010) – and some assorted journalism and shorter fiction, constitute the key to Ellroy’s achievement.
The LA Quartet took the milieu of the early novels and added history and density. While the earlier novels lived in hermetically sealed worlds – private eyes, heroic detectives, familiar scenarios, solvable cases – the Quartet began to mix its fiction with fact. Real life detectives moved among fabulations. The echoes of famous crimes and unsolved cases twinned with invention. The novels were longer, more demanding in their plotting, more brazen in their language (racist cops, hateful men, unapologetic talk), and more exacting in their prose: the generic forms of the earlier books were toughened up, marinated in the era’s sensibility. They grew terse and abrasive. Above all, these books were obsessive, as if each new volume was powered by their protagonists’ desire for solutions and, often, redemption.
After the LA Quartet, Ellroy widened the frame with the Underworld USA trilogy: a portrait not just of a city, but a country. The history is foretold: its bookmarks and key moments – JFK and RFK, King, Hoover – are mapped out in advance and operate as little more than landmarks between unwritten histories that are equal parts research and tall tale. What Ellroy offers in these books is not alternative history, but a rococo fantasy of how gruntwork, madness and power grabs undercut the illusion of real political work and law enforcement in America. In this inverted world, it is the hired goons, FBI second-stringers and crooked lawyers who move countries to war and spill the blood that makes the dreams of the wealthy a reality: drugs, international casinos, assassinations. Major historical figures appear as cameos or disembodied voices reduced to transcript pages or one-dimensional walk-ons. There is no attempt to flesh out the key players of popular memory, or reveal a previously hidden side obscured by hagiography. These novels are about the fictions that might well have moved among facts – fictions that, as a result of Ellroy’s rigorous plotting, take on the density and credibility of reality. The actual trigger men are not important, and are lost to us now anyway. All that matters in this imagined history is the closest possible mimicry of what might have been, viewed not from the side of good defeated, but from darkness triumphant. It is a crackpot’s assertion made at extraordinary length, and untellable in any other form. The lie a country might need to tell itself – of hard work rewarded, of a march to equality – is here scuttled by a counterclockwise view of brutal opportunism occasionally shaded by misplaced idealism.
Ellroy’s problem with most conspiracy theories is not their conclusions, but the maths. There is no proof or logically drawn line, just an increasingly frenzied series of postulations that hope rhetorical force will suffice for evidence. Ellroy’s fever dreams, however preposterous, carry with them a burden of proof – you go from A to Z in a carefully formulated fashion, from minor discontent in a Miami taxi stand to the assassination of the President. Steps are not missed; the books are not cooked. What are the secret networks that forged a tragedy? How is it all connected? The novels operate not as Whodunits, but Howdunits.
After this shadow history, where next? For Ellroy, a return to The Black Dahlia – to its players major and minor, and, after the broad canvas of the trilogy, to a world of crime and punishment focused once more on that inexhaustible city: Los Angeles. In its heft (another 700 pages) and ambition – densely plotted, linguistically adroit – Perfidia is very much a piece with the seven novels that precede it. At this point, we might call it ‘late Ellroy’, but Perfidia is in one sense early Ellroy – 1941, the farthest back in time he has gone yet. As in the first two volumes of the USA Trilogy (Blood’s a Rover changed the rules slightly, with mixed results), the novel is structured around a rigorously co-ordinated game of narrative turn-taking: four characters, who trade chapters with metronomic precision, three presented in Ellroy’s now familiar third person limited voice, the fourth character presented in diary form.
Given that a no doubt poorly paid publicist was lumped with the unenviable task of summarising the plot of Perfidia in a single paragraph, I see no reason not to honour the attempt, and reproduce it in full, to save us all the most tedious part of any book review, the plot summary:
The hellish murder of a Japanese family summons three men and one woman. William H. Parker is a captain on the Los Angeles Police. He’s superbly gifted, corrosively ambitious, liquored-up and consumed by dubious ideology. He is bitterly at odds with Sergeant Dudley Smith – Irish émigré, ex-IRA killer, fledgling war profiteer. Kay Lake is a 21-year-old dilettante looking for adventure. Hideo Ashida is a police chemist and the only Japanese on the LA cop payroll. The investigation throws them together and rips them apart. The crime becomes a political storm centre that brilliantly illuminates these four driven souls – comrades, rivals, lovers, history’s pawns.
