MY DARK PLACES, by James Ellroy. Knopf, 360 pages, $25.
After decades of investigating his mother's murder, James Ellroy end his personal hellby Blake Eskin
Reading James Ellroy can be a brutal experience. In his hard-boiled crime novels, set in the '40s and '50s, he paints the same pulp landscape as the film noir of that era, but he shines a spotlight on what could be only hinted at in the on-screen shadows. Murder and sexual violence drive books like The Black Dahlia, White Jazz, and American Tabloid, and the policemen who investigate these crimes are often as crooked as the perps they chase. His male characters have toilet mouths and spout racist invective; in dialogue, anal sex is a recurring metaphor for power. Women, when they appear, are dangerous and alluring, but never seem real. Ellroy draws such a dark, cruel picture of postwar America that the reader becomes almost a victim of the narrative assault, but the stories are so intricate and rapid-fire that they are hard to put down. His economical, direct language, full of clipped sentences and period argot, complements his storytelling, and that's what enables him to hit so hard.
You wouldn't want to live in James Ellroy's fictional world, but it is exciting to take a peek, and what makes a visit possible is that, when you finish one of his books, you can seek refuge in Henry James or Winnie-the-Pooh. James Ellroy, however, isn't just visiting. When he was 10, his world turned noir when his mother, a 37-year-old divorced redhead, was found strangled to death near a school in El Monte, California. The police didn't find Jean Ellroy's purse or underpants at the scene, and they never identified her killer. My Dark Places is the nonfiction chronicle of the author's obsession with his mother's ghost. The book is a strange hybrid of the confessional self-analysis of memoir and the procedural drama of the crime tale; Ellroy's talent as well as his peculiar situation make this a flawed but successful blend.
Ellroy divides My Dark Places into four parts. The first section reconstructs the 1958 police investigation of Jean Ellroy's murder. The author chooses an objective third-person narrator and takes great pains to make it seem as if anyone could have written these passages, weaving in transcripts of police interrogations and enumerating clinical details like the undigested chili in his dead mother's stomach. He refers to himself only when necessary ("The victim's son was pudgy, and tall for 10 years old. He was nervous -- but did not appear in any way distraught."). The prose here feels stilted because this tactic is disingenuous: Ellroy should have know better than to try to be dispassionate about his own mother.
If Part I is too distant, Part II feels uncomfortably close. The narrative switches to the first person and doubles back to the day of Jean Ellroy's death. The boy Ellroy returns home from an overnight stay with his father, Armand, a get-rich-quick schemer who had once been Rita Hayworth's accountant. Armand Ellroy had custody only on weekends, but he possessed his son's loyalty full-time. After the divorce, the author writes, "my father began to systematically poison my mind against my mother"; young Ellroy came to think of her as "a lush and a whore." Although Jean was probably the more capable parent, the 10-year-old Ellroy was gladdened by her sudden absence: "I hated her. I hated El Monte. Some unknown killer just bought me a brand-new beautiful life."
Ellroy did get a brand-new life, but it wasn't so beautiful: his feelings about his mother were far from straightforward, and his father's poisonous statements had damaging side effects. The author connects the dots, chronological and psychological, between Jean Ellroy's death and his own first novel. At first he turned to the Hardy Boys and other "kid's crime" books. "My father bought me two books every Saturday," he writes. "I went through them fast and spent the rest of the week suffering withdrawal pangs. . . . I started shoplifting books to fill my reading gaps."
The Hardy Boys led to less innocent pursuits, about which Ellroy is uncompromisingly frank. He read about the unsolved torture-killing of Elizabeth Short. Ellroy transferred his erotic obsession with his mother to Short, who was known as the Black Dahlia. For years, he fantasized about rescuing his mother and the Black Dahlia, and styled himself the protector of various female acquaintances. (They may have needed protection chiefly from Ellroy, as his obsession grew to the point where he was breaking into their houses.) After his father died, Ellroy graduated from stealing books to boosting steaks, liquor, and speed inhalers. Hospitalized with a lung ailment and teetering on the brink of insanity after five years of homelessness, booze, and drugs, he was scared straight and turned to writing as a way to channel his volatile thoughts. "My 18-year fantasy backlog telescoped in to this one story," he writes. "I began to see that it was a novel." Looking back on his troubled youth, the author presents a portrait of his own psyche so comprehensive that James Ellroy seems like one of his own fictional creations.
The third section of My Dark Places introduces Bill Stoner, Ellroy's fellow obsessive and a retired detective who finished his career in the unsolved-crime unit of the LA County Sheriff's Department. Stoner's career history provides an entertaining, if tangential, breather from the intensity of the author's mind. Ellroy hired Stoner in 1994 to help him tackle Jean Ellroy's case, and, in Part IV, Ellroy tells how they try in vain to solve the crime. They search for unseen clues in her file. They track down old policemen and witnesses, many of whom have passed on or lost their memory in the intervening four decades. They try to identify the "Swarthy Man" who was last seen with Jean Ellroy. They spend 14 months checking out one dead end after another. Newspapers and television programs approach the now-flourishing author about covering his mother's story, and, with one eye to fishing for new leads and the other to promoting his books, Ellroy cooperates. Each time Jean Ellroy makes the news, he gets a flurry of useless tips: calls saying O.J. Simpson did it, calls from women with recovered memories who say their father is the Swarthy Man, calls from crime victims just as obsessed with their own misfortunes as Ellroy is.
These calls help the author realize that even if he could find his mother's killer, it wouldn't bring him closure. An epiphany in a shopping-mall food court tells him Ellroy should learn about his mother's life instead of focusing on her death. He becomes like an adoptee -- adopted, in his case, by his fantasy version of the dead Jean Ellroy -- on a quest for his birth mother. The book ends with a visit to maternal relatives in Wisconsin and a demystified reconstruction of his mother's life -- "a life in ellipsis" -- which signals the author's acceptance of reality over illusion. Although this is a giant step for James Ellroy, it is not such a big one for the reader, who is not as emotionally involved, and therefore the ending feels anti-climactic. Noir, however, never promises a satisfying conclusion. Neither does real life.