Author James Ellroy at Books Inc. tonight
Author James Ellroy at Books Inc. tonight
Photo by Jennifer Carroll.
James Ellroy, bestselling author of L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia and other acclaimed crime novels, essays and autobiographies, will be appearing at Alameda’s Books Inc. tonight to promote his new book, Perfidia.
Alameda is one of the first stops on Ellroy’s national tour, and how our cozy Park Street bookseller scored a visit by the famed author is a mystery in its own right.
“All the bookstores in the Bay Area make a wish list of who they’d like to have, and we put in our bid for him, and sometimes we get lucky – and we got very lucky, because James Ellroy is amazing,” says Nick Petrulakis, manager of Alameda’s Books Inc. branch. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say he has never graced the Island with his presence before. Yes, I think this will be a first for us.”
For the uninitiated, Ellroy’s books are sprawling yet taut detective stories, nearly all of them set in Los Angeles, the author’s native city. His novels tend to be ultra-hard-boiled procedurals with dense, complex plots, morally bankrupt cops, and intermittent romance, all set in a historic context. While most portrayals of bygone Hollywood spin glamorous, Ellroy hovers obsessively over L.A.’s sinister underbelly, with stories rooted in brutal violent crimes and their subsequent investigations.
He has never shied from discussing the simmering source of his dark vibe: his mother was murdered in 1958 (the killer was never found), an experience that later sparked his interest in writing about the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short (the “Black Dahlia”) and other crimes.
Over time, Ellroy’s books have evolved a distinctive “telegraphic” style, marked by succinct, punchy sentences and hipster patois – an approach Ellroy has described as “declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.” As the author explained in a 2009 interview with the Paris Review, he adopted this approach after an editor asked him to trim 100 pages from an early draft of L.A. Confidential. Rather than cut out paragraphs, Ellroy surgically excised words from within sentences.
His new book, Perfidia, follows this form to a T, with the characteristic rat-a-tat prose spinning a rich, detailed mystery centered on the violent death of a Japanese family in Los Angeles on the eve of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. As they investigate the family’s death in a city boiling over with rage toward the Japanese, “white cops are up against the obstacle of a baffling foreign culture that they view with naked hostility and an oddly grudging respect,” Ellroy explained in a Q&A released by the publisher. “This makes for great tension and drama.”
“The racism toward Asian-Americans at the time was rampant, and one of the things Ellroy does brilliantly in this novel is paint that picture,” Petrulakis said. “I tell people that (reading Ellroy) is almost like reading a jazz score … The same way that (Emile) Zola screams Paris, (Ellroy) screams L.A. He’s fascinated with the city and its underpinnings.”
Ellroy describes Perfidia as “a novel of tortured morality, desperate sexuality, great chemical abuse, political debate, and patriotic fervor running at an off-the-charts pace.” The title comes from a melancholy 1940s big-band tune; the word means “betrayal” in Spanish.
The book is the first of a four-part “Second L.A. Quartet” that, when complete, will serve as a prelude to Ellroy’s original “L.A. Quartet,” which began chronologically with The Black Dahlia (set in 1946). Ellroy’s later books extended to historic events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War, and he has said that his ambition is to create a series of books that together represent a “massive literary document” spanning U.S. history from 1941 to 1972.
Perfidia has received rave reviews to date: Kirkus Reviews starred the book as a “war novel like no other,” and NPR hailed it as “brutal and beautiful.” Books Inc.’s Petrulakis agrees that Perfidia is one of Ellroy’s best works.
“I think he’s one of the best writers that we have going right now, and this book really is one of my favorites,” said Petrulakis. “It’s a terrific story, a great mystery, and he’s got characters that you want to spend a bunch of time with, and for me that’s what it’s all about.”
Off the page, Ellroy’s persona is about as anti-Bay-Area as it gets – he is an outspoken right-winger, claims to have never used a cell phone or sent an e-mail (he writes his books longhand), and he is unabashedly self-promoting, frequently hailing himself as the greatest crime writer of all time. As he told the Paris Review, “If you’re confused about something in one of my books, you’ve just got to realize, Ellroy’s a master, and if I’m not following it, it’s my problem. You just have to submit to me.” He describes himself as the “self-promoting demon dog” and recalls that Joyce Carol Oates once called him the “American Dostoyevsky.”
Given his oversized personality, Ellroy is likely to be highly entertaining when he pops in at Books Inc., said Petrulakis, who has seen the author twice previously, in San Francisco.
“He is a pretty amazing presence in person,” Petrulakis said. “He is a very tall man, he can fill a room with his voice, and he is very, very, very passionate about what he does. Sometimes his themes are adult in nature, so maybe this isn’t one I would bring your 5-year-old to, but that’s only sometimes. The great thing is, he’s so passionate about what he does. It’s not cockiness, because he can do it, and he does it really well.”
Petrulakis said fans should arrive early to get a seat, and if they want to have the new book signed, they need to purchase it at Books Inc. Ellroy told the Paris Review that he likes to keep his book readings to “14 minutes, tops,” and then he answers questions for 20 minutes.
“Afterward, you don’t short-shrift anyone – you talk to everybody,” he added. “You scope out the women. You have a gas. You’re happy, you’re grateful, you’re God’s guy.”
Come Friday morning, our friendly little local book shop might never be the same.
“We’re thrilled that we got lucky enough to have him,” Petrulakis said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Ellroy’s appearance begins at 7 p.m., and it’s free and open to the public. Books Inc. is at 1344 Park Street.