Novelist James Ellroy prides himself on living in the past, and sometimes his obsessive backward gazing pays off. One lonely Saturday night a few years back, he stood at his window in the Ravenswood — the Art Deco apartment on Rossmore Avenue best known for Mae West's longtime residency — and had a vision.
"It was handcuffed Japanese Americans," he purrs. "In a military vehicle, soldiers up front, going up a snow-capped road to Manzanar in the dead of winter. Bam! The Second L.A. Quartet."
A lanky, shaven-headed Ellroy is sitting in Pacific Dining Car, drinking two china cups of black coffee simultaneously. ("I'm double-fisting," he tells a waiter.) He's describing the beginning not only of his new novel, "Perfidia" (Alfred A. Knopf: 701 pp., $28.95) but the launch of a series of books set during World War II. The new series, shadowed by the Japanese American internment, precedes the four books — including "L.A. Confidential" — that marked his breakout as a powerful and transgressive voice in crime fiction and remain for some readers the heart of his achievement.
Opening just before Pearl Harbor with the slaughter of a Japanese American family in Highland Park (it's unclear if it's a murder or ritual suicide), "Perfidia" is 700 pages of ultra-violent, often frenetic police procedural, macho swagger, anti-Semitic broadcasts and racist rampage. It is told in real time, much of it between midnight and dawn, shaped by what Ellroy found in the historical record: a city raging at all hours, high on unchecked hedonism and bone-deep fear.
"L.A. was a 24-hour town — nobody was sleeping, everyone was using drugs, taking multiple lovers — people were subsisting off booze and cigarettes," he says. "As [his character] Dudley Smith ruminates, 'Those swabbies at Pearl didn't know what hit 'em… We could be next!'"
A hard-boiled first
For Ellroy, 66, to begin a new L.A. Quartet — a prequel to the characters and events in his signature work — is an event without precedent in the history of hard-boiled fiction. Those books both established him as one of noir's major writers and changed crime fiction, making a lot of it seem like weak tea. "Reading it aloud could shatter your wineglasses," Elmore Leonard wrote of the first one, "Black Dahlia," in 1987.
That book, narrated by the LAPD detective Bucky Bleichert, fictionalized the 1947 mutilation and murder of Elizabeth Short. (Ellroy's mother was murdered in 1958, with uncanny parallels.) The four novels blend crime investigation with thick slices of California history and descend into various demimondes — porn filmmakers and prostitution ringleaders, Klansmen, rogue CIA guys — that make the work of Raymond Chandler look genteel.
"The Big Nowhere" wound its way through the Red Scare; "L.A. Confidential" circled around a brutal diner killing and a real incident of police brutality that outraged many Latinos. It was later made into a 1997 movie that stands out as the one unanimously hailed adaptation of Ellroy's labyrinthine prose. By the time the series concluded in 1992 with "White Jazz," which followed a mobbed-up LAPD lieutenant, Ellroy had sketched the decade and a half after World War II. There hardly seemed to be a conspiracy theory, corrupt cop, disgusting sex act,racist slang term or synonym for genitalia left on the shelf.
Ellroy's novels are rarely sedate, but "Perfidia" — the title, which means "betrayal" in Spanish, comes from the 1939 song — is more jittery and hopped-up than most. Reading Ellroy can be overwhelming in any setting, but the new novel might be incomprehensible without some sense of his earlier books.
As bullets and fragments of teeth fly, numerous historical figures — Bette Davis, Joseph Kennedy — show up. Ellroy is more concerned with fitting his characters into the world he's created over his last seven novels than historical accuracy. "My job is to crawl around in the collective unconscious," he says, "and make these characters come to life."
He tells his tale through four protagonists: A talented and conflicted Japanese American police scientist named Hideo Ashido; the controversial real-life future LAPD reformer Capt. William Parker; the young, risk-taking Kay Lake (who plays an important role in "Black Dahlia"); and Sgt. Dudley Smith, a rakish Irishman who becomes the villain of the First Quartet.
"He's defined by a psychopathic good cheer and a preternatural sense of inclusion," Ellroy says. "It's fun to mess with the reader by making such a heinous human being so charming and wonderful."
Ellroy says the new series will offer more "interior access to the characters" and more period detail: He sees his recent books sitting closer to historical fiction such as Don DeLillo's "Libra" and E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" than to other crime novels. His early books were shaped by writers like Joseph Wambaugh and Ross Macdonald, but he says he has ceased reading most other fiction.
"The downside of living in that sort of bubble," says J. Kingston Pierce, editor of the crime fiction blog the Rap Sheet, "may be that he no longer recognizes his stylistic excesses — his often heavy use of short sentences and short paragraphs, and his persistent pessimism. I think Ellroy is a much more confident and forceful writer than he once was, but he's also a more conscious stylist, prone to overplaying familiar tunes."
Ellroy had a long, complex history before "Black Dahlia" — including six novels — and over two memoirs and numerous interviews, his own back story threatened to overwhelm the work. "We know more details about his life than we did 30 years ago," says Pierce. "More about his boyhood delinquency and his teenage years as a self-described 'perv,' his obsession with his mother's slaying and his troubled relationships with women, his alcoholism and his nervous breakdown — and not all of that has cast him in the most favorable light."
His books used to be ink on paper; now we have to squint through the cloud of the Ellroy Phenomenon.
Local writers often swoon about the ways Southland life has shaped their work. Ellroy, who moved back to town in 2006 after a quarter-century in the Midwest, East and Bay Area, says he could have written this very L.A.-centric novel anywhere.
"I really am that disciplined," he says. "I really am just that much of a fantasist; I really am just that circumscribed and isolated in my historical focus." Everything that matters to these books took place in the distant past, he says. "I can't believe the extent to which history still owns me.... And I live in it with increasing intensity and fervor."
He knows interviewers will ask him about parallels between the early '40s and 2014. But Ellroy, who now owns a house in the Hollywood Hills, barely exists in the present.
"I don't have a TV set, I don't have a radio. I don't read the newspapers." He owns no cellphone, has never been on a computer, and listens only to classical music.
"What native powers these books possess comes from my immersion in the time, and my ability to ignore the world as it is." His routine — going to bed as early as 8, waking at 3 a.m. — helps. "I like getting a drop on the world, being the stalking hound while the world sleeps."
Despite the what's-shakin'-daddy-o shtick, Ellroy is actually a disciplined craftsman. Some of his novels feel so overstuffed that they're ready to pull apart in all directions, but by the end their numerous strands typically tie up.
"There are greater novelists than me — though not many, I say humbly. But, boy, can I sustain concentration.... Boy, can I be alone and think. And I remain ever acute."
Ellroy will be in conversation at the L.A. Central Library's ALOUD series on at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday. Information: www.lfla.org/aloud
Timberg is the author of the forthcoming book "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."