In Perfidia’s case, as with most Ellroy, this kind of synopsis can only catastrophically misrepresent. While Ellroy works on a big canvas – war, love, unsolved murders – his narratives do not have a long novel’s turning circle. They burn through plot, through false leads and easy answers and obvious betrayals. The first 100 pages of Perfidia are likely denser and more knottily arranged than most crime novels are in their entirety. How to summarise this? Ellroy has already boiled his plot down to its purest and most untranslatable essence. The easy division between plot and character, or between functional story-carrying prose and descriptive or evocative prose, is rendered worthless. Blood’s a Rover, when reviewed in the Economist, was compared to a ‘white dwarf, all mass and density’. It is an equally apt metaphor for Perfidia.
The Ellroy M.O. since The Black Dahlia has been simple: get as many characters introduced, connections established and plotlines running as quickly as possible, then begin cross-hatching narrative strands in earnest. But conspiracy is not just a plot device in Ellroy’s work – it is a moral vision, a natural order. Everybody works and serves. The more powerful one is, and the more essential one is to the solving of a crime, then the more deeply enmeshed in a kind of self-betrayal and two-faced servitude one must become. A sign of someone’s intelligence in this world is their ability to play several ends at once while not betraying a personal vision, an obsessive private goal.
Perfidia opens with a device first used in American Tabloid – the rapidfire italicised monologue of a nameless narrator (whose identity becomes clearer later) speaking from the future, or some scrambled present, as if watching over or even guiding the action. The voice is immediate, demanding, and sets the tone of the book, while staking a claim for the work itself. American Tabloid’s opening is worth quoting at length, as it is almost a mission statement for Ellroy’s entire bibliography.
Mass-market hagiography gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.
It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here’s to them.
Perfidia, by comparison, makes the focus personal and tragic. It is lost in time, with a voice that calls you back, insisting upon the story’s telling as the only way to fight death itself. We are past American History now, with those unwieldy capitals. This is back to the human level:
I must recollect with greater fury.
It was a fever then. It remains a fever now. I will not die as long as I live this story. I run to Then to buy myself moments Now.
A policeman knocks on a young woman’s door. Murderers’ flags, aswirl.
The breathlessness of tone, it soon becomes clear, is apt for the work at hand. This is an unhinged, florid, foolhardy book. The novel’s four characters – in their voice, approach and goals – are agents of the overwhelmed, and offer the reader the complete range of Ellroyian types. They also display the writer at his best and worst.
Of the four principal characters, the most familiar to readers of the LA Quartet will be Dudley Smith. An unkillable ghoul with a hand in every pocket and an angle on every misdeed, he embodies the duality of Ellroy’s curious art better than anyone: he is evil as fuck and a rhetorician for the ages. One of the pleasures of Dudley’s company this second time around is watching Ellroy’s late phase grandiosity enlarge an already bombastic character into something near-Shakespearean, with the quotations to match. In Perfidia, an address to a room full of cops takes on the tone of scripture, if not outright necromancy:
Ace Kwan and Lin Chung walked in. They wore shrunken heads. Call-Me-Jack and Sheriff Gene hugged them. The Navy man sat down. Mild applause trickled. Dudley Smith took the lectern.
The Merry Mick. Church pulpit-trained. He scanned the room. He let chitchat subside. He took the room, full brogue.
Chaos attends our fair city. We rebuff invaders as havoc is cried and the dogs of war let slip. ‘The bay trees in our country are all withered, and meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven. The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth, and the lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change.’
The room got it. Big cop, big words. He ain’t no American. It makes this shit okay.
Ellroy clearly delights in letting Smith indulge himself. The address is by realist standards an insane contrivance, yet the baroque rhetoric matches the man: in love with his own voice and possessed with a genuine malevolence. There is an unresolvable paradox to Dudley, and to Ellroy’s clear infatuation with his sliminess. The plotting and detail that surrounds Dudley is rigorous, yet in the middle of that rigour is someone who seems to wander off script constantly, lost in opium-fogged daydreams and endless scheming. Much of Perfidia’s cruellest and most stomach-turning violence can be credited to Dudley in one form or another. Yet in Ellroy’s periodic table he is the essential element: the dark instigator moving through the lives of every Los Angeles inhabitant.
