Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Writer James Ellroy is unapologetically politically un-correct. If you are offended by racial slurs and blunt sex talk, he is not the writer you should be reading. He manages to insult almost every ethnic and niche group. He gets away with it, it is assumed, because all his novels are set in the not-too-distant American past, where racial prejudice and racial slurs were much more a part of everyday discourse than they are now. “If you’re looking for political correctness,” Mr. Ellroy says, “go someplace else.”
His big (almost 700 pages) novel Perfidia (a Spanish word meaning betrayal or treachery) is set in Los Angeles in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. With all those Americans dead in Hawaii and with the country now at war, fear and unease—and in some cases, hysteria—are the order of the day. The west coast of California seems the logical place that the frighteningly aggressive “Japs” will attack next. And those mandatory blackouts don’t do anything to ease peoples’ fears, either. (Imagine moving through a big city at night with all the lights turned off.)
The Japanese people in the Los Angeles area are being rounded up, no matter how innocent or blameless they are. Their property is being confiscated and they are being housed in “internment” camps. Americans are so anti-Japanese because of Pearl Harbor that they want to kill or at least defile almost every Asian they see. (Most people can’t tell the Japanese from other Asians). It’s in this atmosphere of fear and distrust that Perfidia is set.
Dr. Hideo Ashida is an Americanized Japanese. He is a brilliant forensic chemist employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. When all the Japanese people on the city payroll are canned just because of their ethnic background, Dr. Ashida manages to hold onto his job because he is so good at solving crimes. (He is, of course, called Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, but he seems impervious to insult.) When he is out in public in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people call him names, spit on him and, in some cases, threaten him. The police department assigns bodyguards to keep him safe.
Dr. Ashida has what he believes is a “shameful” secret. In the world that he inhabits of hyper-masculine, crime-fighting alpha-males, he is secretly gay. The lone object of his desire is one Bucky Bleichert, a boxer with whom he has been friends since high school. He sets up a hidden movie camera in the shower room to capture footage of Bucky naked. The one femme fatale in Perfidia, one Katherine “Kay” Lake, offers Dr. Ashida a roll in the hay but he, of course, isn’t interested.
On the day before the Pearl Harbor attack, a Japanese family of four, the Watanabes, are brutally murdered in their home. It appears to be a sort of ritualized killing, maybe a suicide, but the police just can’t figure it out. There’s an apparent suicide note written in Japanese that speaks of the “coming apocalypse,” but it’s too ambiguous. On examining the background of the Watanabes, the police discover they are “Fifth Column,” meaning they are part of the non-fighting branch of the Japanese military whose job it is to create disorder on the civilian front. The Los Angeles police are hoping to find a Japanese suspect to pin the Watanabe murders on, to somehow mitigate the internment of the Japanese people. If it turns out that a white person committed the murders, it will be a public relations nightmare.
If you read Perfidia and some of the other novels of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, among others) you know that the Los Angeles Police Department of the past was unspeakably corrupt, or at least it is that way in the Ellroy universe. Most of the upper tier of the police department are on the “make” in some way or other. They have no allegiance to anything other than themselves. They take drugs, cheat on their wives, kill without compunction whenever it suits them, cover up evidence, and involve themselves with gangsters and shady characters that will advance their own interests. They don’t account to anybody but themselves. These crime fighters are in some ways worse than the criminals they pursue.
Some real-life people (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, J. Edgar Hoover) appear as minor characters in Perfidia, and James Ellroy paints a very unflattering portrait of them. It’s probably a good thing they’re all dead or they might be initiating some legal action. Bette Davis having a torrid affair with police sergeant Dudley Smith? It somehow doesn’t fit in with the idea we have of Bette Davis. (Bette’s husband, we are told, is a “chains-and-leather queen.”) Joan Crawford seducing a young police officer half her age? Maybe so, but it’s an odious thought. J. Edgar Hoover with pomaded hair and buffed fingernails developing “crushes” on handsome L.A. police officers? I somehow doubt it. It’s all part of the badly damaged world of James Ellroy.
However you look at it, Perfidia is fun to read for its portrayal of a time and place. Very few of us alive now were alive seventy-five years ago at the start of World War II; this is a vivid “re-imagining” of those days. As long as the novel is, the chapters are short, the paragraphs are short, the sentences are short and punchy, and we never get bored. Keep turning those pages and eventually you’ll come to the end and want more.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp