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
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The novelist's gritty memoir features a new epilogue. (Aug.)
In 1958, when crime novelist Ellroy (American Tabloid) was ten years old, his mother was found murdered near Los Angeles. The crime was never solved. In 1994, with the help of a retired detective, Ellroy set out to reinvestigate his mother's death. Despite exhaustive efforts, they were unable to identify the "swarthy" man last seen in a bar with Jean Ellroy. Like Ellroy's fiction, this memoir is terse and hard-boiled, treating his early, homeless life as a petty thief and substance abuser; murderers and victims; and most of all his complex feelings about his mother. Ellroy's search for her killer ultimately became a quest for his mother's true identity. A cathartic journey for Ellroy that will appeal to his readers. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/96.]-Gregor A. Preston, formerly with Univ. of California Lib., Davis
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.
Read an Excerpt
My father put me in a cab at the El Monte depot. He paid the driver and told him to drop me at Bryant and Maple.
I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to leave my father. I wanted to blow off El Monte forever.
It was hotmaybe ten degrees more than L.A. The driver took Tyler north to Bryant and cut east. He turned on Maple and stopped the cab.
I saw police cars and official-type sedans parked at the curb. I saw uniformed men and men in suits standing in my front yard.
I knew she was dead. This is not a revised memory or a retrospective hunch. I knew it in the momentat age tenon Sunday, June 22nd, 1958.
I walked into the yard. Somebody said, "There's the boy." I saw Mr. and Mrs. Krycki standing by their back door.
A man took me aside and kneeled down to my level. He said, "Son, your mother's been killed."
I knew he meant "murdered." I probably trembled or shuddered or weaved a little bit.
The man asked me where my father was. I told him he was back at the bus station. A half-dozen men crowded around me. They leaned on their knees and checked me out up-close.
They saw one lucky kid.
A cop split for the bus station. A man with a camera walked me back to Mr. Krycki's toolshed.
He put an awl in my hand and posed me at a workbench. I held on to a small block of wood and pretended to saw at it. I faced the camera and did not blink or smile or cry or betray my internal equilibrium.
The photographer stood in a doorway. The cops stood behind him. I had a rapt audience.
The photographer shot some film and urged me to improvise. I hunched over the wood and sawed at it with a half-smile/ half-grimace. The cops laughed. I laughed. Flashbulbs popped.