In 1958, when James Ellroy was 10, his mother Jean Hilliker was raped and strangled, her body dumped in an ivy patch in their hometown of El Monte, California. Her murderer was never caught.
From this sprang one of the great acts of catharsis in American letters. After spending his teenage years breaking into homes, sniffing lingerie, addicted to alcohol and amphetamines, Ellroy quit booze and became a writer. He would detail his years of debauchery and tortured sexual history in his two memoirs, My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse, but his reputation as an “American Dostoevsky” (per Joyce Carol Oates) comes from his novels. Starting with 1981’s Brown’s Requiem, Ellroy began producing testaments to a tormented boy’s screaming unconscious. His first six novels are littered with mutilated female corpses; barely veiled doppelgangers, like Killer on the Road’s Martin Plunkett, a genius intellect who drinks his dead mother’s blood, share Ellroy’s proclivities for self-aggrandizement and self-loathing.
It was in the four novels that comprise the L.A. Quartet (1987-1992) – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz – that an epic sensibility, and a fully formed worldview, emerged. Adopting a staccato style that has been likened by some to Celine and others to linguistic whiplash, Ellroy envisioned the Los Angeles Police Department as a staggeringly corrupt hotbed of psycho- and sociopathic careerists
whose vernacular consists largely of threats and racial epithets. As in any criminal enterprise, the LAPD engages in moments of fleeting compassion and they have an instinctive, almost primal, need to solve crimes (even if Protect and Serve usually applies to self-preservation, and Constitutional rights are relegated to punch lines). But they are otherwise devoted wholly to personal gain, especially if that devotion can be served by blackmail, coercion, and manipulation.
Brazenly obsessive, dense with masterful, labyrinthine plots, superbly controlled yet fraught with a sense of needful order symptomatic of madness, Ellroy’s work offers the sort of baroque violence usually found in more outré juvenile imaginations. Watching Ellroy’s LAPD inflict rampant acts of cruelty can be like watching a particularly anguished child commandeering toy soldiers in a psychologically complex, unwinnable war. There’s a sense of stunted emotional growth, in writer and characters, which comes through most strongly when characters reach for tenderness and can only simulate vulnerability. His interpretations of personality and motivation are more universal: every race/nationality/ideologue is savage, and madmen exist as organic elements in a lunatic ecosystem. Ellroy’s overriding message is that corruption isn’t an aberration in the American character, it’s the defining trait.
Ellroy’s preoccupations culminated in 1995 with American Tabloid, the first book in the Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy’s greatest vision of a government and its agencies as shadow organizations for power-mad maniacs, the book’s dispassionate construction of hellish events, real and imagined, leading to the JFK assassination is as good a candidate for Great American Novel as has been produced in the past twenty years. The CIA’s bungled invasion of Cuba, for instance, is a tour de force of Boschian horrors:
Diversionary dips got them in close. They caught the Bay of Pigs in tight and ugly.
They saw a supply ship snagged on a reef. They saw dead men flopping out of a hole in the hull. They saw sharks bobbing at body parts twenty yards offshore.
Chuck swung around and made a second pass. Pete bumped the control panel. The extra passenger had them cramped in extra tight.
They saw beached landing craft. They saw live men climbing over dead men. They saw a hundred-yard stretch of bodies in bright-red shallow water.
The invaders kept coming. Flamethrowers nailed them the second they hit the wave break. They got flash-fried and boiled alive.
Fifty-odd rebels were shackled facedown in the sand. A Commie with a chainsaw was running across their backs.
Pete saw the blade drag. Pete saw the blood gout. Pete saw their heads roll into the water
Flames jumped up at the plane-short by inches.
Chuck pulled off his headset. “I picked up an Ops call! Kennedy says, ‘No second air strike,’ and he says he won’t send in any U.S. troops to help our guys!”
Pete aimed his Magnum out the window. A flame clap spun it out of his hand.
Sharks were churning up the water right below them. This fat Commie fuck waved a severed head.
The two novels that followed, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009), offered continually diminishing returns; the plotting became more and more convoluted, the pared down prose became clipped to the point of self-parody. During that time Ellroy suffered a nervous breakdown, and the stories seem bear this weight: both novels rode Ellroy’s lowering crest of tenacity and dexterity, wearying as they progressed, until it finally felt like the perpetual motion machine that was James Ellroy was simply riding out the remnants of American Tabloid’s momentum. Even so, the cumulative effect was powerful, and there was the sense that wrestling with the Kennedy assassination not only broke something in Ellroy, but reflected something prevalent in the national psyche – a feeling that after the events in Dallas some elemental part of America died. The Underworld USA trilogy is a swan song of both personal and national despair, and one wondered where Ellroy would channel his delirium next.
