Hark! Hark! The Dog does bark!
You'll hear it about every five years and usually around Halloween, when a certain thrill-starved section of crime fiction connoisseurs finally get their long-awaited fix. An unholy high that has them howling at the moon for pure joy that the wait is finally over: the Demon Dog is back.
James Ellroy, former panty-sniffing drug-snorting delinquent who became the most important voice in crime fiction in the late 20th century with his LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, 1987; The Big Nowhere, 1988; LA Confidential, 1990; White Jazz, 1992), dreamed harder and with more righteous passion than any of his contemporaries. Eschewing the route of his noir forbears Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he did not send one avenging private detective down the mean streets of his mother city, but instead made her the central character of a series of interlinking novels which retold the story of 1946-58 Los Angeles through the institutions of crime that made up its society -- the Mob, Hollywood, City Hall and the LAPD.
Using as his guidebook a childhood talisman -- Jack Webb's The Badge, an almanac of LA's most notorious crimes written by the small screen star of Dragnet -- Ellroy fused social history, unsolved murder and the hallucinogenic power of his imagination to powerfully evoke a pivotal era. In doing so, he busted crime fiction out of its tedious template and liberated writers of the future, such as David Peace and Jake Arnott, to follow his imaginative lead and write some of the best British crime fiction as pop-cultural social history of the past two decades.
The greatest of the four novels, LA Confidential -- which features LAPD detective 'Trashcan' Jack Vincennes advising on a Dragnet-esque TV show called Badge of Honor -- is one of the most devastating indictments of America ever written. If you have only ever seen the movie version, uncommonly good though it is, you won't know the entire political backstory that was excised, which featured Ed Exley's property-developer father Preston and his allegiance with movie mogul Raymond Dieterling to build the Dream-a-Dreamland amusement park: "a self-contained universe where children of all ages can enjoy a message of fun and good will" -- actually a monument of hubris, lies and self-deception. And that would be a pity, because Perfidia returns to the monstrous ambitions of the younger Preston, along with many other familiar characters from the original Quartet -- Dudley Smith, Kay Lake, Bucky Bleichert, Buzz Meeks -- and frequent cameos from Jack Webb himself.
"I wanted to know these people again," Ellroy said, upon announcing this book as the beginning of a new LA Quartet that will chart the War years, "because they're so stunningly real to me." All signs that louden the baying of the Ellroy gorehounds to fever pitch -- not only is Daddio back, but he's reclaiming his true territory.
For between the original Quartet and now, Ellroy's novels have drifted further and further apart in the delivery, punctuated by two tomes of biography and a handful of collections of journalism and short stories. Following the publication of the first part of his Underworld USA Trilogy, American Tabloid in 1995, an assignment for GQ magazine grew into the first of those biographies. My Dark Places took the author back to the pivotal moment of his life, the murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, when he was ten years old. His subsequent reopening of her murder files with retired LAPD detective Bill Stoner became a profoundly moving and eloquent elegy for the three of them.
My Dark Places was Ellroy's ultimate act of alchemy, but it cast a long shadow. The next two books in the Underworld USA trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood's A Rover (2009) struggled to convey Ellroy's ambition to retell the true story of America through crime fiction into a workable format. In attempting to compress so much detail into even the hefty tomes they became, the brilliantly judged and paced plots that were the hallmark of the LA Quartet got lost into too much urban sprawl.
There was also the nagging feeling that all the soul-searching My Dark Places entailed had opened Ellroy up too much to the confessional, that self-analysis was taking over from the magical reinventions of his younger, hungrier self. His next volume of biography, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women (2010) was, his reflections on his mother aside, largely an indulgence that served to underscore this fear. Had the Dog started to lose his killer bite?
Named after a swing classic from doomed bandleader Glenn Miller that soundtracks the action, itself a word that perfectly denotes the entire subtext, the novel takes place over the first, frenetic 24 days that tipped an unwilling America into the maelstrom of World War II. It opens on a Klandestine radio broadcast from lunatic clergyman Gerald LK Smith, announcing the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor and denouncing it as an act of Jewish propaganda. It ends in the aftermath of a rally in support of the troops led by b-movie actor Ronald Reagan. This is classic Ellroy -- not only did the two right-wing nutjobs that bookend his tale both really exist, but both tried and one even succeeded in becoming President.
Thus, Perfidia returns to the central themes of the original Quartet as well as the characters themselves. The onionskin racism and sectarianism that wrap America are writ loud and brutal across every page; the worst traits of each character ignited by the possibilities of War. The four leads are Sergeant Dudley Smith, the most fearsome bent copper ever created; the real life former LAPD chief William H Parker, clawing his way towards the job he will attain in 1950; The Black Dahlia's femme fatale Kay Lake; and budding forensic genius Hideo Ashida, who also previously appeared in The Black Dahlia, but only as the name given to Bucky Bleichert's source of guilt -- one of the two Japanese friends the former boxer ratted out in order to be accepted into the LAPD.
