Why I Love James Ellroy Pt 1: Perfidia
"War. Blood libel. Twenty-three days, this storm, reminiscenza. It was for all of them and him most of all. It was a transcendental memoire. Here we were in Los Angeles. We were at odds with one another and afire with crazed duty. We were as one and bound by a terrible allegiance in the time of Pearl Harbor."
James Ellroy is the greatest Noir writer in history. There, I said it. Welcome to an ongoing series here on The City Is Blinking where I will explore the work of James Ellroy and try to explain why he is the best writer of Noir of all time. I first read James Ellroy after being recommended his work by my uncle Bill. I started with The Black Dahlia and the other books in the L.A. Quartet: The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz. I very quickly realized that Ellroy was exactly suited to my love of Noir and murder mysteries. Here was a man with true grit. He didn't shy away from subject matter that most would fumble. His prose is direct, profane and full of questionable morality. It is also somehow holy and righteous. That the writer himself was the victim of a terrible crime - his mother was raped and murdered when he was ten years old - conjures a deep reverence for justice, in and outside of the law.
James Ellroy lives Noir with every breath he takes. He understands the dark side of life in a way that very few have done. That Ellroy is himself conflicted about current moral norms, that he freely uses racial slurs of all shape and colour, has led some to believe that the man himself is of unsure character. I personally believe that he is a good man, though full of flaws and prejudices that we all hold one way or another. It is so right that the man himself who so savagely depicts and expresses the reasons for bigotry, is not on firm footing with every moral question that we throw at him. Whether he is or is not prejudiced against gays, blacks and all manner of racial identities, does not diminish one bit the power of his writing. He understands in a way few would be comfortable with, the true and deep reasons for xenophobia and tribalism. In expressing it through his work, he cleanses himself of the crime and becomes a figure for treating every man, woman and child with respect and dignity. To do that, we must confront it head on, without fear. Ellroy does it in every book he has written, but particularly so in The L.A. Quartet, The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy and his most recent work Perfidia, which we will talk about now.
Perfidia was released in 2014, and I am ashamed to say that it took me three years to get around to it. I was ill when the book was released and honestly didn't have the attention span to conquer a nearly 800 page tome. Perfidia takes the overpowering and seductive atmosphere of the L.A. Quartet with the political intrigue and dense, perverted morality of the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy, and produces something unique. It is a story revolving around four characters: Dudley Smith, a supremely corrupt and evil character you will remember from James Cromwell's devastating performance in L.A. Confidential; Kay Lake, the female lead in The Black Dahlia; Hideo Ashida a talented chemist and all around gifted investigator; William Parker, a struggling alcoholic who tries to do the right thing, even if it's sometimes for the wrong reasons.
Perfidia tells a story which revolves around the entry of the United States into the Second World War, and the internment of Japanese American citizens. Ellroy uses the language of the gutter to make something brutal but beautiful. The writer's insistence early on that World War 2 was a Jew orchestrated event, will no doubt make some deeply uncomfortable. Here's the thing though: to understand why this is a necessary and very Noir thing, is to comprehend the meaning behind this invective. This isn't a world where soft and good things can exist. It is harsh as fuck, and full of evil. As the characters' beliefs change, and as all of the four come to terms with the great evil that is being perpetrated on innocent people, you see that Ellroy takes you down so that he can take you up higher later on, with a strong belief in equality for all people. Some people have accused Ellroy of being homophobic, and yet here one of his main characters is gay and is seen as the most moral and good individual in the novel. If he is homophobic, he sure can write a gay character with depth and completely apart from stereotypes.
Perfidia is a book that I will be thinking about, years from now. Its central mystery - the murder of a Japanese family through grisly means - is as satisfying as any murder mystery I have read, seen or heard. This is something that Agatha Christie would have been jealous of. (If she could have gotten over the filthy language and provocative prose!) Ellroy writes like a man possessed. His staccato prose, short tight and lingo filled, gives you a rush of adrenaline and an understanding that you are in his world now. He will take you wherever he wishes to go, and while you may be scared to leave the safety of your comfortable and all too predictable life, you will be glad you took his hand. Through writing without fear of offense or misunderstanding, you understand the world he is depicting, in all its corruption and injustice. This is Noir. You will come to terms with the times your morality has been compromised. You will better understand the harm that comes from pernicious and evasive bigotry. This is not something that can be accomplished by material that does not challenge, and merely seeks to re-affirm your moral choices for you. Something that seeks to preach to the choir, and to make Good Solid Liberals feel satisfied that they are perpetually in the right, cannot ever hope to reach the dark recesses in the mind and pull out the reasons why otherwise good people commit acts of great cruelty and evil.
