‘Definitely a slog’ – Perfidia by James Ellroy

jepPerfidia is the first part of Ellroy’s second LA Quartet. It features characters from the previous series. It is set in LA at the time of Pearl Harbour. It focuses on the murder of a Japanese family. The various characters see this murder as an opportunity. They try to use it to their own advantage. The novel runs for almost 700 pages. It is written in a series of short sentences. They are almost all exactly the same length. Occasionally, they’re shorter. They lack rhythm and pace. A bit like this paragraph. If this paragraph annoys you, I wouldn’t read this massive novel.

Sorry, I can’t sustain that for as long as Ellroy does. In many ways, it’s a shame that Perfidia is written in this staccato style as it has the ingredients to be great. Focusing on America at the onset of war, it presents an interesting comparison between the Nazi persecution of Jewish people and the way Americans responded to the Japanese that lived in their country. Behind the backdrop of murder, we hear of plans for internment camps. We read about the round-up of Japanese immigrants, and their suicides in the city’s prison cells. And, given Ellroy’s tendency to use real life figures in his fiction, much of this is forwarded as fact.

There’s also an intriguing tale of murder typical to the author. The day before Pearl Harbour, a Japanese family are found dead in their home, each with an identical stab wound. It seems at first to be a case of Seppuku, a Japanese form of ritual suicide by disembowelment. But as the various cops discover that the daughter of the family was pregnant, and that the father may have had previous knowledge of the oncoming attack, they begin to ask questions that lead to an in-depth investigation from various angles.

And therein lays the strength and weakness of this work. The narrative is driven by the way policemen Dudley Smith, William Parker, and Hideo Ashida try to use this crime to their own advantage. Each has a different agenda. They obscure or invent details to meet their needs. This creates a tension that allows the story to spiral into various subplots; some successful, others not. But the problem with having various voices while writing in such a staccato style is this; you can’t tell the difference between them. With each new section, the reader has to work out who they are reading about. There is no differentiation. And, because of that, there are large parts of the work in which you have no idea what’s happening.

This is epitomised by the ‘great reveal’ in the last fifty pages. We finally learn who is behind the heinous crimes at the novel’s centre but, at least in my case, it takes a good while to actually work out who this person is. He’s appeared throughout the novel, but been somewhat lost in the chaos. So after 650 pages of wondering, you may have to turn to the dramatis personae at the back of the book to figure out who the hell the killer is anyway.

Any Cop?: This is a difficult one. Perfidia is by no means a terrible novel. But at 692 pages it is definitely a slog. Its ideas sustain it for a long while, but its style prevents it from ever being truly gripping or involving. One character, Hideo Ashida, is at the heart of all that’s interesting. A 300 page novel telling his story, with the rest of the characters as background noise, may have been a much better way to tell this historical tale.

Fran Slater


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