Released: September 2014
This novel has been called a ‘great American novel’, which is an honour I’m fairly certain most books set in a turbulent time of American history are given. For the Great Depression, it was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for racial inequality it was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and now, at the brink of World War Two, as America’s tensions with Japan hit breaking point with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we have James Ellroy’s Perfidia.
I’m going to save all of you from the shock I had when it landed on my doorstep and warn you now: this book is massive. What I also didn’t know until I’d started reading was that James Ellroy is particularly well-known for his L.A. Quartet of novels, including L.A. Confidential. When I learned this, I was initially a little disheartened; it can be hard breaking in to a popular book series, even if the novel is set before any of the pre-existing books.
Part of the joy of a prequel coming after later events is discovering how the characters grow into the ones you already know. Admittedly, reading a prequel is significantly easier than trying to insert yourself into the world of a sequel, but even so, trying to get a feel for the world the author has already established can be quite a difficult feat to achieve. Especially, as in this case, when the novel is comprised of the seedy underworld of L.A.’s criminal class, and has its own interconnected community already at work.
The novel covers a three week period, from the day before Pearl Harbor (the 6th December, 1941 for all you non-history buffs out there) right though until 29th December, twenty three days later. However, in splitting the narrative of this novel between four different protagonists, this relatively short time period can sometimes feel too crowded. The biggest problem I had was that there wasn’t much done to distinguish between the voices, and in a situation with multiple narrators, I think this is an issue that must be addressed in order to let your character stand out when it is their time to speak.
Nevertheless, Perfidia is a gritty tale of a city obsessed by the gruesome murder of a Japanese family, a country at breaking point being pushed over by a devastating attack on their navy, and four characters whose worlds collide to set them on the path towards an unavoidable political storm that tests friends, enemies and lovers. It’s a graphic book, and the novel certainly does not hesitate to pull out all the punches.
Ellroy, writing in his signature telegraphic style, strives to depict reality, every dark aspect of it: there’s murder, apparent ritual suicides, hate crimes and a world of characters that you just cannot root for. Ellroy successfully establishes his four main characters, alongside a wealth of fully developed, clever and sophisticated secondary characters, within his own creation of a microcosm of a community challenged by politics and an unavoidable history.
It’s easy for us looking back to know all the answers, know what’s going to happen cannot be changed and know that they’re in a period of history that will come to define them, but for these characters in their moment, they’re struggling to survive in a world of “bad guys” at a turbulent period of American history.
Perfidia is Spanish for perfidy, meaning betrayal or faithlessness, and this is a novel that is very aptly named. These themes permeate every page, and neatly summarise the complexity of the emotions informing the book: the uncertainty of war, the disbelief in our surroundings, and the betrayal of the people around us.