“Perfidia” by James Ellroy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. $28.95.
Los Angeles, Dec. 6-29, 1941: The eve and immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor is the setting for James Ellroy’s new crime novel, “Perfidia.” The title reveals the theme: betrayal by all, in every conceivable manner.
Ellroy’s characters live in “a time of the vile act justified”; “history assumes the form of a mass debt that common people pay in blood”; “God was dead. Let’s build übermenschen to replace him.”
They are brutal, corrupt, promiscuous, “astonishingly arrogant and heedless,” living on amphetamines and alcohol, their vaulting ambitions assailed by their self-loathing. The mass murder of a Japanese family, the Watanabes, father, mother, son and daughter, binds them — to solve it, to understand it, to exploit it.
Among his many lost souls, Ellroy condemns a special four to embrace and reject each other in varying permutations. Capt. William H. Parker has his eyes on the office of police chief, even as he kneels at prayer: “a voyeur and a malicious martinet” who “talks to God and moves his lips when he does.”
Sgt. Dudley Smith is an Irish immigrant of “skewed will,” a one-time Irish Republican Army killer now enforcer and executioner in his adopted America, intending to apply his “bent for the illicit” to war profiteering.
Kay Lake is the round-heeled South Dakota carhop who catches a bus to L.A., becomes “the sorority girl Mata Hari” and recognizes, “I possess stunning artistry, but no character or conviction.”
Hideo Ashida is the nisei striver with a doctorate in chemistry and a fascination with forensic science, suspended between the past of his race and the future of his achievements: “Hey, you’re a Jap”; “I am an American.”
For more than a quarter-century, Ellroy has explored the darkest secrets of America’s recent past. He started with post-war Los Angeles: “The Black Dahlia” (1987), “The Big Nowhere” (1988), “L.A. Confidential” (1990) and “White Jazz” (1992), working his way from 1946 to 1958. From there, he turned to a national perspective: “American Tabloid” (1995), “The Cold Six Thousand” (2001) and “Blood’s a Rover” (2009), writing about the prelude to the 1960 election, the three assassinations (JFK, MLK and RFK) and the re-election of Richard Nixon.
Now, he returns to Los Angles and World War II with “Perfidia,” the first of a projected quartet. Ellroy’s vision is like the portrait of Dorian Gray unveiled.
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).