The Return of Dudley Smith
by Ken Gibb
I have spent much of the last ten days reading Perfidia, the new crime novel by James Ellroy. He is well-known for his series of novels blending fact and fiction, real and imagined people, in a continuous historical narrative stretching across nearly 30 years of post war American history mainly in Los Angeles. Several of his books have been filmed along with other screenplays. LA Confidential was a huge celluloid success; the Black Dahlia, less so.
There are three interconnected stages to the mature Ellroy books – first the four crime novels that start with the Black Dahlia and end with White Jazz. Second, there is the biographical My Dark Places which tells the story of his mother’s murder, his subsequent journey through tortured times till he became a successful novelist and then used his newly found resources to re-investigate his mother’s death. Everyone should read this book but don’t expect light entertainment. Third, he constructed his own fictional account of the alternate 1960s focused around the Kennedy and King assassinations, Hoover, the CIA and the Mob, drawing extensively from characters introduced earlier in the crime novels. The Underworld Trilogy began with American Tabloid and the Cold 6000. After a long delay the third book (Blood’s a Rover) moved to the early 1970s and dealt with the CIA in Central America, less so with domestic politics, and also rounded off the arc of the key remaining characters.
The classic crime and political novels are characterised by large ensemble casts, complex and highly detailed plotting, electric and often shocking prose, a highly stylised form of writing in the historical vernacular, and the unceasing, relentless analysis of evil in the pursuit of money, power, racial prejudice and control (usually) over women. It can be very dark but when it works it is compelling.
My introduction to Ellroy was White Jazz, out of order and last of the 4 LA crime novels. I had never read anything like it – how could the main protagonist, Dave Klein, someone of dubious morality himself, but wholly committed to an ethical goal, possibly survive and achieve his ends whilst multiple forces are arrayed against him. I think I then saw the film of LA Confidential and thereafter read the four novels in order. The Big Nowhere is probably the classic crime novel of the set but the book version of LA Confidential is by far the most complex story and much richer and deeper than the admittedly excellent film.
The key character through the LA quartet is Dudley Smith, the epitome of premeditated evil and avarice, all embodied in a clever, funny, smooth Irish-American police detective. Smith is to my mind one of the greatest creations of modern crime fiction.
The political trilogy that begins with American Tabloid and the Cold 6000 were broader and bolder and reinvented the Sixties in a powerful series of dark conspiracies, hidden agendas and political brutality. Scapegoats and media manipulation are developed alongside the unfolding plans of highly professional operators in the pay of different illiberal puppet-masters.
Each book is structured around on three or four characters with each short chapter loosely from one of their perspectives or tracing their actions and thinking processes. You see this sort of approach in a lot of modern writing but Ellroy is for me the master of this relentless style. The books have grown larger and more dense but are none the worse for it. You need to commit and submerge yourself in their fascinating though often shocking worlds that operate under the Hollywood radar.
So it is with this baggage that I approached reading Perfidia. I was slightly disappointed with Blood’s a Rover, his previous book, and while I looked forward to the new planned quartet of wartime LA crime novels involving younger versions of the key characters from both existing series, it was with a little trepidation.
I need not have worried. The new book is simply tremendous and a genuine return to his best form. Several of the key characters from both the Black Dahlia and American Tabloid are present and correct. There is the development of a new key character, the future LA police chief William Parker. There is the usual melange of serious crime and murder mayhem interwoven with powerful economic interests and political corruption and conspiracy – on this occasion the LA response to Pearl Harbour and Japanese internment. Best of all, at the heart of the book is a younger but instantly recognisable Dudley Smith who dominates the book. It is great to have him back, monster that he is.
I won’t say anything about the plot or its multiple threads to war, politics, crime and Hollywood. Racism in its different forms often plays a key role in Ellroy’s books and in this one the treatment of the American Japanese and the cynical manipulation of the situation to secure advantage is laid out in detail.
This has been the fictional book of the year for me (thus far) and it is great to have him back. I hope the next volume will not take 5 years. I know that Ellroy is not to everyone’s tastes but for those of who do like his books, Perfidia is very welcome and contains quite a few surprises.