There are some authors whose public persona are so outsized that they can’t help but overspill into their fiction. Generally these writers are dead: the ‘great men of letters’ seem to have been a decidedly pre-#MeToo phenomenon. The hard drinking lives and frequently unpalatable beliefs of authors like Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson are so blurred into their works as to be indivisible from them.
In many ways the pugnacious 70 year old crime writer James Ellroy seems to be the last descendent of these dinosaurs, roaring his defiance at a meteor that has already rendered the world unrecognisable. Ellroy is cueball bald with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and ivy caps; he looks like he’s wandered out of one of his own stories. In person the ‘demon dog of American literature’is all irascible energy and screwball bonhomie, delighting in wryly deliberate provocation. In fiction, he is brutal.
After years of refining his art with, frankly, lesser novels, Ellroy exploded into his own with the so-called L.A. Quartet. A series of four interconnected novels set in Los Angeles between the late 40s and late 50s The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz which combined real events like Bloody Christmas with Ellroy’s cracked imagination to explode the hard-boiled narratives of Dashiell Hammett and James MacDonald into a frenzied mutant; like a trashtalking, speed freak Virgil guiding you through an earthbound Inferno.
Ellroy wrote experimental boundary pushing novels disguised as genre fiction; the lowest kind of high art. As the series progressed, the writing style evolved from a ghoulish evocation of Raymond Chandler to an increasingly stylised staccato rattle that was purely his own. The increasingly short sentences each hit with the metronomic stutter of a machine gun, each one a crystalline miniature portrait of chaos and moral corruption. Yet despite this ratatat style, at his best Ellroy has more in common with Cormac McCarthy than Mickey Spillane. Whilst crime fiction is usually a guilty pleasure excuse to wallow in the lizard-brain atavism that flourishes in the deep fissures of the social contract; Ellroy is less interested in investigating personal darkness [though there’s plenty of that] than the cruel and racist underpinnings of American civilisation itself. To put it bluntly Ellroy’s L.A. is a police state of a kind that would be quite familiar to citizens of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. If it is better than those two Twentieth century bogeymen, it’s a question of degrees not categories.
His world is a savage refutation of ‘the good old days’ performatively yearned after by cynical politicians to shill repressive policies. The other implicit condemnation is the recognition that these same systems of oppression still stricture America in place, only with shiny new paint jobs to make them palatable to modern sensibilities. His most recent novel, Perfidia, which serves as the first book in a four-part prequel to the L.A. Quartet, is the novel that digs the deepest into this theme. Beginning the day before the attack on Pearl Harbour, the door stopper of a novel (a sadistic 787 pages) covers a period of just 22 days, but what days they are.
America has never really reckoned with (or acknowledged?) its wartime Japanese internment program, which saw the forcible relocation and incarceration of between 110,000-120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbour. This was nearly the entire 127,000 Japanese population of the continental U.S. and these innocent civilians were interned for nearly five whole years. About sixty-two percent of those arrested were naturalised American-born citizens; the net was stretched so wide that individuals as far removed as 1/16th Japanese were sent to the camps. Ellroy presents this great shame in America’s history as literal blood libel. Perfidia makes it perfectly clear that the internment is less about national security and more a savage public vengeance, which many of those in power used as a cover to expropriate as much as they could with the tacit support of their people and government.
The story is split between the four central point-of-view characters and an entire galaxy of satellite rogues, many of whom have appeared in other Ellroy novels as older people. Occasionally this can feel a touch like Where’s Wally, but generally the characters work as a contrast [or lack thereof] to the real life figures like Bette Davis and J. Edgar Hoover that the novel distorts for its purposes. It’s not exactly unusual for a hardboiled novel to use historical personages this way, but Ellroy is merciless in his characterisations and helps to put a cruel and upsetting flare on a time that borrowed nostalgia has painted serene and wholesome.
Perfidia is full of powerful men discussing eugenics and social cleansing as casually as they would discuss baseball scores. Misogyny and race hate are deliberate features of the system and the only real difference from now is simply that there isn’t any attempt to disguise it. To really hammer this point home, one of the most compelling of the four main characters is the whiskey-soaked Captain William H. Parker. In Ellroy’s hands he is ambitious to the point of corruption, violent, a slave to his appetites and willing to break any law to destroy anything he deems ‘subversive’. In reality he became L.A.’s most famous police chief and the founder of the modern police force, a clear line of continuity is drawn between this horrifically burlesqued world and our own.
Perfidia was released in 2014, hardly a halcyon era, but one in which the current state of the world would sound like the ramblings of a drunk preaching the end of the world on a street corner. In 2019 in the world of ICE and the wall and children kept in camps on the Mexican border, Ellroy’s deranged vision feels more apposite than ever. Are there flaws? Of course there are, it’s far too long for one thing, his female characters frequently feel unnuanced, cardboard Cassandras, who are so much sharper and verbose than the men that they scarcely feel real, even in Ellroy’s hyperreal world.
In addition, even though the unrelenting assault of his style is responsible for the fever-dream atmosphere, the one noteness of the tone can burn a reader out. But Ellroy’s artistic vision is frightening in its intensity and it is work that deserves to be taken seriously as great, groundbreaking literature. Over his career he has redefined what the crime novel can do and be and Perfidia is a bold new step into uncharted literary territory. Ellroy’s strength as a writer comes from the fact that he is as besotted with the bad men and nightmare world he conjures as he is appalled by it. This duality of tone has created something caught between a laugh and a scream. For any who can take it, Ellroy’s world is a dark mirror of the worst angels of our nature and in its bleakness and horror a wake-up call to change our ways and make amends whilst we still can.