James Ellroy Returns Home

With Perfidia, the novelist mines racial tensions in wartime Los Angeles, digging into the city's dark past once again to work through his own.

On James Ellroy’s 11th birthday, his father gave him a book by Jack Webb called The Badge. Webb was the star and creator of Dragnet, the television series celebrating the competence and efficiency of the notoriously brutal Los Angeles Police Department. The Badge was a record of famous Los Angeles cases, among them the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia, in January 1947. The book “burned my world down,” Ellroy wrote in his memoir My Dark Places (1996): In one of the pictures of Short, “her hair was swept up and back—like a 1940s portrait of my mother…. Betty Short became my obsession. And my symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy.”

Ellroy’s mother had been murdered in El Monte, east of Los Angeles, the previous year, and her case has never been solved. You could say his writing career has been a protracted grief reaction. “Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood,” reads Ellroy’s dedication for his first novel The Black Dahlia (1987), a retelling of the story of Elizabeth Short’s death, which offered an imaginary resolution that real life had failed to provide. The Black Dahlia went on to serve as the first installment of the L.A. Quartet, whose admixture of horror and sentiment eerily matched the defining tragedy of Ellroy’s life. Firmly in the tradition of classic crime fiction, that Southern California playground of grizzled detectives and mean streets, the L.A. Quartet had a distinctive ferocity, linguistic dexterity, and scope. This was pulp with its sights on history.

Ellroy, whose quartet spanned the 1950s of his childhood, ambitiously shook up the detective novel by looking to works like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime that mingled fictional and real-life characters. Side by side with police officers bearing long-held burdens of guilt and shame, Ellroy wedged in famous Angelenos like Joan Crawford and Howard Hughes. He was a self-conscious mythologizer intent on demythologizing Los Angeles’s primary export: glitz and glamour. The L.A. Quartet offered a conspiracy-fueled vision of the city’s past in which all of the city’s icons, from Disneyland to the Hollywood studios, were implicated and tarnished. Ellroy was building a new history of Los Angeles out of the ashes of the old one.

His style gathered surreal intensity in the process. The comparatively straightforward prose of The Black Dahlia evolved, over the course of The Big Nowhere (1988) and L.A. Confidential (1990), into the staccato rat-a-tat of White Jazz (1992). Ellroy came up with a telegraphic shorthand, part gossip-magazine blind item and part cop shoptalk. White Jazz was the record of a secret LAPD civil war, its two factions battling for control of the city’s illegal rackets. Here is a crooked LAPD officer outrunning his demons, enumerating his crimes in the hope of, one day, expiating them: “Killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs, kickbacks, shakedowns. Rent coercion, muscle jobs, strikebreaker work. Lies, intimidation, vows trashed, oaths broken, duties scorned. Thievery, duplicity, greed, lies, killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs…” Stripping language down to its roots, Ellroy also stripped the mystery novel of its romantic, justice-conquers-all aura. That hoped-for expiation would never come. He showed broad sympathy for those who, like his mother, were Los Angeles’s victims—the disenfranchised of Chavez Ravine, displaced for the construction of Dodger Stadium, and the railroaded Hispanic teenagers of the Sleepy Lagoon murder case—but his eye was drawn to the hard men who made, and unmade, L.A.

The allure of a yet-bigger canvas proved irresistible. In his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, Ellroy proceeded to use the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the fulcrum for a conspiratorial history of America in the 1960s. But the richly textured first installment, American Tabloid (1995), was followed by two disappointments, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009). There was little to say about J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO that had not already been said—and said better—by Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, among other novelists. Ellroy’s anti-romantic vision, which had felt so fresh for Los Angeles, was only too familiar applied to ‘60s America.

So it is welcome news that Ellroy’s latest effort, Perfidia, returns home, sliding in as a prequel to the L.A. Quartet, set in the previous decade. Ellroy’s revisionist impulse is to complicate the patriotic unity of the wartime years much as he undid the myth of placid postwar Los Angeles. Perfidia’s plot is set in motion by a murdered Japanese-American family whose bodies are discovered on the eve of December 7, 1941. In the three weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the city lurches onto a military footing, with Army sentries guarding Larchmont District corners, adolescent girls not-so-innocently flashing soldiers outside Dorsey High School, and anti-Japanese bloodlust rampant in the LAPD.

The novel’s trio of male protagonists are updated versions of the now-familiar Ellroy antihero, frail and frightening at the same time. There’s the gifted Japanese-American police chemist Hideo Ashida, seeking to parlay his official connections into a free pass from the internment camps; the future LAPD chief William Parker, a brilliant but tormented alcoholic; and Ellroy’s familiar demon Dudley Smith, the Shakespearian villain in LAPD blue of the L.A. Quartet. A decade younger, the odious detective—whose romantic travails in no way redeem him—is just as brutal, scheming to profit from the impending disappearance of the Japanese.

Ellroy expands his terrain in Perfidia (which is twice as long as any in the original quartet), adding a fourth, and female, protagonist—a rarity in his work. Kay Lake, the bored girlfriend of a police officer, lines up on the morning of December 7 to enlist in the military, and is catcalled and spit on by a crowd of angry, ardent young men. Ellroy grants Kay, in her diary entries, something his other characters lack: the privilege of a novelist’s insight into her own erratic behavior, and a sense of her powerlessness in the face of historical calamity: “I make love with and fixate on all these men because it’s all women have to make the horror stop.”

The Los Angeles of the L.A. Quartet is a police-state dystopia, as seen from within. The Los Angeles of Perfidia is consumed by righteous patriotic fervor even as its leaders stand poised to commit a horrific crime against its Japanese-American citizens. Kay and Hideo are representatives of a fraught future that their white male compatriots remain blind to. The city, we are repeatedly told, is set to transform into something entirely new. Parker is sure that postwar Los Angeles “would become unrecognizable.” The unrepentantly bigoted Dudley Smith dreams of “war as opportunity,” envisioning a new city with “grand parkway views” and “no jigaboos in sight.” Ellroy’s Los Angeles is under the spell of a virulent racism that will, we already know, persist after the war.

Perfidia is billed as the start of a second L.A. Quartet, this one a chronicle of the 1940s. Ellroy can’t give up the quest to reanimate the place, and the past, where his mother lived and died. He lets one of his characters sum up the mission: “I must recollect with yet greater fury. I will not die as long as I live this story. I run to Then to buy myself moments Now.” What lies ahead, as Ellroy presses deeper into the war years, is anyone’s guess, but like his protagonists, he is driven by a paradoxical obsession: to keep on digging up dark memories of the city, in the hope of rising above the psychic traumas of the past—not reborn, but newly wise.