On the other side of the ledger, closer to (relative) good than outright evil, are William H. Parker and Hideo Ashida. Parker, though a minor player in the earlier LA novels, has never been given the floor for such a long stretch of time. He is the latest entry in the Ellroy stand-in game (previous title holders: Wendell A. White and Don Crutchfield). He is also based (unlike those fictions) on the real life head of the LAPD, a position he is years from attaining in Perfidia. While this background is important, it is his character, not his title, that interests Ellroy, who plays him for a barely functioning, romantically doomed alcoholic.
Hideo initially seems to tick every outsider / outcast box imaginable: homosexual, scientifically literate in a deeply macho job, and, most fatally, the only Japanese-American on the police force. Factor in Pearl Harbour and it is hard to make it through a working day unscathed. And yet, moving past these initial cliches, Hideo soon becomes the novel’s most interesting character, and the reader’s clearest line to the conflicts and contradictions at the book’s heart: pacifism and truth-at-all-costs weighed against war and conspiracy. Ellroy, a true Miltonian, might give Devil Dudley the best lines, yet as the book gets darker, and the city begins constructing internment camps, the larger plan behind the crime becomes clearer, and it is Hideo’s conflicted status that seems the book’s richest and most resonant. There is no naivety in his views of law and order, no special pleading in his outsider status, and there is a genuine sense of betrayal as the country turns against its own citizens.
This is often how Ellroy’s archetypes work. Initially cartoonish and melodramatically inflated, they define themselves through their actions, gaining shade and subtlety as they progress, until, to extend the cartoon analogy, one sees only Ben-Day dots, the deeper and previously invisible lineaments of character. Put simply, action is character in Ellroy. Often the briefest thumbnail sketch of motive or desire will suffice to push someone into the web of associations and debts that will define them.
If Hideo represents Ellroy successfully writing a new type of character, Kay Lake is a noble failure. Like Dudley, she is another callback from The Black Dahlia. Like Parker, she was a minor character but is central to the new narrative. Unlike Parker, however, she has been saddled with a diary for her fourth of the book. This is a form that feels, almost immediately, uncomfortable for its creator. The result is some loose and atypical writing. Ellroy wants the flighty self-possession and emboldened rhetoric of a young woman’s wartime diary, but even by that hothouse standard the temperature can at times be inhospitable for human life:
‘Your amorous ways don’t concern me.’
‘Yes, they do. They concern you and entice you, because you knock on women’s doors at night and extort them, because you get your kicks that way, because you have a famously bereft marriage, and you’re coming out of your skin with boredom and that slimy, itchy something that drives brutal men like you.’
Even within the realms of ‘novelistic’ drama, in which dialogue is often shorn of the casual ineloquence of everyday speech, this is an unspeakable mess, and feels more than a little uncertain of itself. On one hand, the difficulties of the voice are obvious. Ellroy has never given a female character such a pronounced role before – this has always been, to quote another famous James, a man’s world – and Kay Lake’s persona feels hysterical and forced. But it is not just the perspective and sensibility that falter; the stylistic change from the three tersely phrased sections to one lush, long-sentenced diary every four chapters throws the book off balance. Ellroy, hopeless romantic that he is, can’t help but lay red carpet before Kay’s every step. But romanticism can also prevent real knowledge, and for all the time we spend with Kay, she rarely feels like more than an idealised crush.
The diary form presents other problems too. Chiefly: how in the hell is she writing all this? Add the daily diary-keeping to her impressive level of undercover activity, and it is a workload that screams sleep deprivation and a quick descent into madness. All of Ellroy’s characters, in their endless criss-crossing and triple-scheming, test the limits of believable human activity, but the third person perspective absolves them of at least one responsibility: notetaking. Kay has her moments – an early scene at a Paul Robeson concert is one of the novel’s finest – but for the most part she feels like a noble attempt, the creation of an author struggling against his limits. The cruel paradox is that for all of Ellroy’s good intentions, and attempts to square up his earlier gender imbalances, most of her sections have you begging for the relief of the old low male world.
