There are a lot of fictional worlds out there that are engrossing, engaging and yet places you really wouldn't want to actually live. Anything after any sort of apocalypse, for instance. Or Westeros. But if you're in a world with Zombie, or Dragons, or even Zombie Dragons, there is the comfort of distance, a comfort that this isn't, and can't be this world. I think that in many ways that is one of the big selling points of SF/F fiction, the distance that lets you explore the potential horror of alternative lives knowing that it can't happen to you. The thrill of crime fiction is different, of course, because it's set in this world, where terrible things can, and do happen all the time, with hardly a Zombie Dragon in sight. And right at the dark, terrible end of Crime fiction is Noir, and my favorite Noir writer has to be James Ellroy.
Ellroy is a hard writer to recommend, as he writes stories of hard men in hard worlds, where any flicker of light is just another way-marker further into the abyss. Nothing good comes of anything in your average Ellroy tale, no idealism can remain untarnished. They say the good die young, but first they are compromised, corrupted, and turned away from the light. But Ellroy's darkness is rich, captivating, and alluring, and steeped in the dark sewers of American history. The "LA Quartet" and the "Underworld Trilogy" both map turbulent periods of first Californian, and then American history, fictionalizing it into something feels true, and with Perfidia he going back to LA, back to the 1940s, and setting the stage for his own earlier works.
Taking place between the day before Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941, Perfidia follows a range of characters through a turbulent few weeks as the world is turned upside down and new opportunities for gain or ruin are thrown into the wind. Starting with the murder of a Japanese Family, but quickly sprawling into the looming Internments, War Profiteering, Right- and Left-Wing conspiracies and good, old-fashioned Police Corruption, it paints a picture of city in turmoil, mirrored in the souls of it's protagonists.
Many of the characters are returning from earlier (later) works, although I don't think that you'd need to do any homework as we're firmly in prequel territory. It feels like Ellroy using his back catalog to fill in the gaps when he needs a certain character to fulfill a role, but it fills out the world nicely. We have Hideo Ashida, Japanese Forensics investigator who suddenly finds his posistion extremely tenuous; Kay Lake, a dilettante in search of...something, but is drawn into the world of Left-Wing agitation, ambitious Police Captain Bill Parker, strung out on booze and Catholic Guilt, and finally Dudley Smith, the most Magnificent of Magnificent Bastards.
It's fair to say that whilst I liked all the characters, it's Smith that steals the book. He's a monster, but a charming, capable and complex one, and his arc is one of burnout and near self-immolation. Although that's true of most of them, as Los Angeles becomes a stew of fear and excitement as the war arrives and no-one seems to have any idea what is going on. The book doesn't shy away from the sexism, racism and homophobia of the period, nor how contradictory people could be when dealing with those issue. Race plays an especially large part with the large "Little Tokyo" and "Chinatown" districts of the city being focal points, as well as sympathizers for the American Far Right.
Perfidia throws up another dark slice of American History, blending a fictional milieu with a real one. Bill Parker was a real person; eventually becoming Chief of the LAPD. Bette Davis plays a major part, Jack Kennedy gets a cameo. It is, frankly, brilliant, and one of Ellroy's best novels, and with the promise of more on the way I look forward - if that's the right phrase - to spending more time down in the darkness.