Oedipal Noir

A crime writer investigates his own mother’s murder.

My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir

By James Ellroy

(Alfred A. Knopf; $25; 355 pages)

One of the hallmarks of that thing called noir, in novels and movies, is a looming inevitability. It’s crime fiction in which the main character is Fate and the story moves like a series of falling slabs. American writers and German-Jewish filmmakers both learned its laws from experience, in the 1930s. That generation is dead, but the genre lives on. Today its leading practitioner is James Ellroy, who might have been personally selected by Fate to fill the slot Since 1979, Ellroy has been regularly issuing novels, bigger and bigger ones, in which an initial crime sets off an avalanche, in the process revealing a city–Los Angeles, for the most part–as a sprawl of interconnected nodes of badness, less a conspiracy than a sewer system. Ellroy may not have gone through the Depression or the rise of Nazism, but he is similarly haunted. Several of his novels, in particular The Black Dahlia (1984), point to the origin of his obsession. The Black Dahlia was a real person: a young woman named Elizabeth Short, whose horrifically mutilated body was found in a vacant L.A. lot in 1947, and whose murder remains unsolved. Like her, Ellroy’s mother was found murdered, in 1958, by the side of a road next to a high school playing field in El Monte, Calif. As in the case of the Black Dahlia, the crime has never been solved.

It seems inevitable that Ellroy would sooner or later have addressed this primal scene of crime. My Dark Places is the result, an “investigative autobiography” in which he not only reconstructs his mother’s murder and attempts to solve it, but looks at both their lives and tries to make peace. The story is told bluntly and head-on, in the style Ellroy developed for his last novel, American Tabloid (1995), after various attempts at making his writing ever more minimal and telegraphic: It is all brief declarative sentences, active voice, plain subject-predicate construction. The result is as close as the English language gets to the sound of a jackhammer:

She had long legs. She had stretch marks across her stomach. The autopsy pictures were shocking and instructive. Her breasts were smaller than I remembered. She was slender throughout her upper body and thick from the hips down. I memorized her body early on. I reworked her dimensions. I altered her contours to match my taste for lustily built women. I grew up with that nude vision and accepted it as fact. My mother was a much different flesh-and-bones woman.

       This specimen demonstrates both Ellroy’s method and the task he has set for himself. The material is difficult and volatile even by current tell-all standards, while the style precludes that genre’s open invitation to self-pity.

Bluntly Ellroy sets the scene: the corpus delicti, the investigation, its sordid details, its blind alleys, its random views of a dead-end town full of hopeless people who drank too much. These include his mother, a sozzled, drifting good-time gal, and his father, from whom she is separated, an embittered World War I veteran given to large and dubious claims. Bluntly Ellroy presents himself then, as a disoriented 10-year-old, and later, as a teen and post-teen barreling toward self-destruction: alcoholic, voyeur, petty thief, near-lunatic. Bluntly he shows how a set of experiences that might have put him in a straitjacket instead turned him into a writer, endlessly avenging his mother in spectacularly baroque ways, imaging a vast network of crime radiating out from her supine form–he can’t pin her death on anything less than the entire predatory male population of Southern California–and blowing it all up, if only in words.      At length, he meets a retired LAPD homicide detective, Bill Stoner, who is exactly the partner Ellroy needs: Stoner can’t stop working, and he gets emotionally involved with the female victims in his cases. Together, they reopen the case and spend a year examining paperwork, going over the now hugely altered scene, tracking down and interviewing anybody still alive with any connection to the event. They solicit the press, appear as themselves on Unsolved Mysteries, and set up an 800 phone line, though the calls they get come mostly from psychics and people who claim to have recovered memories of their fathers’ guilt.

Despite the air of foreordained futility that hangs over the investigation, the story is gripping. The style accounts for some of this, more so the style’s source, which is Ellroy’s piston-driven determination. By concentrating on process and sequence, taking in every squalid crumb of happenstance, dispassionately examining his mother in death as if he were a coroner and in life as if he were a skip-tracer, he builds a blocklike metallic object you might think was designed to dispel all emotion. But it does no such thing. Instead, when something resembling catharsis comes along, its impact is that much more powerful.

       Toward the end of the book, he obtains some photographs that restore his mother to life by showing her as she really was: at an office party not long before her death, playful and flirtatious and clearly drinking too much, but not the desperate barfly he had been led to imagine (at her wake, her co-workers played the wistful “Chances Are,” by Johnny Mathis, over and over). This, in turn, prepares him to see her as she had been originally, the beautiful and dignified Geneva Hilliker, of Tunnel City, Wisc., who became a nurse, migrated West, and withstood two bad marriages, the second one to Ellroy’s father, a wreck and a liar who hated her and poisoned his boy’s mind. By this time, the search for her killer has come to seem nearly irrelevant, and the murderer–probably some lowlife pickup, almost certainly dead by now anyway, who wanted more than she would give him and who killed her in a drunken rage–merely the decoy in Ellroy’s search for the woman herself.

       The book does not end on a fuzzy note of self-satisfaction. Its closure is provisional. Ellroy may have located her, but he will not reconcile himself to the fact of her murder. All along, we have gotten glimpses–and in one instance, an entire complex narrative–of other cases of Stoner’s, all of them murders of women by men who considered them property, or less. We get the picture: My Dark Places is a high-intensity flashlight aimed at internal shadows, but it cannot make them go away. Ellroy has not routed his obsession, but clarified it.