Epic Noir

By Ira WellsJanuary 26, 2015

Perfidia by James Ellroy

IN OCTOBER of 1944, less than a year before American nuclear bombs would obliterate much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing World War II (and some 250,000 Japanese lives) to an end, Edmund Wilson published a catty little piece entitled “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” The essay (collected in Wilson’s Classics and Commercials) summarily dismisses the entire body of post-Sherlock Holmes detective fiction in six paragraphs.

In the essay, Wilson admits that, as a boy, he had nurtured a certain fondness for an early Conan Doyle knockoff named Jacques Futrelle and his sleuth/hero — Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, a.k.a. the “Thinking Machine.” But while Edmund Wilson had grown up, according to Edmund Wilson, detective fiction had not.

Wilson goes on to examine a slate of stories by Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Dashiell Hammett (“duh toast of duh intellectuals”), and he discovers in them the same old detective, “ironic and ceremonious, with a superior mind and eccentric habits” and the same old plot mechanics, with their “false scents and interminable divagations,” that string the reader along from incident to incident. He bemoans the half-formed characters who exist only to service the plot. The whole exercise strikes him as a “sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards.” So why, then, were readers drawn to the genre in increasing numbers (and with increasing fanaticism) in those very years? Wilson posits that something in the generic DNA of detective fiction made it the perfect literary vehicle for all of the angst and trepidation and awful anticipation that permeated the cultural moment leading up to World War II:

The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility. Who had committed the original crime and who was going to commit the next one? — that second murder which always, in the novels, occurs at an unexpected moment when the investigation is well under way […] Everyone is suspected in turn, and the streets are full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know. Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe …

In his latest novel, Perfidia, James Ellroy taps the active ingredients of Wilson’s wartime cocktail — the dread, the paranoia, the free-floating sense of guilt — and adds a few signature ingredients, such as race hatred, panoptic perversity, and bone-shattering violence, and distills the whole concoction into his own highly volatile blend of literary rocket fuel.

Ellroy has, of course, been serving up variations on this formula (“formula” being the word I want) for more than three decades now, and chances are you’ve had a taste in one form or another: Curtis Hanson’s film version of L. A. Confidential (1999) was universally admired, while Brian De Palma’s stab at the Black Dahlia (2006) was almost as universally reviled. The source texts for those films comprise half of Ellroy’s first “L. A. Quartet” (the others being The Big Nowhere and White Jazz). Ellroy followed this suite of novels with what many readers deem to be his indispensable works — American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover — which together form the “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy. Perfidia, which features many characters from Ellroy’s previous novels, is intended as the first volume of a second “L.A. Quartet.” Taken together, this eleven-volume anvil of prose will constitute one extended fictional history of America from 1941-1972, and is, according to advertising copy, “unprecedented” in terms of design.

Perfidia belongs to the genus of novel that reviewers are apt to call “vast” and “sprawling,” which is fair: the narrative unfolds over some 700 pages; it features a cast of perhaps 140 characters (some fictional creations, others based on historical personages). It takes place during a crucial turning point in American history — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the build up to Japanese internment, and America’s entry into World War II. But the novel also feels remarkably compact, dense, and taut: the events transpire over 23 heady days in December, 1941 and are narrated in what Ellroy calls “real time.”

How would “real time” translate into a literary context? When a film or TV show unfolds in “real time,” it means that one minute in the characters’ diegetic world unfolds during one minute of the audience’s extra-diegetic one. And while it’s true that Ellroy’s characters rarely pause to sleep or go to the bathroom (they do soil themselves with alarming regularity, and occasionally urinate on each other just to show who’s boss), you would still have to spend precisely 23 straight days reading Perfidia (at the rate of 1.3 pages per hour) in order for Ellroy’s terminology to make literal sense.

Everyone knows that “real-time” is mostly a Hollywood term (associated with the likes of Hitchcock’s Rope, the Gary Cooper western High Noon, Fox’s 24, and, perhaps most literally, with Christian Marclay’s The Clock), so there is a sense in which Ellroy comes by it honestly. “Geography is destiny” is one of the author’s favorite slogans, and Perfidia is steeped in the historical lore, ethos, and (to annex one of Ellroy’s period-specific words) the gestalt of 1940s Los Angeles.

