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Perfidia by James Ellroy review – crime fiction on a transcendental scale

Written for The Guardian:

 

In his latest novel, the ‘demon dog of American crime fiction’ has created an awe-inspiring vision of social, moral and human chaos in wartime LA…

There is a little-known Austrian documentary about James Ellroy entitled The Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, in which the Los Angeles author can be seen howling at the sky and then dropping to his knees on the beach and making paws with his hands. Towards the end, Ellroy says: “I wanted to be Tolstoy … I wanted to be Balzac. Yeah. I wanted to be all these guys that – quite frankly – I’ve never really read. I wanted to give people crime fiction on an epic, transcendental scale.”

I bring this to your attention because Perfidia is surely Ellroy’s best shot at the second half of this ambition to date. My guess is that we’re deep into the dark side of 200,000 words. The dramatis personae alone runs to four and a half pages. And – yes – this is an epic and bizarrely transcendental novel that represents an extraordinary achievement by any measure.

Many people know Ellroy as the author of The LA Quartet, which includes The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential. Perfidia, so the endnotes tell us, is the first volume of the second LA Quartet; the beginning of a prequel that Ellroy hopes will leave him and us with “one novelistic history” comprising 11 books – the two quartets plus his Underworld US trilogy. This second quartet “places real-life and fictional characters from the first two bodies of work in Los Angeles during the second world war as significantly younger people”. The zone of Ellroy’s ambition, then, is an American Comédie Humaine.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that “perfidia” as a word – the profession of faith or friendship, made only to betray – simply doesn’t cover it.

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