This sprawling period piece from the prolific author of such works as “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dalia” takes place in Los Angeles and environs between Dec. 5 and 29, 1941. Central to the plot are the enigmatic slayings of a Japanese family of four in the suburb of Highland Park on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Was it political, racial or commercial motives that led to their murders?
Irish-born homicide detective Sgt. Dudley Smith (who later meets his demise in “L.A. Confidential”) is brilliant, glib, corrupt, cruel and without a shred of empathy. Smith, who barely sleeps the entire duration of the book, contends for influence with traffic division Capt. William H. Parker, an actual person who in 1950 became L.A.’s chief of police.
Prominently figuring in the story are demimondaine Kay Lake, a smart and determined social climber whose activities are conveyed in the form of her diary entries; and Dr. Hideo Ashida, a brainy Japanese-American forensic chemist at the LAPD, who hopes to avoid deportation to a “relocation camp” by making himself invaluable to both Smith and Parker.
Interspersed with Ellroy’s fictitious characters are cameo appearances by then-naval ensign John F. Kennedy, actress Bette Davis, gangster “Bugsy” Siegel, actor Jack Webb and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
An acknowledged master of the noir genre, Ellroy likes to tell audiences his books are “for the whole f-ckin’ family, if the name of your family is Manson.” His narrative’s undercurrent of violence and moral ambiguity is conveyed in a staccato, stream-of-consciousness style, strewn with crude racial epithets and 1940s vernacular (although his use of “kamikaze” in 1941 appears to be three years premature). Ellroy fans, this reviewer included, have learned not to expect happy endings.