Demons have pursued the crime writer James Ellroy since his mother was brutally murdered in 1958; in My Dark Places, the author – already known as a larger-than-life, eccentric figure – recounted his attempts to reopen the unsolved investigation with the help of a retired detective. That book was a searing account of self-discovery which many felt would end his creative career. That wasn’t the case, though Ellroy was quoted as saying that he was through with genre fiction; the new book, Perfidia, gives the lie to that statement. But is genre fiction through with him?
The best American crime writing has always addressed key issues affecting society — class, politics and race — its sleuths moving between the various strata of US society, from the dispossessed underclass to the homes of the rich, as a detailed canvas of American class structure emerged. These penetrating examinations continue with such writers as James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, folding in a broader political dimension than in the past. But one writer quickly assumed pole position (albeit a soi-disant one); when James Ellroy calls himself ‘the world’s greatest crime writer’, he’s only half joking – and a great many people agree with him. Or they did… until recently.
In 1990, L.A. Confidential was acclaimed as the most extraordinary crime novel produced in the US in decades. The complex narrative showcased a massive panoply of Los Angeles in the 1950s, blending a fictional scenario with real events and characters, the picture-postcard vision of the city undercut by Ellroy’s anatomising of its darker side. American Tabloid was also much praised.
But Ellroy’s winning streak was about to run dry: one of the reasons, in fact, that each new novel is received with some trepidation, even by his admirers. The Cold Six Thousand (2001) was found by many to be mannered (and even unreadable), with its hyper-short sentences and minimal punctuation. Ellroy later disowned the book, but his reputation was tarnished – and Blood’s a Rover in 2009 deeply divided readers.
So – has Ellroy got his mojo back with the massive 700-page Perfidia? The new book is a prequel (beginning on the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) to the original L.A. Quartet, featuring several of the same characters and a host of real-life personalities. As before, we are presented with a richly flavoured goulash in which corrupt cops, psychopathic gangsters, Hollywood types with unorthodox sexual tastes, racists and junkies violently intersect. Police chemist Hideo Ashida is called to a gruesome ritual suicide, but he suspects mass murder. And as Japanese ‘subversives’ are corralled by US authorities, an orgy of bloodshed connected to Hideo’s case is unleashed. Ellroy’s customary command of language is overwhelming, but his recent staccato style is hiked up to cosmic levels; this is the Finnegans Wake of crime novels, and if you can take sentences so packed with cross-references that even basic comprehension is a challenge (though some sentences are only four words long), you’ll find rich rewards. It has to be said that this is for diehard enthusiasts only; the casual reader will melt away. But at least Ellroy is still trying to expand the parameters of the crime novel – and perhaps we must pay him the compliment of cracking the prismatic (but exhilarating) prose that is his speciality.
By James Ellroy
REVIEW BY BARRY FORSHAW