The Barnes & Noble Review
From the author of L.A. Confidential comes My Dark Places, an investigative autobiography by James Ellroy. In 1958, Ellroy's mother, Jean, was raped, killed, and dumped off a road in El Monte, California, a rundown L.A. suburb. The killer was never found, and the case was closed. It was a sordid, back-page homicide that no one remembered. Except her son.
James Ellroy was ten years old when his mother died. His bereavement was complex and ambiguous: "I cried. I cranked tears out all the way to L.A. I hated her. I hated El Monte. Some unknown killer just bought me a brand-new beautiful life." He grew up obsessed with murdered women and crime. He ran from his mother's ghost.
Ellroy became a writer of radically provocative and bestselling crime novels. "I wear obsession well," he says. "I've turned it into something." He tried to reclaim his mother through fiction. It didn't work. He quit running and wrote this memoir.
My Dark Places is Jean and James Ellroy's story from 1958 to all points past and up to this moment. It is the story of a brilliant homicide detective named Bill Stoner and of the investigation he and Ellroy undertook. It is also an unflinching autobiography with vivid reportage. This is James Ellroy's journey through his most forbidding memories.
There's no genre of writing more in love with its own bullshit than hard-boiled detective fiction. Possessing a rat's eye view of the world is almost always accompanied by the temptation to bully the reader into stomaching the dark, dirty truth of just how lousy and corrupt things are. Hammett and Chandler had enough style to get by with that sensibility; Ross MacDonald, the most gentlemanly and compassionate of American detective authors, saw its limits. James Ellroy revels in it. And he pushes his tough-guy pose into post-modern cynicism. His heroes aren't slumming angels, but brutal, racist sons of bitches almost as dirty as the slimeballs they're up against.
Ellroy's memoir My Dark Places is, ostensibly, an attempt to explain the formation of his preoccupation with the seedy side of life. The memoir is about his mother's still-unsolved 1958 murder (Ellroy was 10) and his subsequent slide into junior white supremacism, petty crime, dope, booze and dementia. The trouble is that Ellroy has such a pathetically limited sensibility that the book reads like a sub-Jim Thompson take on the hot trend in literary memoirs. Ellroy writes in ridiculously rat-a-tat prose ("The Ellroy case was stalled out. They weren't coming up with shit on the blonde and the dark man . . . A Narco deputy liked the nurse angle. He forwarded the tip to Homicide. Joe the Barber was interviewed and crossed off as a suspect.") which is almost a parody, like Jack Webb on a bad drunk. And while I understand he's imitating the voices of his characters with the incessant references to "homos" and "fruits" and "wetbacks" and "niggers," Ellroy is also clearly getting off on it, and the genre lets him get away with it.
Although Ellroy claims his attempts to solve his mother's murder (with the help of a retired LAPD homicide detective) are a way of showing the love and loyalty he withheld while she lived, it doesn't read as anything more than a chance to play private dick. I can't imagine what losing your mother to violent crime does to a 10-year-old, and I don't want to deny Ellroy's torment. But using her corpse as an excuse to live out your hardboiled fantasies is about as sordid as it gets. Ellroy is what the pulps he's so enamored of used to call one nasty piece of work. -- Salon
The man who reenergized the hard-boiled detective genre (American Tabloid, 1995, etc.) delivers a true-crime noir unflinchingly detailing his mother's murder and his own belated but obsessive investigation of it.
Jean Ellroy was strangled in 1958, when James was 10. Initially relieved because her death allowed him to fulfill his wish to live with his father, young James develops an obsession with crimeespecially homicide. In his teens he begins a life of petty theft fed by alcohol and drug abuse, social alienation, and his father's laissez-faire approach to child-rearing. This steep personal sliderelated frankly and graphically in Ellroy's trademark tough-guy staccatolasts into his 30s, when he channels his murder fascination into a first novel. His feeling toward his mother during these lost years is an unseemly mix of emotional disconnection and sexual attraction. Active interest in her death is ignited in 1994 when a reporter writing about unsolved murders contacts him. Ellroy writes about her death for GQ, which only whets his appetite. And so he enlists the help of retired L.A. police detective Bill Stoner and launches an exhaustive investigation that revisits old witnesses and reconciles Ellroy with family members long abandoned. Eventually, the quest transmogrifies from identifying the killeran elusive suspect known only as "The Swarthy Man"to learning the details of his secretive mother's life. Jean's murder remains unsolved and under investigation, but the child is reconciled with his late mother. Ellroy's short, simple sentences set up a punchy but monotonous rhythm that's as unrelenting as a jackhammerand as wearing, since the book, bogged down in background that indulges Ellroy's fascination with police procedure, is overly long.
Fanatics will undoubtedly savor the facts behind Ellroy's fiction (and his murder riffs), but those expecting autobiographical exposé of the writer's psychological clockwork will feel stonewalled by macho reserve.