His latest novel, Perfidia, is set in 1941, in the days just before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The opening book of what will be a second L.A. Quartet, it returns to some key players from the first, characters that have already had rich, complete literary lives, not because they bear fleshing out, but, it seems, from Ellroy’s stated reluctance to fictionalize American events after 1972. If not a step backwards, it’s a lateral move, and from Ellroy, a disappointment; it’s a terrifically entertaining work, but it says something about Ellroy’s previous achievements that any criticism leveled here comes from a dissatisfaction with the merely excellent, and can be measured only in relative terms. Intricately plotted, deftly juggling a multitude of characters, Perfidia maintains the formidable method, but loses much of the hypnotic madness – if it’s a failure, it’s one that’s resulted from an unprecedented sense of (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) timidity. It’s as if Ellroy, finally safe from his great, tormenting muse, is simply having fun reviving the archetypes of savagery into which he’d previously channeled his derangement.
The action begins on the day before Pearl Harbor when the members of a Japanese family, the Watanabes, are found dead, apparently from ritual suicide, but perhaps not.
Then Pearl Harbor happens and amidst rapidly escalating anti-Japanese sentiments, there is an urgency to solve the Watanabe murders to show that the LAPD is not racist. Why the LAPD would be so concerned with such a thing is never adequately explained, but it’s enough to set forth almost 700 pages brimming, as with all things Ellroy, with convoluted machinations, murder without consequence, depraved movie stars, cavalier mutilation, agonized yearning, and dubious acts of justice.
A saga beyond my powers of summary, it focuses mainly on the alcoholic future police chief William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, the deranged yet eloquent Dudley Smith, the gay forensic prodigy Hideo Ashida, and the narcissistic thrill-seeker Kay Lake. Parker struggles with alcohol and pines for a lost love; Ashida struggles to reconcile his opportunism and imminent corruption as he tries to keep his mother from an internment camp; and Lake tries to find peace and a sense of identity while bouncing from one safe harbor (read: male sexual partner) to another. But Perfidia is the Dudley Smith show. One of crime literature’s more entertaining anti-heroes (and, I suppose, heroes – he has a penchant for giving rape victims gold shamrock charms he buys in bulk, and obliterating their perpetrators via shotgun posse), Dudley is equal parts brutality and seduction, his calm demeanor a crucial ballast to Parker’s delirium tremens, Ashida’s endless swooning over unattainable men, and Lake’s navel gazing.
The garishness of the Watanabe killings aside, it’s Dudley’s war profiteering schemes – acquiring valuable land plots when their Japanese owners are interned and a bizarre plan with restaurateur/miscreant Ace Kwan to offer safe haven to wealthy Japanese and provide them with plastic surgery so they’ll appear Chinese (doubly dubious, as no one in the novel seems capable of telling the two nationalities apart) – that set off some of the novel’s most gruesome scenes, and flashes of energized prose. In a world of characters defined by stratagems and deviance, Dudley is a superb purveyor of both bedlam and order, his outlandish exploits – smoking opium, screwing Bette Davis, wantonly killing innocent Japanese Los Angelenos – providing not only the novel’s most outrageous entertainments, but an entry into the fetid core of Ellroy’s inspirations.
So, where’s the timidity? It’s in the patches of tired prose, in the stale tone, and the sense that Ellroy’s feverish exposition is continuing to devolve from the relentless, crackling spontaneity found in earlier novels. Consider this passage from the second volume of the first L.A. Quartet, The Big Nowhere, from 1988:
Buzz checked his watch. 4:45; Howard Hughes was forty-five minutes late. It was a cool January day, light blue sky mixed with rain clouds over the Hollywood Hills. Howard got sex crazy in the winter and probably wanted to send him out on a poontang prowl: Schwab’s Drugstore, the extra huts at Fox and Universal, Brownie snapshots of well-lunged girls naked from the waist up. His Majesty’s yes or no, then standard gash contracts to the yes’s–one-liners in RKO turkeys in exchange for room and board at Hughes Enterprises’ fuck pads and frequent nighttime visits from The Man himself. Hopefully, bonus money was involved: he was still in hock to a bookie named Leotis Dineen, a six-foot-six jungle bunny who hated people of the Oklahoma persuasion worse than poison.
Then look at this from Perfidia, in which Kay Lake offers up some dime store psychology:
Lee’s little sister Laurie, age 12. Lee, 15 then. Laurie disappears. She was at play in a public park one moment and gone forever the next. Lee was supposed to be watching her. He was off screwing the neighborhood roundheels instead.
“Lee carries the guilt. He hasn’t fully touched a woman since that time. It’s why he provides me with a comfortable home and does not make love to me. It’s punishment sustained and punishment inflicted. It enrages me and moves me to sobs. It’s why I love Lee so deeply and refuse to leave him. It’s why I sleep with men in his own house.
