Perfidia

By James Ellroy

Alfred A. Knopf. 701 pp. $28.95

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Reviewed by Derrick Nunnally


Look out, America!

, this book shouts from the margins of nearly every page of its blood-soaked bulk. And it has much to warn us about.

Perfidia's world is Los Angeles, early fringe of wartime, 1941. Violence, corruption, racism, warmongering, corruption high and low, and constant paranoia about fifth-column sabotage pulse through the streets, sparking sudden, life-shattering confrontations.

Perfidia is the opening outburst of Ellroy's "second L.A. quartet" - a tetralogy of linked 700-page novels to show the tumult of home-front America during World War II and stitch together the early lives of characters from his White Jazz, The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, and other searing, exuberant works. The title comes from a 1941 Glenn Miller hit that echoes periodically through the narrative as a leitmotif while Ellroy's swirl of characters grasp their way through 23 days of a December that lives in infamy.

The first casualties of Ellroy's home-front war come in ahead of Pearl Harbor. It's Dec. 6, and the only Japanese family in an L.A. neighborhood turns up dead in their blood-soaked home, a quadruple killing the police rapidly decide isn't the ritual suicide the bodies were arranged to portray. There's a cryptic note, translated by intrepid technician Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese American on the LAPD payroll and a character expanded from a one-line mention in The Black Dahlia into a repressed, endlessly clever central player.

Hours after the bodies turn up to kick off the whodunit, America gets thrown into world war, and Los Angeles immediately reacts with an explosion of anti-Japanese sentiment. We're off into a stew of endless feuding, and, wow, what feuding. Opportunist politicians, Chinatown warlords, Japanese sleeper cells, Nazi sympathizers, brutally corrupt cops, extortionate movie-studio bosses, pimps, politicians, and drug dealers, and most of them constantly at work at getting over on the next guy. Because this is a James Ellroy book, we peek over the shoulders of our narrators constantly, listening in on the stream of consciousness in authentic, addictive period slang.

That cuts good and bad.

The best of it is when Ellroy's writing engine is running at full exuberance, which is usually in service of street riots, fistfights, and carnality. Perfidia becomes a grittier read when Ellroy gives extended voice to the bigotries of the period - and earlier ones - in flashbacks.

This isn't too much of a spoiler, hopefully, but it's a crucial point: that the novel's resolution comes with an extended this-is-what-I-did-and-why monologue feels uncharacteristically punchless.

Then again, you don't get there for more than 650 pages; by that point, the promise of reading new Ellroy has delivered its alarmist punches until everyone's woozy. Let's hope he can stay as thrilled about rewriting L.A. history for another 2,100 or so pages to finish the map of his universe.

Derrick Nunnally is a former Inquirer staff writer.