“With a sad lament my dreams are faded like a broken melody / While the gods of love look down and laugh / At what romantic fools we mortals be.”

–“Perfidia,” Alberto Domingues, Eng. Trans., Milton Leeds

Let’s make it immediately clear: there’s no compassion in James Ellroy’s novels – not a compassionate word, not a compassionate exchange between characters, and – even though we catch an occasional glimpse of one – no compassionate actions. “Brutal” and “harsh” are the adjectives most often thrown around when describing Ellroy’s work. In a broader sense, they are essentially stories of morally-compromised people thrown into turmoil that might or might not be of their own making, and they must respond to what happens.

Put another way, Ellroy’s characters embody a twisted version of Raymond Chandler’s description of the situations the hero in detective fiction must face:  “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” In Ellroy’s world, the tarnished and compromised characters must go down mean streets of their own making.

And in the case of Perfidia, the mean streets the characters make for themselves are in Los Angeles in the days before and after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

With Perfidia, Ellroy is creating a second L.A. Quartet series, a prequel to his original L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) and is linking it to his American Underworld trilogy – American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover. It’s an ambitious Asimov-style interconnection of worlds and characters and stories, as if Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga was transported to America and took place in the 30 year span between 1941 and 1972. Except in Ellroy’s world, it’s not a ring that binds them all – it’s questionable behavior, deviance, mean spirits, and Sauron smokes his cigars, gets laid a lot by Hollywood starlets, and laughs at these tiny mortals – these romantic fools – scrambling to survive in mire they’ve created themselves.

Perfidia‘s core is where the lives of four main characters intersect:  Dr. Hideo Ashida, a brilliant Stanford-educated criminologist who is destined, along with his family, to spend time in an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; Captain William Parker, the eventual chief of the L.A. Police Department who is struggling with overwork and alcoholism, and an obsession with a tall red-haired Navy nurse he has only seen in a picture; Kay Lake, a young aspiring actress and Communist sympathizer who is used by Parker to infiltrate a cell of well-to-do Hollywood Communists; and the ruthless and efficient Sergeant Dudley Smith, who becomes a polarizing character in the later novels of the L.A. Quartet, and whom we find out had been an assassin for the Irish Republican Army as a teenager and was smuggled into the United States by Joseph Kennedy, and who is also having an intense sexual affair with a major American actress.

The key event:  a Japanese-American family of four commits seppuku on the night of December 6, 1941. On the wall of the master bedroom, written in Japanese, is a prophetic apology for the “apocalypse that is to descend” on America. Other interconnected events and characters spring up in the trail of seppuku blood: land grabs of Japanese-American homes, migrant workers run by Mexican crime bosses who emulate the European fascists; a Japanese sub attack on a coastal fishing town, fifth-column subversives and anti-Semitic evangelists, and other characters from Ellroy’s later sagas that weave in and out to leave the trails that will form their own stories later on.  And nobody seems to sleep. A line in the book states that “War insomnia ran epidemic.”

There’s also an appearance by a young Jack Webb, too, and a young Betty Short, who will be immortalized in 1947 as The Black Dahlia.

The title is taken from the song “Perfidia,” the American version of which was made popular by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The concept of perfidy – unfaithfulness – is strong within each of the four main characters: Dr. Ashida trying to stay faithful to his science while also scrambling to keep himself and his family out of an internment camp; Kay Lake’s attempts to stay faithful to her left-wing cause while also spying on it for the police; Captain Parker’s struggles to stay sober and faithful to his wife while he obsesses over a woman and uncovers horrendous actions performed by an ambitious brother officer; and Dudley Smith, who is faithful to the actress who tells him to “kill a Jap for her” (he does, rather ruthlessly in a phone booth), but who is jilted by her. And the only memory of her he keeps anchored to is dancing with her to Glenn Miller’s rendition of “Perfidia.”

With Perfidia, Ellroy has established a base camp on what promises to be an epic series that will cover an equally epic portion of American history. The evil that men do to each other on their native soil doesn’t stop even when larger conflicts are fought on the other half of the world. And the people who fight these battles are tarnished, sometimes hideously, almost fatally, flawed.

Perfidia is our reminder of that.

Advertisements