Summer in Melbourne is usually the one time of the year I can be guaranteed to get a fair amount of personal reading done. As has become my annual practice, a short report back on the books I have got through is in order.
Perfidia, James Ellroy
I need to preface my comments on Perfidia by stressing I am a massive Ellroy fan. I have read all of his books – ALL of them – many more than once. I even liked The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover, the two books that most divided readers. So, it is with a heavy heart that I say Perfidia is very disappointing. The long awaited prelude to Ellroy’s LA Quintet, Perfidia takes place in Los Angeles over 23 days in December 1941, a period in which American went from being at piece to the attack on Pearl Harbour and the country being at war.
The focal point of the book is the brutal murder on the eve of Pearl Harbour of a Japanese family. The killings have all the hallmarks of traditional Japanese ritual deaths. Drawn into the murder investigation are future LAPD chief William H Parker, the meanest crime fiction cop ever created, Dudley Smith, a brilliant young Japanese police forensic scientist, and Kay Lake, a woman with a major thing for bad men.
Into the political, social and moral tempest of wartime Los Angeles, Ellroy throws every conceivable vice and abuse imaginable: torture, the unjust internment of Japanese Americans, police corruption and racism. There’s a subplot involving an unhinged plastic surgeon that wants to cut up wealthy Japanese Americans so they can masquerade as Chinese Americans and avoid imprisonment, and a marvellous detour in which Dudley carries on a passionate affair with Betty Davis. It’s an ambitious effort, written in slightly less staccato prose than marked the authors last couple of efforts.
But no matter how high Ellroy raises the stakes, I found it very hard to sustain my interest in the characters, particularly Lake. I am not sure whether Ellroy has ever been particularly good at writing women, and I’m not sure that’s bothered me before. But this time, I found the two dimensional aspect of Lake’s persona and actions unconvincing and annoying. As for the rest of the book, it was good, but there’s nothing really new or innovative in it and my sense of declining returns became more apparent the further into the nearly seven hundred pages I waded. This is not the first book by a successful mainstream crime author I have read in the last couple of years that has left me thinking nothing would have been lost and a lot gained by cutting a hundred or two hundred pages from the story. It certainly would have improved Perfidia.
Three Crooked Kings, Matthew Condon
Jacks and Jokers, part two of Matthew Condon’s planned three part examination of police corruption in Queensland from late fifties to the late eighties is among the wave the recent books that have redefined the craft of Australian true crime writing.
Three Crooked Kings, the first instalment, is also excellent. Three Crooked Kings details the rise of Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis and the collection of crooked cops that coalesced around him, known as the ‘Rat Pack’, detective Tony Murphy, detective Glen Patrick Hallahan, and so-called ‘bagman’ and ex-member of the Queensland Licensing Branch, Jack Herbert.
Condon blends social history with a pinpoint accurate depiction of how crime and corruption developed into a cancer that would ultimately dominate the entire state. The book was written the assistance of Lewis, who was keen to use the book to help clear his name, but who fell out with Condon after the publication of Jacks and Jokers. Book three, detailing the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ultimately lead to Lewis’s fall from grace is out this year and I can hardly wait.
The Tattoo Murder Case, Akimitsu Takagi
A classic of Japanese crime fiction, this book was first published, albeit in a slightly different form, in 1948, at a time when the country was still recovering from the impact of war.
A young forensic medical student with post-traumatic stress after a stint as a medic in the Philippines, begins a passionate affair with a beautiful woman who is covered with strange, sexually alluring traditional Japanese tattoos. Soon after, she is murdered, dismembered and her tattooed torso stolen from the scene of the crime. The suspects include an assortment of unsavoury gangsters, one of whom was in a relationship of sorts with the dead woman, and an aesthete college professor who has a morbid obsession with tattoos.
On one level, The Tattoo Murder Case reads like a traditional whodunit . But underlying this are some very dark, warped, highly sexual themes that feel as though they belong to a book of much more recent vintage. The highlight for me was the descriptions of a shattered Tokyo, the bombed out buildings, the shell-shocked population. It functions as much as a social document of post war Japan as it does a crime story. Highly recommended.
Spiders and Flies, Scott Alderberg
Raven, a bored American fugitive on the lam in Martinque meets a wealthy couple visiting their young daughter who is living on the island. With the help of a friend back in New York, Raven hatches a plan to kidnap the daughter and hold her for ransom. To say things don’t go to plan is a massive understatement.
Alderberg’s first book read like one of those exploitation crime films that were common in the eighties. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, don’t read it. If it does sound like something you would be into, and I like those films, then you should check it out. A genuinely gripping page turner.
The Master of Knots, Massimo Carlotto
A reader alerted me to Carlotto’s books after seeing my list of top ten reads for 2014, which included Dominique Manotti’s Escape, a crime novel set in the dying days of Italy’s Red Brigades and the legacy of the so-called ‘years of lead’. The Master of Knots is number five in a series of books featuring Marco Burrati, also known as the Alligator. Burrati is a former card carrying leftist who has done jail time for his political activities (not unlike the author, a former leftist activist who, charged with a crime he did not commit, went on the run and eventually ended up in Mexico).
Burrati operates a private investigation business, along with his associates, a former Mafioso, Rossini, and IT whiz, Max the Memory. The Master Of Knots involves the disappearance of a woman involved in the S&M scene. The woman’s sleazy husband is the next to vanish and the investigators uncover evidence other woman involved in the scene have also gone missing. Woven into this are a number of other plot lines, including the aftermath of the G8 Summit in Genoa, at which numerous people where injured and one killed when police attempted to disperse anti-globalisation protestors. Carlotto utilises the event to show the methods of the Italian state in the seventies may not be not as much a part of history as many people think. This book was an entertaining and somewhat unusual take on the standard PI tale.
Pulse Fiction, Vol 1, edited by Paul Bishop and Tommy Hancock
Sometimes you just need to read a bit of pulp. Pro Se Press model themselves very much on the traditional pulp publishers of old, with the kind of characters and plot lines which, as the back cover of this book says, “many have thought lost to yesterday”.
This book is a good example of their fare on offer. It contains six stories of varying quality, but two stood out. The ever reliable Eric Beetner delivers an entertaining story about a female burglar. James Hopwood aka Melbourne writer David Foster, pens a great take of murder and intrigue set in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion. Not great surprises in this book but a lot of entertainment.
How refreshing to find The Tattoo Murder Case on a list – it seems to be virtually out of print (I have a second-hand library edition sent to me from the States). As you say, a great picture of post-war Japan. I enjoyed Massimo Carlotto’s At the End of a Dull Day but have yet to read his Crocodile series. And how disappointing about Perfidia! I saw Ellroy speak in Lyon last year – he’s always very entertaining – and had high hopes for this book.
I loved The Tattoo Murder Case. As I said in my post, it felt like I was reading a work that was written much more recently. The apparent procedural nature of much of the book hides some dark and disturbing themes.
Finally! Glad to know I’m not the only one who feels this way about Perfidia! I, too, found myself eventually skimming the Kay Lake chapters because they seemed so unnecessary. I kept waiting for that surge I’ve felt from previous Ellroy books, and it never came. Love the site.
Thanks for stopping by and for the feedback. I suspect more than a few Ellroy fans found Perfidia a major disappointment. In addition to the issues with the Lake character, someone pointed out on Twitter in response to this post that making Dudley Smith a central POV character robbed him of a lot of menace and mystery, a pretty spot on observation.
Sadly I’ve come to the conclusion Ellroy is past it. It reads like fan fiction compared to American Tabloid.
You could be right but let’s hope that is not the case.