My favourite parts of the book come along in the shape of Hideo Ashida. Here, Ellroy uses the reader's assumptions about the author's feelings on Japanese people, and indeed anyone of a different culture or race, and turns Ashida into the hero, the book requires. Yes, he plays along with Dudley Smith, but in his heart he is seeking justice. Noir is not simply about a vacuum of good men and women, it is about being crooked to beat crooked people. You need to get knee deep dirty to battle these fiends. Noir is about good people who fall down into the muck. Whether they get up again or not is the central pull of any good Noir story. Can they retain their soul? Can they defeat the evil that is growing there? Hideo Ashida breaks the rules but through his smarts and his courage, a certain kind of justice is achieved. Ashida comes interestingly from a throwaway mention in The Black Dahlia, where Bucky Bleichart speaks about betraying his best friend in order to get on the LAPD. Here Ellroy takes a character who had no real importance and creates a whole story around him.
Let's talk about Dudley Smith. He is truly one of the great villains in Noir, up there with John Huston's character in Chinatown. He as dirty as dirty gets. Some prequels take the mystery out of the originals. I like the Star Wars prequels but they are guilty of doing just this. By explaining away The Force with pseudo-scientific terms, they take the beauty out of the thing. Perifida is a prequel done right. Instead of taking away, it adds more layers to the thing and makes the original stories richer as a result. I was particularly intrigued by the revelation that Elizabeth Short's real father was Dudley Smith. I don't know how this will factor into things with the continuation of the second L.A. Quartet but I am very excited to find out. While Smith is undeniably a villain, Ellroy writes him with an insight and a sympathetic feeling, so you never just see him as a monster but a real person who has done monstrous things.
Some male writers can't write women for shit. I am thinking of Frank Miller here. I am not a person who thinks that every artist has the responsibility to represent all people. If you have a good niche, still in that niche. Don't overextend yourself and sully your work as a result. James Ellroy can write women. He writes them incredibly well, giving them just as much personality and intrigue as any of his male characters. The lead female character here is Kay Lake, notably featured in The Black Dahlia. Her diary gives a deeper insight into the characters than anything else in the book. Through Lake, we get a deeper insight into the characters of The Black Dahlia, most notably Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichart. I found Lake's development in Perfidia to be the most interesting of any in the book. She starts firm in her beliefs and her capacity to infiltrate a supposed Red cell, but soon comes to understand that the people she is trying to screw over probably have it right. This is another case of Ellroy playing with the expectations of the audience. He can see the right in what these people are saying, even if he doesn't subscribe to their philosophy.
Lastly, William H. Parker, who was a real police chief in 1950s Los Angeles. Parker is portrayed as a man struggling with alcoholism, but who has a moral straightness that his colleagues and peers lack. The way Ellroy writes Parker is compelling. Ellroy has a real handle on the struggle that comes from an addiction, and it would not surprise me to discover that he himself struggled with substance abuse. Parker wants to be a straight shooter, but he is in deep with enemies that are crooked as all hell, and so must compromise his beliefs in order to survive. He is in many ways reminiscent of Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential. I will be very keen to see if Ed Exley will appear in the forthcoming second L.A. Quartet titles.
Perfidia is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who has a love for Noir, or crime novels, or good old murder mysteries. James Ellroy is the greatest writer of Noir alive, and in my humble opinion the greatest of all time. He is just as good as Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler at crafting stories that stick with you and explore the dark side of life. Please join me in the coming days and weeks as we explore Ellroy's entire catalogue, continuing with the original L.A. Quartet. Until then dear readers keep it off the record, on the QT and very hush hush.