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My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoirby James Ellroy
Synopses & Reviews
James Ellroy is the heir apparent to Raymond Chandler. His dark, convoluted, steroid-infused crime novels have made him the reigning king of LA Noir. Ellroy's stylized prose is "so hard-boiled it burns the pot" and his outlook is as cynical as a frog in a frying pan. In his own words, Ellroy's LA novels "run antithetical to your standard crime fiction sensibility, which is usually a noble loner working against authority. I think my books are about bad men doing bad things in the name of authority." But this cynicism is countered by an infectious passion, a palpable energy that makes each Ellroy novel riveting and compelling. In My Dark Places, he gives readers a glimpse into the genesis of both his bleak outlook and the obsessive force that propels each novel.
In 1958, when James Ellroy was ten years old, his mother was brutally murdered. The crime was never solved. During his teenage years, young James became obsessed with the infamous Black Dahlia case, which was similar in many respects to his mother's murder. He then moved on to murdered women in general. His mother's memory haunted him for years. He first tried to escape her memory through drugs, and then to exorcise it through writing (for example, in his novel about the Black Dahlia case, he "solves" the crime). Neither worked. So he proceeded instead to write a nonfiction account of his mother's murder. He teamed up with retired homicide detective Bill Stoner and set out to solve the case, now several decades old. Where their investigation failed, Ellroy's painfully honest account of the ordeal did not. Whether hailed a classic of its kind (though, for what it's worth, this quirky book is in a genre of its own), or reviled as the worst kind of exploitation, My Dark Places is a stunning achievement. Haunting, disgusting, fascinating, and brutally, Oedipally honest, this is one book no reader will forget. Farley, Powells.com
"My Dark Places is a genre-busting, oddball classic. A creepy primer on murder one...it's also packed with enough raunchy mother love to make you want to wash your hands between chapters. And Ellroy's rat-a-tat-tat narration gives his self-lacerating account a sense of brakeless free fall. This is literary necrophilia that Poe might envy. Ellroy is a haunted man, and more than writer enough to haunt anyone who hears his tale." Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
"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." Charles Taylor, Salon
"James Ellroy has told this story from his own childhood before, mainly to journalists attracted to his growing renown as a writer of dark, scarifyingly violent crime novels (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential). The anecdote enhanced his reputation, setting him off from his competitors....But (this book) rehearses this unhappy history with a lot more than instant publicity in mind. Part memoir, part detective story, part meditation on the kind of men who kill and the women who die at their hands, Ellroy's new book displays a reality more chilling than fiction....Readers new to Ellroy may find his clipped, staccato prose disconcerting, particularly when it describes details of his mother's corpse and the procedures at her autopsy. He is also quite blunt about the sexual allure that memories of his mother...bring up for him....Love and reconciliation can come only through knowledge, however horrifying. (Ellroy's) journey toward his mother goes beyond the personal into a world of pain and redemption." Paul Gray, Time
"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." Gregor A. Preston, Library Journal
"Much of the memoir is taken up with a detailed account of the doomed investigation. But at the heart of the work is Mr. Ellroy's tortured attempt to resurrect his mother ('to dance with the redhead,' as he puts it), to repair his stupendous loss — and to piece himself together in the process. What he has produced can't be neatly categorized. It is a kind of hard-boiled Bildungsroman; and it may be the mother of all mother-and-son stories." Bruce Jay Friedman, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His five previous novels, American Tabloid, White Jazz, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and The Black Dahlia, were international bestsellers.
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