Read an Exclusive Excerpt From James Ellroy's New Book 'Perfidia'
The 'L.A. Confidential' author is back with a new novel, this one set in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor
James Ellroy's new novel Perfidia is conceived as a prequel to his first L.A. Quartet (Black Dahlia, Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz) and is the opening book in a new quartet. He recently talked about the new book with The Hollywood Reporter. The story centers on the murder of a Japanese family and how the city responded to World War II. Taking place on the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, The Hollywood Reporter's exclusive excerpt comes from Chapter 2 and features a familiar character from his first L.A. Quartet …
Kay Lake's Diary
Compiled and chronologically inserted by the Los Angeles Police Museum/ Los Angeles/ Saturday December 6, 1941
11:23 p.m. —
I've begun this diary on impulse. An extraordinary scene unfolded as I sat on my separate bedroom terrace. I was sketching the southern view and heard the rumble of engines below me on the Strip. I immediately got up and wrote down the precise time and date. I sensed what the rumble portended, and I was right.
A line of armored vehicles chugged west on Sunset to fevered scrutiny and applause. It took a full ten minutes for the armada to pass. The noise was loud, the cheers louder. People stopped their cars to get out and salute the young soldiers. It played hell with the flow of traffic — but no one seemed to care. The soldiers were delighted by this display of respect and affection. They waved and blew kisses; a half dozen waitresses from Dave's Blue Room ran out and passed them cases of liquor. Somebody shouted, "America!" That's when I knew.
The war is coming. I'm going to enlist.
I always do what I say I'm going to do. I formally state my intent and proceed from that point. I am going to write a diary entry every day, until the present world conflict concludes or the world blows up. I will walk away from my easy existence and seek official postings near the front lines. I live a dilettante's life now. My compulsive sketch artistry is a schoolgirl's attempt to capture confounding realities. My piano studies and emerging proficiency with the easier Chopin nocturnes stall my pursuit of a true cause. This lovely home in no way allays my psychic discomfort; Lee Blanchard's indulgence is disconcerting more than anything else. This diary is a broadside against stasis and unrest.
I have always felt superior to my surroundings. This house states the case most tellingly. I picked out every German Expressionist print and every stick of blond-wood furniture. I'm a prairie girl from Sioux Falls, South Dakota — and a gifted arriviste.
I'm moving into my separate bedroom now. My own work is arrogantly displayed on the walls, interspersed with Klee and Kandinsky. There are a dozen drawings of a light heavyweight named Bucky Bleichert. He has a hungry young man's body and large bucked teeth. I have sketched him many times, from ringside seats at the Olympic. Bucky Bleichert is a local celebrity who understands the ephemeral quality of celebrity and does not view boxing as a true cause. His circumspection in the ring delights me. I have never spoken to Bucky Bleichert, but I am certain that I understand him.
Because I was a local celebrity once. It was February '39. I was nineteen. It all pertained to a bank robbery and its alleged solution.
This house. A refuge a few years ago, a trap now.
The robbery got me this house, not Lee's prudently invested fight winnings. Lee Blanchard is not a savvy investor, as is commonly held. Nor is he my lover, in the common sense. He entered my life to facilitate my destiny — whatever that is. I know it now.
Sioux Falls was an insufficient destiny. The winter cold spells and summer heat waves left people dead. Indians strayed from nearby reservations and stabbed one another in speakeasies. Klansmen broke a Negro man out of the county jail. He was accused of raping a dim-witted white girl. The Klansmen convened a kangaroo court. The girl was slow to condemn or exonerate the man accused. The Klansmen staked him over a red-ant hill in mid-August. The summer sun or the ants killed him. Local lore was divided on this.
Protestants despised the few local Catholics. Nativist groups flourished throughout the Depression. Methodists were at odds with Lutherans and Baptists and vice versa. A range war over prize cattle broke out in '34. Fourteen men were killed near the Iowa state line.
My parents and older brother were sweet-natured and content. Their only sin was lack of imagination. I pretended to be one of them in order to live within myself unobstructed. I lived to read, draw and roam. People talked about me. I dropped racy bons mots in church.
