Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Book Review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

Book Review:  Perfidia by James Ellroy
Reviewed by Stephen Terrell

Recently on this blog, author and playwright Crystal Rhoades reviewed Face of the Enemy by Jo Anne Dobson and Beverly Graves Myers. The novel was set in New York City in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Perfidia by James Ellroy is set in Los Angeles during the same time frame.  But that is where the similarities end. It is as from Face of the Enemy in style and tone as New York is from L.A. -- maybe further.
Ellroy is most known for the L.A. Quartet, a series of novels of violence and corruption set in post-WW II Los Angeles. Those novels – “The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere,” “L.A. Confidential” and “White Jazz” -- became the basis for the movie blockbuster L.A. Confidential, one of the best police movies ever made.  In Perfidia, we meet many of the characters that populate the L.A. Quartet novels.
Ellroy’s style is unique. He writes in staccato sentences, with many phrases repeated throughout the story to capture the inner thoughts and demons of the characters – and these characters have demons a-plenty.  Those offended by vulgarity, profanity and racial epithets should probably steer clear. Even considering the time frame that Ellroy captures, the wave of references to Chinks, Japs, Wetbacks, and a variety of vile names for blacks,  homosexuals and Jews liberally pepper each page.
The novel opens the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor when corrupt Detective Dudley Smith and Japanese crime technologist Hideo Ashida, the only  Japanese employee of the LAPD, investigate what appears to be the ritual suicide of the four members of the Watanabe family. But Ashida finds evidence that the family was murdered.
The next day, Pearl Harbor is attacked and Los Angeles devolves into a fearsome place for the Japanese community (including Ashida). Japanese citizens are brutally rounded up and jailed by the L.A. Police.  But for some, it is a time of opportunity.
As with the other Ellroy novels, the reader is dragged into a world of violence, corruption, theft, beatings, shootings, greed, drugs and sex. The Watanabe murders lead to uncovering plots to exploit the war and coming Japanese internment for enormous financial gain, “fifth column” subversives and nazis, planted evidence and coerced confessions.
Ellroy also mixes in real life characters to give the novel a sense of authenticity. And he doesn’t treat them with kid gloves. Bette Davis is portrayed as a self-centered hard-edged, promiscuous woman who sleeps with Dudley Smith, among others. Jack Webb of Dragnet fame is portrayed as a cop-wannabe hanging around like a puppy waiting to be thrown a bone. Carey Grant and Barbara Stanwyck are dismissed as "homos." Real-life iconic L.A. Police Chief William Parker is portrayed as a drunk and religious zealot.
This novel isn’t for the faint of heart. For my taste, the constant dark view of a world without any redeeming grace wears on me. The last third of the book seems to drag, and the more I read, the more I felt I needed to wash my hands every time I put it down.

Nonetheless, Perfidia offers a raw glimpse as a very different time in America, a time that I hope we never relive. Maybe we need to read it to be reminded of the evil that lurks when we lose our moral compass.

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