Ellroy’s ‘Perfidia’ start of new L.A. quartet

PERFIDIA. By James Ellroy. Knopf. 701 pages. $34.

James Ellroy’s new novel “Perfidia” begins on Dec. 6, 1941, in Los Angeles, the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ellroy’s familiar staccato prose crackles with short sentences, sometimes a mere two or three words long, moving like speeding bullets. The characters are many and sometimes often difficult to keep up with.

Against the background of the Japanese attack and the subsequent uproar, the story swirls around the hideous killing of the Watanabe family, a Japanese mother, father, son and daughter. Was it one of their own countrymen pursuing revenge?

The Los Angeles Police are on the scene, with characters named Call-Me-Jack and Whiskey Bill, among others. In 1941, corruption is rife, not only within the police and justice departments, but everywhere. Blood flows as possible suspects are gunned down in the streets. Nothing is sacred. Odious racial and sexual epithets abound. Booze, opium and Benzedrine are consumed in copious amounts, especially by one member of the LAPD.

Most of the book’s characters are purely evil, with the exception of a bright, young Japanese police chemist, Hideo Ashida, who is determined to solve the murder of the Watanabe family. As the beginning of the internment of the city’s Japanese residents begins, he works desperately to keep his family in its home. This is a tale of treachery and betrayal, as the title informs us.

And it’s an exhilarating ride, but not for the faint-hearted. The novel is the first of Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet. Many readers will remember his “L.A. Confidential” from the first L.A. Quartet, which was made into a critically acclaimed movie.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.