I did not care about my family. The fact mildly horrified me. I wanted to run away to Los Angeles and become someone else there. I got a job at a bookstore and stole a month's worth of cash receipts. I left my parents a perfunctory note of farewell.
It was November '36. I was sixteen. The bus ride west featured dust storms and a flash flood near Albuquerque. Armed goons were stationed at the California border. They were charged to keep indigent Okies out. They were L.A. policemen.
I rented cot space at a career girls' residence in Hollywood and carhopped at Simon's Drive-In on the Miracle Mile. I wore roller skates and twirled flamboyantly to amuse myself and scrounge tips. The other girls hated me and spread the rumor that I was a prostitute. I was fired. I relinquished myself to an aimless bohemianism.
The Depression was winding down; privation and inequity were vividly present still. I roamed L.A. with my sketch pad. I drew polemical pictures of local labor strife. I read Karl Marx, only believed a third of it and went to numerous left-wing soirées. I embraced the Left as a fashion accessory. They lacked the grandeur I had come to see as my birthright.
I loved men and was going mad with suppressed desire. It pushed me into a series of affairs with dubious jazz musicians. Sex was not what I imagined. It was tension, scent and prosaic misalliance. It was sweet and sad revelation, and all expectation dashed.
I lent money to a string of lovers and went through my carhop stash. I was evicted from the career girls' residence and took it with strident good cheer. I ate in soup kitchens and slept bedroll-swaddled in Griffith Park. I cleaned up daily at the YWCA and never appeared unkempt. I was equal parts innocence and lunatic grit. I was impervious to danger and too addled by men to assess them past my own desire.
Bobby De Witt was a jazz drummer. He personified the appellation "lounge lizard." He wore high-waisted flannels and two-tone loafer jackets; he kept up with his pachuco bunk mates from the Preston Reformatory. He caught me sketching him. I convinced myself that he recognized my talent and Norma Shearer–like aplomb. I was mistaken there. All he recognized was my penchant for the outré.
He had a small house out at Venice Beach. I had my own room. I slept away months of taxing outdoor days and too hot and too cold outdoor nights. I ate myself back from the brink of malnutrition and pondered what to do next.
Bobby seduced me then. I thought I was seducing him. I was mistaken. He saw that I was growing wings and set out to clip them.
Bobby was quite sweet to me at first. It started changing shortly after New Year's. His business picked up. He got me hooked on laudanum and made me stay home to answer the phone and book dates with his girls and their "clients." It got worse. He held a dope kick over me and coerced me into his stable. It got much worse.
Jazz drummer is always a synonym for dope peddler and pimp. I have the knife scars on the back of my thighs to prove it.
It was winter '39 now. My local celebrity was at hand. The newspapers and radio have their version. The Los Angeles Police Department has theirs. Both versions assert this: Kay Lake meets Lee Blanchard at Bobby De Witt's trial.
It wasn't true. I met Lee before the Boulevard-Citizens heist.
We met at the Olympic Auditorium. Bobby let me out of the house-brothel on "furlough." I was a full year into my Bucky Bleichert craze and went to all of his fights.
Bucky knocked out his opponent in the sixth round. I dawdled with the crowd as they left the arena. Lee introduced himself. I recognized him as an ex-boxer. I didn't know that he was a cop.
We talked. I liked Lee. I worked to disguise my acute dissolution. I hurried home to laudanum and white slavery. Lee tailed me back to Venice Beach. I did not know it that night.
Two more fight-night furloughs followed. I ran into Lee both times. He had tailed me from the house to the Olympic. I did not know it then.
Lee drew me out gently. He saw through my lies and euphemisms and got very angry. He told me that he had a business opportunity pending. He hinted that he could "work in my situation."
February 11, 1939, arrived. The papers got the physical facts right. The bank was at Yucca and Ivar in Hollywood. Four men hijacked an armored car headed there. A downed motorcycle served as a diversion. The men overpowered and chloroformed three guards. They substituted six cash bags full of phone-book scraps for six bags full of cash.
