Having achieved success with a string of blackly hopeless crime novels, James Ellroy (American Tabloid, White Jazz, L.A. Confidential) takes a mid-career detour with his latest book. My Dark Places is a memoir and a real-life murder mystery, a huge, twisted chronicle about Ellroy’s hunt for his mother’s killer, three and a half decades after her death.
In early summer 1958, the body of Jean Ellroy, a 43-year-old divorced nurse who’d been living with her son in a honky-tonk suburb of Los Angeles, was discovered in some curbside brush — she’d been strangled and dumped. James Ellroy, only 10 at the time, felt an almost macabre relief that his difficult, embittered mother was gone: ”I hated her … Some unknown killer just bought me a brand-new beautiful life.”
Brand-new, yes. But hardly beautiful. Moving in with his layabout father, Ellroy turned quickly into a classic creep: night prowler, Peeping Tom, thief, housebreaker, anti-Semite, white supremacist. Obsessed by true-crime stories (”My brain was a police blotter”) and reveling in homicidal erotic fantasies, he was an alcoholic and an amphetamine junkie by the time he’d reached his late teens.
How exactly Ellroy went from the gutter to recovery, from being a virtual schizophrenic to a critically acclaimed noir novelist is the only part of his case history that gets short shrift. That’s too bad, but it’s understandable. This isn’t a writer’s autobiography, after all; it’s a reconstructed portrait by a son who ”was chasing my mother as truth.” Eventually, he chased the truth all the way back to the San Gabriel Valley. In March 1994, Ellroy hooked up with Bill Stoner, a soon-to-retire homicide detective with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Working together, they conducted an exhaustive reinvestigation of his mother’s murder, which had never been solved. A seasoned opportunist, Ellroy is candid about both his personal and career motives in all of this, admitting that he sold the book project before actually plunging into any detective work.
Although the sleuthing chapters are marked by episodes of startling revelation, they’re primarily an endless catalog of senile witnesses and dead ends. In fiction, the ”Swarthy Man” — Jean Ellroy’s lethal companion on the night of her death — would be tracked down and punished; neatly packaged closure is rarely possible in real life. Even so, the central mystery of the book and of Ellroy’s haunted life is finally solved. Rescued from flawed memories and her ex-husband’s calumny, Jean Ellroy gets her due at last — in a painstaking biography that makes the different puzzle pieces of her life (farm girl, party girl, unhappy wife) and the trajectory of her doom seem almost logical, if no less sad and pitiable.
My Dark Places is a depressing read, especially whenever the central narrative is abandoned for its grisly context: graphic summaries of Southern California’s most misogynistic murders. Ellroy’s deadpan recitations of stupid homicides intermixed with his beatnik affectations (he’s got to be the only writer in 1996 who refers to men as ”cats”) grow tiresome. A ”tabloid sensibility” may be his literary stock-in-trade, but the story that he’s telling here deserves better than snappy nihilism. B