Then there is the matter of Ellroy’s prose style, a genuinely idiosyncratic and propulsive compound. The high-low divide is a tiresome one. Once presumed to be a chasm, it is now jumped on a daily basis. But in Ellroy’s prose it is truly obliterated. You can find Dashiell Hammett in there; you can also find, if so inclined, Gertrude Stein. Many of its antecedents are obvious – the terseness of the procedural, the infopunch of teletype, the doomed romanticism of noir – but what comes out the other side is wholly Ellroy’s own.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way; or rather, those influences took their time to satisfactorily cohere. Charting the progression across three decades of his work is a lesson in the perfecting of a voice. Consider a standard paragraph from his second novel, Clandestine (1982):
The surviving gunman was still crawling toward the street when I came up behind him and spun him around, kicking the .45 out of his hand. I aimed my gun at him, and he screamed. I fired six shots into his chest, and the sound of my gunfire dissolved into the sound of my own scream. I screamed until a dozen black-and-white poured into the street and four cops threw me into the back of an ambulance with Wacky, and I think I was still screaming at the hospital when they tried to take him away from me.
And now look at a typical paragraph from LA Confidential:
Denton’s car down to Darktown, the radio humming: jazz on the ‘Nite Owl Massacre.’ Denton hummed: Leonard Birdwell used to fight welterweight, he saw him go ten with Kid Gavilan – he was one tough shine. Jack brooded on his back-to-Narco ticket: Bobby Inge, Christine Bergeron gone, no smut leads from the other squad guys. The orgy pix – beautiful in a way. His own private leads, fucked up by some crazy spooks killing six people for a couple hundred bucks. He could still taste the booze, still hear Sid Hudgens: ‘We’ve all got secrets.’
The earlier writing is sentimental and flails for effect. The idea of a cop being so overwrought his screams mingle with gunfire should be horrific, but here is reads as purple and ridiculous. The sentences are shapely, orderly; the voice reflects upon these deeds as a stabilizing presence, smoothing out interruptions or distractions. It is meant to sound like serviceable genre prose, and the violence of those six shots is subsequently lost. By LA Confidential, a chapter’s worth of info could fill a paragraph. I haven’t chosen a violent passage, because the prose itself commits violence: racial epithets, slang, compression. There are still ghosts of the genre’s worst indulgences here (that last line is pure sentimentality) and the prose is at times still functional, still preserving its connective tissue (the colon, the subclauses), but serious compression is afoot.
One book later, in White Jazz, the boa constrictor had tightened further:
Rolling stakeout – four cars long – Gower, Sunset west. The Strip, Club Largo, three-car pile-out.
Valets swooped in, servile. More photos – Rockwell looked bored. I parked in the red and fixed my windshield: ‘Official Police Vehicle’. The entourage hit the club.
I badged in, badged a Shriner off a bar stool. Turk Butler on stage – bistro belter supreme. Ringside: Rock, Glenda, scribes. Photo men by the exit – zoom lenses zoomed in.
If a prose style can have a version of a superhero’s origin story, then here is Ellroy’s: White Jazz was, when first submitted as a 700 page manuscript, rejected by his publisher, who sent it back with a polite request to trim where possible. Ellroy proceeded to get the lawnmower out of the shed. Everything had to go: verbs, adverbs, any available fat. The telegraphic style was born. There is a touch of the too-neat about this tale – one minute Jackson Pollock is lost in idle thought, not noticing the paint dripping onto the floor, and the next … – but it fits the narrative of Ellroy’s increasing ambition perfectly: more with less. Each word serves a purpose, tells a tale, contributes to a scene or setting.
White Jazz – the last of the LA Quartet and the only one written in first person – was the warm up for the Underworld trilogy, and by that trilogy’s second volume, The Cold Six Thousand, the prose was down to the bone:
Wayne pulled his head back. Wayne pulled his piece. Wayne shot Moore in the head.
It knocked him back. He hit his car. He braced and aimed tight. He shot Moore in the head / Moore in the neck / Moore with no face and no chin.
He ripped the seats. He tore up the dash. He blew the windows out. It was loud. It echoed loud. It outblew wind gusts.
Wayne froze. The 409 bounced – reverb off hi-end shocks.