They huddled in the back of the armored car. They changed into guard uniforms and drove to the bank. The manager saw the scrap bags and opened the vault. They sapped him and added the vault cash to their take. They locked the tellers in the vault and went back out the front door.
A teller had tripped an alarm switch. Four nearby patrol cars roared up. A shoot-out resulted. Two robbers were killed, two robbers escaped. No policemen were wounded or in any way harmed.
The two dead robbers were identified as "out-of-town muscle." The two escaped robbers were not ID'd.
The papers got all that right. The papers got it all right for the next two weeks. The Herald ran a headline on February 28: tip from ex-boxer cop cracks bloody bank robbery.
The official version:
Officer Lee Blanchard strung together tips. Informants and "fight-game acquaintances" supplied "the lurid lowdown." They fingered Bobby De Witt as the "brains behind the Boulevard-Citizens job."
Of course, it was a lie. Of course, the "fourth man" remained unidentified. I know who he is. The public and the Los Angeles Police Department do not.
The real version:
Lee Blanchard masterminded the Boulevard-Citizens job. I knew it then; I know it now. Lee and I have never discussed it. We simply share the knowledge in the same way that we do not share a bed.
Bobby went to trial in June. Planted evidence convicted him. Lee Blanchard is far more cunning and intelligent than he plays. Bobby drew ten to life. The Herald ran a human-interest piece. The tagline was quite perverse: gang girl falls in love — with cop! going straight — to altar?
I attended the trial and testified against Bobby. I tapered off the laudanum to assure a harrowing witness-stand performance. The DA's Office presented a threadbare case. My recounted degradation was the indictment, the closing argument, the sentence writ as my decree of damnation. I complied with the lie that I met Lee in the courtroom.
We did not go straight to the altar. Lee bought us this house. Bobby De Witt was consigned to San Quentin. Lee fumbled at making love to me a few heartbreaking times and broke off that part of our union. I live off of Lee's police salary and his alleged boxing savings. I'm working toward degrees at UCLA; my piano teacher calls my beginner Chopin bravura. I sleep with men at whim — because I want to and because I need to extinguish the power of Bobby De Witt. I bring men here, to the house Lee Blanchard bought for me. Lee expresses no resentment. He sleeps in the Detective Bureau cot room most nights. He wants a Bureau transfer very badly. He's in the thrall of a suavely brutal cop named Dudley Smith, and wants to join his cadre of goons.
I have my dilettante world and my more compelling world of criminals and policemen. I inhabit the two worlds seamlessly and do exhibit Norma Shearer–like aplomb. I revel in my insider status. The genesis was Bobby De Witt. He bid me to enter this world. I owe him for that.
Bobby introduced me to a call-service madam named Brenda Allen. Brenda weaned me through my dope kick. We've stayed in touch. We have coffee, talk and smoke ourselves hoarse. Brenda runs girls through a telephone exchange and services an elite clientele. Her lover is a Vice sergeant named Elmer Jackson. Elmer is funny and droll; he blithely facilitates this exclusive brand of police-sanctioned prostitution. Chief Jack Horrall gets a 7% cut.
I love both my worlds. I'm much more engaged by the cop-criminal world. I paid a very dear price to get in.
Another convoy is crossing Sunset and Doheny. I feel the rumble all through my body.
Paul Robeson is appearing at Philharmonic Hall Monday night. I might go. Some of my old leftist chums might be there. I could lord my local celebrity over them and argue that Stalin is just as bad as Hitler. I might even create a scene.
I'm bored. My life is all busywork. Lee reported a rumor floating around City Hall: Bucky Bleichert has applied to the PD.
I hope he gets on. I'll go to his Academy graduation and sketch him in cop blue. Sunday night marks his farewell fight. I'll be there to capture the last punch he throws. The papers have been running cartoons of Emperor Hirohito. The artists always give him Bucky's big teeth.
The convoy has passed out of range. That rumble has left my body.
Nothing before this moment exists. The war is coming. I'm going to enlist.