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.