Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf, September 9, 2014) – I can never make up my mind about whether James Ellroy is brilliantly paranoid, or just brilliant. The way his brain works to craft these scraps of sentences and mold them into sprawling tales is fascinating.
Perfidia is no different. The US is on the brink of entering World War II when a Japanese family ends up dead of an apparent ritual murder suicide. Then Pearl Harbor comes under attack, and that’s the last straightforward part of the entire book. Hideo Ashida is the only Japanese American on LAPD’s payroll. The brilliant forensic chemist is pulled into the investigation to process the evidence and translate any Japanese documents lying around. William Parker is convinced there’s going to be a Communist invasion once the war is over, and he wants to nip it in the bud by using Kay Lake to entrap a couple of under the radar sympathizers. Dudley Smith just wants to be wherever the action is so he can continue his climb to the top. Somehow, the four characters come together in a messy tangle of storylines that tell a story of how a Japanese family ended up dead on the eve of the bombing.
Ellroy’s LA is corrupt. It’s full of manipulations and lies and false leads, where everything hides their true desires under layers of misdirection. Some of the characters are familiar to us already; Dudley Smith turns up in the first LA Quartet, as does Kay Lake. Dudley’s front and center for this go-round, and he’s even more deadly and charming, with the way he coerces fellow officers and throws them into the line of fire at random. If there’s anything you can take away from Perfidia, it’s that the events of the book turned him into the man we know from LA Confidential.
It’s not a fast read. The sentences are choppy and there’s so much to take in that after a couple of chapters you have to put it down and breathe before diving back in. But Ellroy nails the fear running rampant through the city at a time our country was vulnerable, so you keep plowing through to the end. And when you finish, you’ll probably be scratching your head (like I was) wondering if it’s a brilliant story, or just brilliantly paranoid.