A sentence as comically bare and artless as ‘It was loud’ stands worthlessly alone, but in context – and all Ellroy prose is context, nothing but a step between two other steps – it sets up the next line. How loud? It echoes loud, that’s how loud – the echo is no diminishment. And then the next burst goes harder, as if the sound were wiping out nature’s other noise. This is writing that relies on the 1-2-3 effect for its power – it needs to feel like a drum struck harder with each new snare hit. Would the first three sentences from the above quote work better as ‘Wayne pulled his head back, drew his piece, and shot Moore in the head’? It sounds so orderly, so foretold, so all of one thought and mind, whereas in Ellroy’s world there is a breathless contingency placed on all action. Wayne is making up his mind while his body is starting to act, and his reactions to his own deeds are even slower, even blurrier at this speed – those cruel slashes are the eye surveying a human undone by violence in less than a second. In every book of the trilogy, action and thought and reflection all move at the same light speed, in the same mode of urgency. There are no breaks, no down time. Hands unoccupied seek to posses. Minds momentarily blank reinvestigate scenes and plans, looking for weak spots. Nothing is stable, and you never sleep.
The Cold Six Thousand – or C6K as devotees refer to it – was too much for some people, even long-time fans. Too harsh, too blunt, too long. The earlier quotation is not unusual. Every page is like that. Most sentences can be read in a blink. Even Ellroy, a man rarely seen giving two-fifths of a fuck about public opinion, has in recent years seemed to concede that the novel is a punishing, unloveable act of hubris. Yet for me (and at least one other Ellroy devotee I know) it is his masterpiece: a genuinely insane attempt to push an author’s voice and his obsessions right to the edge of coherence and readability. Its set pieces are his nastiest and most viscerally thrilling, and its pitch-black humour generates laughs of genuine unease and morbidity. J. G. Ballard once called the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom ‘a black cathedral of a book’. Put it on that shelf.
Perfidia’s prose continues in this mode, though it eases back on the pedal. Sentences still rarely reach a double digit word count, and all interiority still serves action and response – it’s Third Person Limited, but jacked up on something that has blitzed the taker’s attention span, while hellishly sharpening their senses. As it stands, the current voice – in three of its four perspectives, at least – is a slightly wound down form of The Cold Six Thousand’s saturation bombing. What has been honed and perfected is how Ellroy’s moulds this form to his characters’ minds, and mostly crucially, their eyes:
Dudley pulled his piece. ‘Shoulder the door. Watch where you place your feet.’
Blanchard aimed at a slack point midway up the jamb. One bump snapped the lock. The door swung in. A stench blew out.
Blood and flesh gout.
‘Go inside, lad. Hug the wall and find a switch. Use your handkerchief. Watch your feet, and don’t touch anything.’
Blanchard covered his nose and went in. Deft boy – he flattened himself to the wall and inched sideways. The front room was midnight dark. Blanchard’s feet scraped hardwood.
A ceiling fixture, bright bulbs, white light on this:
A living room. A wall-to-wall Persian rug. Blood-soaked, blood-immersed. Blood from four dead heathens. A yellow brood – papa, mama, daughter, son.
Blanchard said, ‘Japs.’
They were supine. They were eviscerated. They were fully disemboweled. Their entrails flared on the floor. They were laid four across. They seemed to be positioned. Four blood-caked swords lay beside them.
There is a rigid heirarchy to this late-era prose. Each new detail has to build on the last – amplify, discover, reveal. And not just sound this time, but sight, and the mind that takes all this in. This is not shortburst repetition favouring rhythm over sense, but the human eye moving over a scene and seeing something new each time. The move from the simple and familiar ‘blood-soaked’ to the italicised lurch of ‘blood-immersed’ is Dudley quickly taking in a scene that is initially overwhelming. Likewise, the acceleration of intensity from merely ‘supine’ to ‘fully disemboweled’: the prose has atomised under pressure of observation and comprehension. In Ellroy, the problem is always too much. Density of plot is density of detail is density of style.