The novel opens at Whalen’s Drugstore — the corner of 6th and Spring streets — during what appears to be a fairly routine armed robbery investigation. The narrative eye hovers over the shoulder of Hideo Ashida, a hotshot police chemist who also happens to be Japanese-American (and gay). The establishing scene, like many that will follow, is rich with the details of forensic investigation: a CSI for the analog age. Ashida fiddles with a trip-action remote camera (all gears and wires and rubber-coated tubes) that records the license plates of cars at the crime scene. Later, when we learn that Ashida had originally conceived of the device in order to snap steamy shower room shots of his high school obsession, Bucky Bleichert, Ellroy’s theme comes into view: perversity is the true mother of invention. Characters in every strata of social life are motivated, in the first place, by the imperatives of their transgressive (and frequently degrading, scatological, or sadistic) passions, and, second, by the social and professional necessity of keeping their various kinks safely closeted. If there is anything resembling a “soft” power in Ellroy’s hard-boiled universe, it resides in the threat of public exposure: one crucial plot twist occurs when L.A. mayor Fletcher Bowron (a notorious “whip out man”) is lured by one of the novel’s factions into a hotel room, where he’s promptly hoisted by his own petard (and suffers the consequences).

But a similar assumption — that power resides in the possession and exposure of secrets — informs the narrative voice itself, which consolidates some of its own power and authority by “outing” the various historical figures that populate these pages. Cary Grant engages in an “all male soixante-neuf”; Barbara Stanwyck “licks snatch”; Eleanor Roosevelt is caught all “jungled up with that colored mammy from Gone with the Wind.” The sex lives of the Kennedys, Herbert Hoover, and Orson Welles are treated with similar jackhammer subtlety.

Before Ashida and the other investigators are able to make any significant inroads in their robbery investigation, a more urgent case commands their attention. A Japanese family of four, the Watanabes, is found dead, arranged in a gruesome tableau in their Highland Park home. A blood-encrusted sword has been placed next to each eviscerated body, and what appears to be a suicide note is discovered on the scene: “The looming apocalypse is not of our doing. We have been good citizens and did not know that it was coming.” The whole scene is reminiscent of seppuku — suicide by ritual disembowelment — although various clues on the premises immediately suggest (to employ that bathetic legal euphemism) “foul play.” But before any semblance of a dispassionate criminal investigation is allowed to commence, our detectives learn that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, and formerly thinly veiled prejudices are allowed to emerge as expressions of patriotic fervor.

Some of the most exhilarating moments in Perfidia come in Ellroy’s rendering of the war fever that swept through L.A. in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Ellroy’s Angelinos don’t huddle indoors, mainlining on radio news; they burst into the streets, they race to the nearest enlistment office, they chant racial invective and gleefully desecrate the Japanese flag. Ellroy’s Tommy-gun prose is perfectly calibrated to capture the jittery, strangely euphoric atmosphere — the blaring radios, honking horns, newsboys shrieking in the streets, men lurking with binoculars and rifles on the rooftops, street demonstrations that turn ugly. “Time went haywire. Flasks went around. Conversations overlapped. I got more and more details. The death toll was mounting. Big battle-ships went down. We’ve got to nip this shit in the bud.

The “I” in that burst of sentences refers to Kay Lake, a prairie-girl-turned L.A. debutante drawn to the city by an outsized sense of her own historical importance, combined with a ravenous libido. Kay (fleshed out by Scarlett Johansson in De Palma’s Dahlia) is the sort of woman who “studied movie stars and random photos. She borrowed images to make herself cohere.” This capacity for performance elicits the attention of Captain William “Whisky Bill” Parker, who believes he can use Lake to infiltrate a communist cell. (Parker’s moniker, Ellroy writes, is “colorful, but incomplete. It fails to denote his comportment within the affliction.”) If you squint and look at him from just the right angle, Parker is maybe sort of almost a good guy: his vices are at least somewhat tempered by a fierce Catholicism and a burning desire to climb the rungs of the institutional hierarchy, to become Chief and “derail the Protestant line of succession.”

Sergeant Dudley Smith, by contrast, operates within a moral and strategic universe entirely of his own making: “I destroy those I cannot control. I must be certain that those close to me share my identical interests. I’m benevolent within that construction. I’m ghastly outside of it.” Precisely because he is unbounded by any socially prescribed morality and (unlike the actual William H. Parker) by history itself, Smith is the most transfixing presence in the novel. Ellroy tempts us into an uneasy sympathy with Smith, endowing him with charm and wit and twinkly-eyed grandeur, only to increase the punishing impact of Smith’s brutality. After spending an evening in bed with the lupine detective, Bette Davis whimsically tells him, “Kill a Jap for me.” On the drive home, Smith pulls over and blows the head off of the first Asian-looking person he sees.

