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'Perfidia' — novelist James Ellroy's monumental retelling of the Japanese internment

James Ellroy, author of
James Ellroy, author of "Perfidia," at the LAPD museum in Highland Park.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
James Ellroy, author of
Off-Ramp host John Rabe interviews crime fiction novelist James Ellroy at the Los Angeles Police Museum in Highland Park. Ellroy's new novel is "Perfidia."
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Off-Ramp host John Rabe meets "L.A. Confidential" novelist James Ellroy in a jail cell to talk about his new novel, "Perfidia," set in L.A. in the three weeks around the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the internment of Japanese-Americans. Ellroy will be at Vroman's in Pasadena Thursday, Sept. 25 at 6:45pm.

"... and (a main character in "Perfidia") is in a world of s---. And it's an Ellroy novel. Everyone's in a world of s---." - James Ellroy to KPCC's John Rabe

It's early December, 1941, and Los Angeles is boiling over with corrupt cops and politicians, pervasive racism and the drums of war. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, thousands of loyal citizens of Japanese descent are shipped off to internment camps and lose most or all of their property. At the same time, a subversive Japanese-American family is found brutally murdered in Highland Park.

That's the merest outline of "Perfidia," the new novel by James Ellroy, which aims to tell the story of these 23 days in L.A. in real time and set the stage for the eventual reformation of the LAPD. "Perfidia" is the backstory to characters Ellroy has already told us about, and Ellroy says it's just the first of four volumes that will cover 1941 to 1972 as "seamless novelistic history."

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He says he chose the real-time format because "L.A., December 1941, was an around-the-clock town. It was a dope binge, a sex binge. Everybody was zonked out of their gourds on booze and dope, chain-smoking..." Everybody in the novel, anyway.

Ellroy says he never agrees with the ACLU, except with it comes to the Japanese-American internment, which he calls "the greatest mass abrogation of civil liberties in American history."

"You have to understand the savagery of Japanese aggressions in the Pacific to truly understand this moment to render it understandable, if not justified," Ellroy said. Americans had heard about the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities, and "we were scared, and properly so." 

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I interviewed Ellroy in a holding cell at the LAPD Museum in Highland Park, where future LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was once brought as a juvenile offender. Ellroy spends a lot of time here as part of his immersion in his material. Ellroy has not only never used a computer, but he rarely uses telephones, and writes his novels in block print. You can see what happened when I tried to show him my iPhone.

(Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC)

But he does know what's been happening in Highland Park lately. "It's a hipster hive now," he says. "The hipsters have moved everybody else out. There'll probably be a serial killer coming out soon called the Hipster Hunter, who is tired of the hipsters usurping every place cool and hilly and enclave-like in Los Angeles. " 

Listen to to the audio on this page — an extended version of our broadcast interview — for much more on "Perfidia," Ellroy's marriages and the story of his haircut.