Elsewhere, as when Dudley explains Ace Kwan’s plan to Ace Kwan, the villainy is served
up in too-neat sachets of exposition:
I believe that the entire Jap population of our city will be interned within sixty days’ time. This provides us with an opportunity to implement your own grand notion to provide them with room-and-board in your tunnels and coerce them into performing in naughty films. It had occurred to me that the Japs would feel better if they actually looked Chinese, and that you know a morally sketchy plastic surgeon named Lin Chung. He’s no Terry Lux, but he’s a competent man.
And the perversions of the powerful, once a key element in Ellroy’s unhinged, cathartic methods, now appear as little more than a numbing trope:
Harry [Cohn]’s right hand leaves the desktop. Harry’s zipper scrapes. Harry’s right shoulder dips.
Dudley said, ‘Rita Hayworth is playing hide-the-ham with a heroically hung drifter named Sailor Jack Woods. Barbara Stanwyck remains butch. She’s known as ‘Steamy Stanny’ in all the lez hotspots. Carole Lombard has been palling around with District Attorney Bill McPherson, who has been spotted dozing at official confabs pertaining to the detention of subversive Japs. DA. McPherson is covertly known as ‘Darktown Bill,’ a nod to his penchant for jungle-bred trim. DA. McPherson has been frequently spotted at Minnie Roberts’s Casbah. A noted coon whorehouse. Miss Lombard, a mud shark herself, accompanies him and enjoys Zulu warriors while the D.A. enjoys dark girls.’
The ritual nears crescendo.
Harry’s right arm jerks. Harry’s right shoulder spasms. Harry gasps and tissue-blots his face.
Dudley lit a cigarette.
Ellroy has eliminated much of his trademark alliterative re-bop, and has tempered the writing, perhaps to lessen the sometimes irritating, frequently propulsive, affect and shift the mood to something more melancholy. Or, perhaps it’s just a compromise to reach a new audience, one previously resistant to his flamboyant sense of tragedy, but receptive to a superbly controlled, complex narrative peppered with gratuitous outrages.
Or perhaps, one hopes, this master stylist is retrenching and steeling himself for another plunge into his personal abyss. There are glimpses of Ellroy’s old, unstable brilliance throughout Perfidia. Consider the scene of Dudley wandering a sanitarium while processing a case:
They toured the grounds. Terry furnished narration. Hopheads and boozehounds strolled by them. They sipped purgative potions and cleansed their sapped souls.
There’s Lupe Velez. There’s that L.A. loop. Ruth Mildred Cressmeyer scraped her. There’s Ellen Drew. Jack Kennedy breezed through her life last weekend.
There’s a frail quail. She’s Andrea Lesnick. Her daddy’s a psychiatrist and left-wing race man. Race science crossed political lines. God was dead. Let’s build ubermenschen to replace them.
That loop again. Saul Lesnick, M.D. Kay Lake was seen at his office.
They entered the main building. Note the long corridor. Note the swank bedrooms and wide-open doors. Note the hopheads lashed to their beds. Watch them writhe and kick white horse.
That loop again. White horse was scarce in L.A. now. His coontown pushers were vexed. Carlos Madrano ran horse in Mexico. That loop – an insiders’ cluster fuck.
The corridor hooked into an ‘L’. Both sides were lined with steam rooms. Note the portholes. Doctor Terry liked to peep.
Or his visit to an abortion clinic in search of a harbored killer:
Dudley locked the file up and elevatored back down. He popped two more bennies and ran to his car.
He took 1st Street to Boyle Heights. The Heights was a grand weave of kikes and cholos. Ruth Mildred Ran her scrape clinic there. Right there-an ex-warehouse behind an auto-wreck yard.
Two full floors-all Girls, Girls, GIRLS. Girls-on-benders, girls-on-the-run, girls-in-a-jam.
Floor #1 was a dormitory. Ruth and Dot rented rooms to lezbo Marines. They went AWOL from Camp Pendleton. The lezbo grapevine drew them here. Hey, Butch – Ruth and Dot want You!
Floor #2 was a scrape shack. It was cop-protected. It featured deluxe scrape gear and recovery rooms. It catered to Harry Cohn’s starts and the L.A. elite. The exam rooms featured wall peeks. Sapphic sisters paid to watch.
Dudley parked in the auto yard. Carro Montezuma-Se Habla Espanol. He walked through the dorm. Girls with crewcuts scowled. He went up to the waiting room. Plain janes with bulging bellies pitched boo-hoo.
Whatever strategies of accommodation may be at play in Perfidia, Ellroy is incapable of betraying his sense of the demonic American landscape. In these repositories of the desperate and the lost, it’s evident that he still harbors recesses of despair that have yet to be reconciled. Hopefully, more of that madness will return in the next volume. In the meantime, we can celebrate a writer who, even when only variably satisfying, steadfastly provides a violent rebuke to any notions concerning the alleged death of the novel.
Steve Danziger is a contributing editor at Open Letters. His plays Moons of Jupiter and Tales from the Schminke Tub will be published in the fall by The Operating System.