Perfidia is the first book of James Ellroy's second LA Quartet. Which, yes, is a little confusing - the original Quartet, mostly written in the 80's, takes place in Los Angeles from the late 40's to 1960 (or so), and comprises The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.
Ellroy's second LA Quartet, beginning with Perfidia, rewinds the clock to the early 1940's. Specifically, in the case of Perfidia, to December 1941, beginning in the days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and ending right before New Year's.
As per Ellroy's Signature Style, the book focuses on four point of view characters:
- Hideo Ashida, a brilliant but closeted Japanese forensic scientist working for the LAPD. Desperate to avoid internment and protect his family, Ashida tries to make himself indispensable to the LAPD and find a protector within the department.
- Kay Lake, an important character from The Black Dahlia. Lake, intellectually gifted but mostly bored with her do-nothing life, gets dragged into a covert operation against local Communists by...
- William Parker, the real-life future Chief of the LAPD. Torn between his faith, his principles, his ambition, his lust and his alcoholism, Parker tries to navigate the chaotic days after the Pearl Harbor attack while running at least three distinct operations.
Last (but certainly not least) is LAPD detective Dudley Smith, the Big Bad of the original LA Quartet, brought front and center for the first time as a POV character. Cunning, dapper, charming and unhesitating about killing anyone who gets in his way or offends his unique moral worldview, Smith is on a constant search for money-making angles - even when it comes to the impending internment of local Japanese-American citizens.
When the LAPD stumbles across the scene of what appears to be the ritual murder of a middle-class Japanese family, Smith, Ashida, Lake and Parker become enmeshed in a complicated drama involving Fifth Columnists, Communists, Fascists, eugenicists and some corrupt businessmen who will be very familiar to readers of Ellroy's original Quartet.
Followed by This Storm.
This Novel Contains Examples of:
- Affably Evil: Dudley is, as ever, pleasant, charming and completely sociopathic.
- The Alcoholic: Parker fights against his alcoholism from pretty much the first page of his first chapter. He's mostly successful toward the end of the novel, but he's some form of drunk for much of the first two-thirds or so of the book.
- Asshole Victim: Fujio. See the very next entry....
- Ax-Crazy: Fujio Shudo qualifies, which makes him the perfect scapegoat for the Watanabe murder.
- Black-and-Gray Morality: Pretty standard for Ellroy, of course, but even by his standards there's not much in the way of "goodness" to be found here. Parker is probably the closest thing to "the good guy," and he's a drunk who's utterly complicit with the LAPD's corruption.
- Body Horror: Dudley, Ace Kwan and Chen Lung consider a scheme to use plastic surgery to make rich Japanese citizens desperate to avoid internment look Chinese. They don't know if it'll work, so they drug a Japanese informant who's working for Dudley and cut into him. He wakes up screaming in the middle of the surgery. And eventually they decide the whole idea is silly anyway.
- Canon Welding: Written after both the original LA Quartet and Ellroy's Underworld Trilogy, Perfidia is the beginning of an attempt to tie together both series in a more formal way.
- Continuity Nod: A few characters from the Underworld Trilogy show up (Ward Littell, most prominently), while a couple others are named or at least referenced.
- Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) shows up...as Dudley Smith's illegitimate daughter. Which certainly raises some questions about what he was doing during the events of The Black Dahlia.
- Pierce Patchett's scheme to have prostitutes undergo plastic surgery to look like movie stars is referenced.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Preston Exley shows up, and is no less corrupt than he was in L.A. Confidential. He pitches an elaborate plan to profit off the internment of Japanese-Americans (Bill Parker manages to kill it) and his real estate scheme plays a role in the Watanabe murders.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Literally everyone in the novel refers to "Japs," which the 21st century regards as a terrible racial slur.
- Dirty Cop
- Exact Words: One night, in bed, Bette Davis sleepily tells Dudley "Kill a Jap for me," in reference to Dudley's forthcoming Army commission. So Dudley walks out onto the street, finds a Japanese man in a phone booth, says "This is for Bette Davis" and shoots him in the face.
- FaceHeel Turn: Hideo ends up forging evidence to support Dudley's frame job on the Watanabe case and throws in completely with the evil Irish cop.
- Family Man: Dudley pretends to be one of these, what with his wife and four daughters. Except he almost never sees them (and the readers literally never do) and at one point he admits that he forgets his kids' names.
- Frame-Up: From the moment the Watanabe murder scene is discovered, the LAPD brass is determined to pin the murder on a Japanese man, no matter what. Dudley dutifully executes that mandate, finds an appropriate Asshole Victim to arrest and charge and gets assistance from Hideo in faking evidence.
- Gayngst: Hideo spends much of the book tormenting himself over his sexuality.
- Ho Yay: In-universe. Dudley deliberately exploits Hideo's attraction in order to get the forensic scientist's assistance.
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Not that the murder of four people is minor, necessarily, but the discovery of the crime leads to the uncovering of a scheme involving Los Angeles real estate and Fifth Columnist collaboration with the Japanese.
- Mob War: Two rival Chinese gangs fight a short-lived (and LAPD-sanctioned) war after a brutal murder in Chinatown. And the police put their thumbs on the scale for their preferred side.
- The Peeping Tom: Hideo's clever tripwire-activated camera plays a huge role in unraveling the book-spanning mystery. It's also his second version of the device - he created the first version in high school, when he used it to secretly take pictures of Bucky Bleichert in the gym showers.
- Pet the Dog: Dudley's respectful relationship with Hideo is one of his more appealing traits. Of course, Dudley being Dudley, there's profit in it for him, and even as a POV character he never makes it entirely clear how much of that respect is genuine and how much is self-interest.
- Rock Bottom: Dudley hits it after Bette Davis dumps him, his jaunt into Mexico to steal heroin and cash is foiled and his attempt to horn in on the Pierce Patchett/Preston Exley cartel is stonewalled.
- Skewed Priorities: Almost everyone - including Kay, who's a willing participant in the endeavor - thinks Parker's plan to entrap local leftists is a silly waste of time in the middle of a war. Parker thinks he's just showing foresight - he (correctly) predicts that the US will beat Japan and Nazi Germany, and immediately turn to some kind of conflict with the Soviet Union. As it turns out, Parker's leftist operation fails completely.
- Title Drop: The song "Perfidia" is name-dropped a few times. The title of the book is partly a reference to the song and partly a reference to the Spanish word for perfidy.
- Villain Protagonist: Dudley Smith, of course.