PERFIDIA is best described as a pop-up book for adults that eschews three-dimensional images made of cardboard for word images that bombard and dazzle the reader whenever and wherever the book is opened. Its length, at almost 700 pages, defies its being read in one sitting; the knowledge that it is the first volume of a quartet makes the act of reading it even more daunting. It demands to be read, though, even as its foundation seemingly wobbles frequently but beautifully off-track.
James Ellroy’s novel is full of contradictions. It is the first book in the second L.A. Quartet, but chronologically takes place before the first, immortal quartet. A semi-helpful cast of its dozens of characters --- many of whom first were featured in the L.A. Quartet --- appears at the back of the book. Set in Los Angeles over a period of 23 days during one of the most tragic and historic periods of the Republic, PERFIDIA begins on December 6, 1941, when war hysteria in Los Angeles is at a fever pitch, a boil waiting for the seemingly inevitable lance. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor the next day, the long-festering infection is released and runs wild throughout the city.
"This is darkly brilliant literature from first page to last. It may be difficult for the uninitiated, but give the book a hundred pages or so before turning it away. You more than likely will be caught in its grip."
Almost simultaneously, a family of four Japanese Americans is found murdered in their home. The Los Angeles Police Department investigates the murders even as Japanese, U.S.-born and otherwise, are rounded up. As is revealed early on in PERFIDIA, there is an understated irony here, given that the dead family is all but certainly part of a fifth column movement that was aware the attack was imminent. The LAPD uses the investigation as a sort of cover, with the thought that even as the country is at war with Japan, it investigates the murders of Japanese residents with the intent of bringing their killers to justice. Further cover is provided by the presence on the team of a brilliant forensic chemist named Hideo Ashida, who, as war breaks out, remains the only nisei (native-born Japanese American) in the employ of the LAPD. Ashida makes for a visible target, yet harbors a secret that makes him even more fearful.
William H. Parker, an ambitious and ruthless LAPD captain, is interested in the outcome of the investigation and a hundred other things as well, the end result of all of which, if brought to fruition, will further enlarge his riches and, more importantly, his sphere of power. Parker butts heads continuously with Dudley Smith, a former IRA soldier and present LAPD sergeant. The war is just minutes old before Smith is trying to make a profit off of it. Caught to one degree or another among all of them is a woman named Kay Lake, who is getting played on all sides even as she is playing everyone.
While the investigation moves forward, Los Angeles explodes. There are Nazi sympathizers, Japanese traitors, unabashed war profiteers and outright criminals on both sides of the law, each and all moving simultaneously in opposition to and in accord with each other as a nation comes to grips with a tragedy and responds angrily and violently.
PERFIDIA is full of graphic violence, raw sex and name dropping. You can’t read it without choking at the mention of familiar names linked with actions that seem contradictory to their public personae. There are no good guys, high motives, or angels in a city full of them, other than for the fallen. This is darkly brilliant literature from first page to last. It may be difficult for the uninitiated, but give the book a hundred pages or so before turning it away. You more than likely will be caught in its grip. And if you make it to the end, you will want the second volume in your hands sooner rather than later. Highly recommended, from first page to last, and even for the double-entendre of the title.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 19, 2014