Ellroy resists the generic categorization of his work as detective or crime fiction. He describes himself as a historical novelist, full stop, and routinely compares himself to Tolstoy and other masters of the form. Nonetheless, there are moments in the second half of Perfidia where the gears of the genre start to grind very loudly indeed. (The villain’s confession — in which he provides an overview of the entire plot, explains his motivation, and neatly snips off all the narrative’s frayed ends — is only the most obvious instance where generic requirements radically foreclose the opportunities open to the historical novelist.) But if I sound somewhat particular on this point (that Perfidia is a work of genre fiction) that is not to diminish the scale of Ellroy’s achievement, but to focus more attentively on Ellroy’s “comportment within the affliction.”

The novel’s catalyst — the murder of the Watanabe family — confronts us with a funhouse reflection of perhaps the most famous quadruple murder in the annals of the American crime novel: the murder of the Clutter family in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The opening pages of Capote’s work, as you’ll recall, animated our sympathy (and stoked our outrage) by emphasizing the fundamental Americanness of the murdered Kansans. Herb Clutter was a morally upright, self-made rancher — a pious Methodist, a benevolent employer to his farmhands, a devoted (if sometimes severe) family man; his daughter, Nancy, was a hearty product of the American heartland: president of her class, leader of the 4-H club, all around “town darling.”

Compared with these gleaming specimens of American rectitude, Ellroy’s Watanabe clan is geographically, racially, and, indeed, morally marginal. Ryoshi, the immigrant patriarch, has made his living through the brutal exploitation of Mexican farm labor. He nurtures secret fascist sympathies, and may or may not have been participating in fifth-column sedition. His male offspring, Johnny, is a Hitler-worshipping, panty-sniffing reprobate with incestuous designs on his younger sister — named, coincidentally or not, Nancy — who had recently been “scraped” of an unwanted fetus. Where Capote’s Clutters had been hard-working farm folk, Ellroy’s Watanabes (along with many of the Japanese families we encounter in Perfidia) had, for all practical purposes, re-introduced slavery on American soil, working their connections in the Mexican States and bribing American officials to maintain their quasi-autonomous fiefdoms. In short, readers who expected Perfidia to instantiate a liberally consecrated narrative about the unjust treatment of some morally upstanding American immigrant folk will quickly discover that they are not in Kansas anymore.

To get right down to it, then: are the Watanabes still American after Pearl Harbor? Do immigrants retain their claim to “Americanness” after their ancestral land (or some political or religious faction associated with it) has perpetrated an attack against the United States? To what extent are the Watanabes entitled to justice in post-Pearl Harbor Los Angeles? For some of the dimmer bulbs among the LAPD, the answer is unambiguous. “Who gives a shit who killed the fucking Watanabes?” one cop grumbles. However, the more cunning operatives on the force are quick to realize that the Watanabe murder is also an important opportunity. As Chief Clemence “Call-Me-Jack” Horrall notes to Dudley Smith, a successful prosecution would be “to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, to show how impartial we are. I’ve talked to Mayor Bowron. He’s afraid of a backlash if our boys start taking grief for rounding up all these so-called loyal Japs. Are you reading me, muchacho?”

Dudley reads. A swift arrest and prosecution of the Watanabe murderer (who must, the investigators immediately decide, be Japanese himself) will convince the public that the LAPD is safeguarding the civil liberties of all, thereby licensing the more entrepreneurial elements within the department to get down to the far more lucrative business of divesting the Japanese of their property and capital. Indeed, for those who are willing to set aside any niggling moral qualms — which, of course, turns out to be just about everyone — Japanese internment turns out to be a prospective cash cow. Ace Kwan, a Chinese kingpin, immediately hollows out a cavernous “hotel” beneath his restaurant, which he intends to furnish lavishly and rent out (at exorbitant prices) to Japanese who can shell out to avoid internment. Dudley Smith enlists Harry Cohn, the real-life head of Columbia Pictures, to improve upon this plan: why not outfit Kwan’s renovated premises for the production of niche pornographic pictures featuring the sexual debasement of Japanese women? Dr. Lin Chung, a plastic surgeon with a strong side-interest in eugenics (almost everyone in Perfidia is a “race man”) foresees a market in cutting Japanese citizens in order to look more Chinese. But all of it — the land grab, the extortion, the degradation porn, the plastic surgery, and the straight-up theft — will require the implicit or explicit imprimatur of the LAPD.