In The Black Dahlia, Kay Lake is living with officer Lee Blanchard, also present here, but falls love with Bucky. In Perfidia, Hideo Ashida shares Kay's crush in secret. The pair is brought together by the subterfuge of political rivals Smith and Parker under whom they are serving respectively, Ashida because of his police work and Lake because she chose to accept a clandestine mission to spy on leftist actress Claire DeHaven, the 'Red Queen' of The Big Nowhere.
Ellroy has said that it is the portrait of Parker that most closely resembles himself. While it is true that 'Whiskey Bill' spends the novel chasing a red-haired nurse who is the image of Geneva Hilliker while ignoring a wife who shares the same first name as Ellroy's ex, Helen Knode, it is Ashida who seems more akin to his creator. The biggest outsider, wanting an in to the world the powerful men around him control, and making sure he gets it by the sheer force of his will and brilliance of his mind.
Ashida steps into the opening frames of Perfidia through a trail of blood and entrails. The Watanabes, a Japanese-American family of four, have apparently committed ritual suicide on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Dudley Smith recces their house and ascertains levels of familial dysfunction -- juvenile delinquent son apparently sexually fixated on his own sister -- that suggest this was far from a happy home. Peering more closely at the damage, Ashida reads the 'suicide' as a set-up, a masquerade for murder.
The grand deception continues through the rest of the novel, as the circumstances of the Watanabes' deaths are milked by everyone investigating them for blackmail possibilities, the potential for land grabs, propaganda for the furthering of fascism and eugenics, the encouragement of internecine gang violence and the spoils to be made from pornography and drugs. Anything, in fact, but finding the actual murderer in order to bring him to justice. While Parker and Smith look for every angle the War presents them with to shore up their power, Lake and Ashida can't help but subvert the roles they have been assigned, playing their bosses from what they imagine to be a more noble agenda, but which still results in the same blackening of their souls.
Perfidia depicts a city riddled with spooks -- both in the form of FBI agents and doomed figures as yet still breathing, most notably Elizabeth Short, the Dahlia herself -- where everybody is perfidiously coupling, drinking, snorting, gathering dirt and throwing it over fresh bodies. Celebrities mingle with Ellroy's creations, sharing their verisimilitude. Hollywood's battling bitches Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are deployed to convey all the dazzling artifice of their industry to full effect -- and no doubt to Joan's chagrin, Bette hogs centre stage. Voodoo is invoked, Bette's new beau Dudley channels his wolf spirit guide while strung out on opium and on the horizon, puppet masters Preston Exley, Pierce Patchett, Bugsy Seigel, Mickey Cohen, J Edgar Hoover and Joseph Kennedy amass like storm clouds. It is sometimes hard to believe that Ellroy is not embellishing the scale of the madness that infects all his dramatic personae. Yet look these people up and even the most cursory Wiki search of, for example, Gerald LK Smith reveals that what's on offer here barely scratches the surface.
The joy of Perfidia lies in the recognition of Ellroy returning to his most fertile ground and characters. But his enthusiasm does sometimes get the better of him. For me, at least, two of his leading ladies should have stayed where they were laid to rest. The Kay Lake of Perfidia loses all the mystery of her previous incarnation and instead becomes dangerously close to being James Ellroy in a dress --doubly annoying because he is normally so good at writing women. More jarring still is the resurrection of Elizabeth Short and the new role she is cast in here, that I won't go into for plot-spoiling reasons, but which reveals that despite all the ultra-violence going on around him, it's sentimentality that is the Demon Dog's Achilles' paw.
Like the two novels that preceded it, Perfidia is no light read either, weighing in at nearly 700 pages, as opposed to LA Confidential, the largest of the original Quartet, at a sprightly 480. The unfortunate effect of this is to make it too unwieldy to deliver the impact of the myriad plot twists that those shorter novels deployed to such stunning effect -- there is simply too much going on to keep track of it all. It could be that Ellroy needs an editor with the ruthlessness of Dudley Smith to contain some of the excesses that stop this book from reaching the bar set only by the author himself.
However, there is more than enough here to satiate the bloodlust of the gorehounds -- for now. Let's just hope the next installment is a leaner beast that arrives faster on the tail. That Ellroy can dream harder than ever before to deliver a second Quartet that transcends even his own best work in conveying all the devastating impact of the history of that powerful and terrifying place he calls home.
Cathi Unsworth: Author of Bad Penny Blues and Weirdo. Both published by Serpent's Tail. Her new novel, Without the Moon will be published by S.T. in July 2015.
Perfidia by James Ellroy
Paperback published by Windmill Books on the 30th April 2015.
Price - £8.99