Ellroy’s vocabulary, from which his prose draws much of its power, is a dictionary of the low, dirty, jabbing and crude, inclusive in its vulgarity, and deploying the gutter vibe of deeply racist shittalk with a flair that edges it close to danger on more than one front. Perfidia’s constant talk of eugenics and ‘cut whores’ (i.e. prostitutes who have had plastic surgery to look like celebrities) is crass at best, at worst horrific, but delivered with panache. Ellroy works a very limited and steady groove within a tightly controlled linguistic universe. When it comes to that world, he wants the dictionary of the times, not the expurgated modern version built from weasel words and doubletalk. This is not a world built from the library shelves of solid research and carefully deployed detail, the careful historical ‘construction’ that never lets us forget, finally, that we are living in a comparatively enlightened time, so that we might congratulate ourselves on our elevated state. Ellroy wants to take us down and keep us there – the aim is immersive and unapologetic. Someone does not just perform abortions, they are a ‘scrape overlord’. A criminal’s body is not disposed of with quicklime, it is a ‘bubbling rape-o’. The horrible power and the horrible casualness of the language used by the novel’s protagonists serve a dual task: to set the moral temperature, and to create a world of persistent threat and cruelty. This is a language soaked in decades of unthinking foulness.
This goes beyond the profane or grossly illustrative. In Ellroy’s world, language and its vindictive power work to sadder, more punishing ends. Consider the implications of starting a novel published in the twenty-first century like this:
They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee.
So begins The Cold Six Thousand. If the mot juste is the precise selection that makes a good sentence great, then here the mot juste is a vile word that signals to the reader just how cheap life is, and just how little the powerful think of their victims. Ellroy understands what it means to write that sentence in 2001, to write of the past in a way that acknowledges its ugliness while pursuing it in uncensored prose out of genuine honesty. In books like The Cold Six Thousand, men of power and influence seek to undo a decade’s worth of civil rights struggle, while in Perfidia, the prospect of World War is seen as a chance for a little money-making. The trick of this, the daring of it, is to play grand historical atrocities predominantly from the side of the aggressors and assume that the moral order, present in the reader, can take the damage. In Ellroy’s world, grotesquerie is the natural order polluting language and morality. His delight in tugging at our outrage and goosing our sense of right and wrong only plays into this – there is no clear-cut guide, no sensitive author depicting a world at a remove. This place is a sewer; we must survive it.
In Perfidia, Ashida is the novel’s torn soul moving between high and low, a mind moving across contradictions and hoping to find somewhere to reside:
He studies the shed pix. Physiognomy, eugenics. The dead men looked Chink. Two dead men looked Jap. They might all be mixed-race. He thought in racial slurs now. The world was this fucked-up place. [Emphasis added.]
The rawness and inch-thick dirt of this language is also present in the book’s sleazy riffs on LA and the Hollywood star factory. This is the flipside to law and order – a curious world co-inhabited by A-list stars who screen skin flicks at Hollywood backlot parties. The Hollywood that Ellroy is obsessed with is, like everything else in his universe, the Hollywood of his youth: Bette Davis, Veronica Lake, Cary Grant, et al. It is a gossip rag’s worldview: everyone is a fruit or a mudshark. Someone is paying off a starlet for a back alley abortion, or is an alkie beyond redemption.
The hyperbolic headline-driven world of Ellroy’s adolescence is an enormous influence not just on the index-finger-to-the-chest prose stylings, but in the curious moralism. In his world, celebrities are fundamentally untouchable, and suffer only in the dreams of those who hold or control them only in sleep. These slanderous inventions or semi-inventions (and really, everyone is too old or too long gone to care or take serious offense) can be considered as the dark inverse of poor Z-lister Elizabeth Short, the original Dahlia, and all those like her who would dream of being famous enough to inspire such rank, beyond-libellous fantasies. Ellroy can’t raise the downtrodden, but he can bring the stars down to his level. Their worlds were once hidden – celebrity did not operate in the perpetual now as it does today, and image maintenance was a clumsier, shadowier deal. This once-hidden state gives the slander, like the political fever dreams, its potent, necessary urgency. As a result, Ellroy’s celebrity riffs – Bette Davis plays a significant role in Perfidia – tend to be hypersexual and cartoonish:
Benzendrine tea kept it going. Uncle Ace supplied a full bar and around-the-clock buffet. Hopheads packed the ‘O’ den. Lin Chung morphine-soothed losing players. Brenda Allen peddled cooze at her new wartime rate. Salvador Dali’s pet leopard roamed. He mauled a busboy and snatched chow mein off Count Basie’s plate Nobody gives a shit.