Perfidia, as the title suggests, is a novel replete with backstabbing, double-crossing, treason, and treachery. No character in this long novel manages to escape its pages without committing some act of perfidy, large or small. And yet it will inevitably strike some readers that all of the subsidiary betrayals point back to one overarching apostasy, which is the police department’s utter dereliction of its responsibility to protect, its abject betrayal of the ideals that supposedly justify the state’s monopolization of the means of violence. As Dennis Lehane observes in his New York Times review, the “police are not knights, they’re occupiers, and in Perfidia, Ellroy comes closer than ever to making the case that he writes alt-histories not of the Los Angeles police but of the Los Angeles police state.” One hastens to add that this argument is deeply implicit. Ellroy, for his part, makes abundantly clear that he stands with the LAPD — “they’re my guys,” he is wont to say in public appearances — and that police officers themselves thoroughly enjoy his portrayals of the department’s “wild and wooly past.”

But everyone remembers what Faulkner said about the past in Requiem for a Nun — that it is never dead, that it is not even past. There’s no gainsaying that Perfidia is detective fiction on an epic scale, conducted with ferocious energy and demoniac brio. And yet, at a moment when the chalk lines surrounding the bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are still vivid in the public mind, some readers will find themselves growing weary of Ellroy’s “wild and wooly” tales of police officers behaving badly. Public demonstrations in the wake of the legal exonerations of Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson, the officers who murdered Garner and Brown, have expressed a long-simmering mixture of outrage, betrayal, disillusion, and sadness. James Ellroy looks at police brutality and finds a source of amusement — nothing more.

Is there perhaps something faintly fascistic about Ellroy’s fixation on unchecked police violence? Some have said so. Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, has called Ellroy a “neo-Nazi in American writing.” But while it is certainly true that Ellroy revels in the portrayal of various denizens of the far right (principally, one feels, for the sheer linguistic virtuosity of these colorful miscreants), the charge that the work itself is fascistic turns out to be false. There is a scene in Perfidia where Dudley Smith questions the notorious (real life) pastor Gerald L. K Smith about the provenance of some fascist propaganda discovered at the Watanabe residence. Gerald Smith responds,

I write the right-wing tracts, Dr. Fred writes the left-wing tracts, and an old British fascist guy who was Jap-fluent wrote the Jap tracts […] The Jap-tract market has slowed down since we got in the war, but I’m considering hiring a Chink writer to write anti-Jap tracts and a Jap writer to write anti-Chink tracts in their own languages, which will cover a lot of bases and buttress our pro-First Amendment stance. There’s a socialite Commie woman named Claire De Haven who buys our Red tracts in bulk, and she even wrote an anticop tract herself. She distributes the tracts to Hollywood Jews, labor agitators, bleeding hearts, jigaboos, welfare creeps, queers, lovers of President Franklin ‘Double-Cross’ Rosenfeld, Jap lovers, Klan haters, Fifth Columnists, and the Red parasites who pollute the minds of our young at American Jewniversities.

Right-wing propaganda or left-wing agitprop, civil rights treatise or racist screed — in Ellroy’s narrative universe, all political ideology emanates from the same source and shares a common raison d’être: it sells. Ellroy is apt to describe himself as “the white knight of the far right”; he has also insinuated to Rolling Stone that such rhetoric may be part of a Stephen Colbert-esque performance, a send-up of hard-right conservative culture. The fiction itself suggests that political denominations are essentially frivolous, useful only insofar as they can divide people according to the expediencies of power. Ellroy’s characters demonstrate that “politics” is merely a posture to be assumed (along with an accent, a slinky red dress, an artfully drawn cigarette), and then discarded. Only the most blinkered or downright cretinous of these characters would suppose that politics (left or right) has any inherent value whatsoever.

Edmund Wilson located the appeal of detective fiction in its ability to provide readers with a sense of catharsis. The genre offers a controlled descent into paranoia and anarchy, “and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and — relief! — he is not, after all, a person like you are me. He is a villain — known to the trade as George Gruesome — and he has been caught by an infallible Power.” Perfidia takes this formula, so perfectly attuned to the moral sensibilities of the “Greatest Generation” and the age of consensus, and inverts it for the post-Abu Ghraib, post-NSA, post-Michael Brown moral co-ordinates we inhabit today. Where Wilson saw the figure of police power as restoring a sense of order after a period of chaos, Ellroy’s detectives reaffirm the chaos underlying our provisional fantasies of order. Relief, for us, arrives in the realization that Power is every bit as fallible and gruesome and anarchic as the “lawlessness” it claims to oppose. In confirming this basic cynicism, and in underscoring the essential fatuousness and futility of “political” resistance to this state of affairs, James Ellroy’s “historical” novels are the colorful symptoms of a distinctly contemporary affliction.


Ira Wells teaches American literature at the University of Toronto and is the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.

LARB Contributor

Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism. He has written essays and opinion pieces for The New RepublicAmerican Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, Canada’s National Post, and elsewhere. Follow on Twitter at @Ira_Wells


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