James Ellroy, historical novelist
|(Me and James Ellroy. Photo by a friendly bystander, photo|
cropping and color desaturation by your humble blog keeper.)
I've known that for a while, other readers of his recent novels have to have known it as well, and Ellroy has long said he doesn't write crime anymore. But what is that something else that he became?
A historical novelist, he said Wednesday at Mysterious Bookshop and, with his new Perfidia, a writer of historical romance. "In the course of going from mystery writer, from crime novelist, to historical novelist," he said, "I crafted the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz)."
Perfidia is the first novel of a second L.A. Quartet. More than in the first quartet and more even than in the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood's a Rover), the book's action is rooted in the moment of history that provides its setting.
That moment is December 1941 (The book's action begins on Dec. 6), and the centerpiece is the roundup of Japanese and Japanese Americans in and around Los Angeles, what Ellroy calls "the great injustice of the Japanese internment."
Virtually everything else in the book--the killings, the sex, the breakdown of social boundaries, the shady land deals--flows from the fact of the internment, planning for which is underway through most of the course of the novel.
The book is populated largely by characters from Ellroy's previous books, portrayed this time as their considerably younger selves. The four protagonists are Hideo Ashida, a police chemist; William Parker, a police captain in 1941 and later the real-life Los Angeles police chief; the demonic police sergeant Dudley Smith, a fixture in previous books; and Kay Lake, a young woman from Sioux Falls, S.D., whom Ellroy called his greatest fictional creation. The revisiting of characters from previous books will be great fun for readers of those books. It also provides at least one shocking surprise.
The novel may lack the stylistic daring of The Cold Six Thousand and naughty shtick and grotesque comic high-jinks of Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, John F. Kennedy, and the Las Vegas mob bosses from previous books. What is does offer is increased emphasis on tortured redemption, of the kind Wayne Tedrow Jr., Ward Littell, and Robert F. Kennedy exemplified in the Underworld U.S.A. books.
That, and more thinking about 20th-century American history. "The whole book is a riff on democracy," Ellroy said Wednesday evening. "1941 in America was a time of utterly outlandish belief," he said, and he called it a sign of American goodness and greatness that the United States did not fall to its own currents of lunatic populism, nativism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, the way other countries did.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014