The minuscule meet the mighty. The elite meet the effete.
Clark Gable was there. He displayed a pic of Cary Grant with a dick in his mouth.
This is coarse (of course), but also comically subversive; it is sordid, but with a point. Think of it as Ellroy’s revenge for how ‘the movies’ have treated him, and, by extension, how the dream factory operated upon the culture as a whole.
In many ways, Ellroy is lost in those old celebrity magazines and 1940s noirs that set him dreaming as a kid, and which he now refashions as literature in his obsessive, haunted books. This entire world – the fallen stars, the war paranoia, the The Black Dahlia revisited – is a grand looping back and doubling of the point. He can live only there, can sustain illusions and tell stories only in those lost worlds. The final pages of Blood’s a Rover took Ellroy as close to the present day as 1972, and everything he has said in recent interviews suggests that is as modern as his work will ever be. Any fan who has bothered with the odds-and-sods collection Destination: Morgue! (2004) knows that when his work does attempt contemporaneity, it is a disaster. His only fiction with a contemporary setting, the ‘Jungletown Jihad’ third of the ‘Rick Loves Donna’ novella, is a grotesque mistake, undone on every page by tonal uncertainty, a deep confusion about law enforcement in the twenty-first century, and the misapplication of dated language to contemporary material. The careful balance struck in his best work between the caustic vulgarity and inherent morality becomes a sick, cheap routine.
And what of those pages to come: another three proposed volumes in this second LA Quartet? Part of me wonders how far readers, and even casual Ellroy fans, will go with this kind of obsession. Some day a dedicated reader is going to find the time and the wherewithal to track every relation on every page of every one of these novels, and when each of these are held up to the light only then will we know if a complete map has been drawn, or whether there has been some remodeling on the fly. Connections are crucial: will this all fit together?
For fans who have been reading Ellroy’s work for decades now, there are cameos in Perfidia from Scotty Bennett, Ward Littell, and other key players from the earlier books. For everyone else, there is a character glossary in the back. There is more than one way to read Perfidia, of course. How resonant it might be for any given reader is increasingly hard to gauge. The novel’s biggest narrative reveal recasts The Black Dahlia in a new light entirely, yet this would mean nothing to a reader counting this novel as their first Ellroy.
Having in the previous trilogy wrestled and pinned down American History – that is, everyone’s shared history, whether they like it or not – there is something in this new work far more personal, more inward, that might drive many away from it. Ellroy’s tragic childhood and misspent youth are irresistible hooks when discussing his work – particularly since those headlines are not the work of invasive gutter journalists, but Ellroy himself, who has since publication of The Black Dahlia insisted upon the murder of his mother, and his subsequent lost years as a petty thief and wastoid, as the engine that drives him to write these long books of crime and redemption – and as disappointing and obvious as it is for me to end this review on a note of biographical analysis (good luck finding a review of his work which doesn’t discuss his life story) Perfidia is the sort of book that demands it.
Blood’s a Rover ended on a note of direct address towards ghosts personal and historical, and Perfidia often feels like a direct continuation of that mode. Just as Blood’s a Rover opened up the racist, cruel and overwhelmingly male world of earlier novels to previously unheard voices of women and African-Americans, Perfidia, with its focus on race crime, homosexuality, and generational betrayal, feels something like atonement. Ellroy will always love goading the Left, and will never drop the hepcat name-calling routine at his readings, but there is something new in this book: a clear-eyed, more generous vision. He is detailing the misdeeds of the powerful and corrupt with more flair and narrative power than ever before, while detailing the fight of the good and the flawed with an equal passion and unembarrassed sincerity.
It’s all in time’s hands now. The time to write those doorstops, and the time to read them. Time to understand historical tragedy and time to create a counter-narrative that is one part rigorous research and one part madman’s invention. The looping arc of time now bending back around to find itself where it first started in 1987, and in 1946. There is more to come. Here is almost there. By the time he is done, Ellroy will have written a portrait of his country and its sins covering nearly a third of a century, his own Dance To The Music of Crime.