James Ellroy's pungent voice and wicked eye have churned out some of the more distinctive works in recent American crime fiction, and like Raymond Chandler's take on another Los Angeles, their deceptions fool lesser writers into pale mimicry.
Ellroy has tapped into vernacular, its rawness and riffs, and his lifelong lust for noir to carve out a host of warped characters set against the sensational crimes and mythology of post-World War II Los Angeles. When he is on target no one does the forlorn--cops, lounge lizards, female murder victims--better than Ellroy. He counts on context and his hypertonic style to get away with words and images that would tag other writers as homophobes or racists. Sometimes, context notwithstanding, the reader still wonders about the badges he may be hiding.
Ever since the 1979 publication of "The Black Dahlia," his first of four Los Angeles crime novels, Ellroy has not been shy about tying his fiction, at least superficially, to the murder of his mother, Jean, in 1958. She was found strangled in a field in El Monte after a Saturday night of dance, drink and sex with a man her 10-year-old son did not know. The boy had spent the weekend with his father as part of the divorce decree. The murder was never solved.
Ellroy dedicated "The Black Dahlia," based on the gruesome 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short, to the memory of his mother. On his publicity tours, whenever he needed a nice transition or a glib touch of the personal, Jean Ellroy's murder was always an available topic. He had sublimated his mother's death, turned it into the hushed center of a bizarre fictional world, and he managed to accomplish this without any visible lingering demons. So what if his mother was the caricature his father, long dead, had drawn for him all those years ago: She was a lush and a whore.
Then in early 1994, Ellroy got a phone call from a reporter who was doing a newspaper story on unsolved murders in the San Gabriel Valley, his mother's among them. The reporter had the old file, and it was all the tug the 46-year-old Ellroy needed to begin writing his newest book, "My Dark Places," an L.A. crime memoir that moves a brutal light over his parents and himself. He addresses his elusive mother in the opening:
"A cheap Saturday night took you down. . . . Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name. I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us. I want to give you breath."
Surely, the reader anticipates, such a worthy charge is going to elicit a different Ellroy, a less vulgar, frenzied and mannered one? Surely he's not going to lay on the cop-speak and refer to his mother's murder case as the "Jean Ellroy job?" But Ellroy has an unconventional memoir in mind and knowing that he has spent most of his life running from his mother--both repulsed and aroused by the illicit fantasies her body alive and dead triggered--we are inclined to indulge his comfort zones.
If he leans too much on his stylized voice and overlays her murder with too many women who met similar fates, we understand his concern. Maybe the "Jean Ellroy job" alone isn't enough to carry the journey. We are even willing to ratify his far-fetched attempt to solve the murder and confront the killer, the so-called Swarthy Man, who is likely dead.
This is a tough and admirable memoir, even though the author isn't present in the "I" form for half its 360 pages. At the outset, his mother is a body, the Redhead, and he is the Kid hanging tough at the word of her death, posing for a newspaper photograph that freezes a pudgy face with inert lips. A couple of young ballplayers on their way to batting practice had discovered her in a patch of ivy along a narrow lover's lane. She had been killed and dumped before sunrise, her unzipped dress wet with summer dew. A nylon stocking and a cotton cord were lashed in a three-inch noose around her neck. She was 43 years old.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's detectives interviewed neighbors, friends and employees at the military parts plant where Jean Ellroy worked as a nurse. They were told she rented a house in El Monte so her son could have a better life. She was doting and lonely; on weekends, when the kid stayed with his father, she sometimes went out with men. None measured up to her. She was pretty and smart; she read Reader's Digest books.
The boy told police he knew the names of two of his mother's boyfriends and neither was skinny and swarthy. What he didn't confide was that he caught her twice in bed with different men and clung to his father's vision of her as unworthy.
In a deft unmasking of his own scrambled psychology, a portrait that is at once brave, sad and funny, Ellroy returns to the lost years between his mother's murder and his mental breakdown at age 27. He had moved in with his father, Armand Ellroy, a broken-down accountant, and they lived like pigs, the father feeding the boy's growing fascination with noir by buying him crime books and pornography. The kid was soon a full-fledged freak, a gangly goon covered in pimples who shouted "Long live the Nazis!" and shoplifted T-bone steaks, driving a tricked-out bicycle through the streets of Hancock Park.
His father ultimately died of a stroke and the 17-year-old orphan was left to the streets, where his confidants were winos. He abused alcohol and Benzedrex inhalers and stuffed his ears with cotton, trying to mute the voices in his head. His mother appeared to him in a vision and they made love. The kid landed in a hospital and conjured a trade with God: I'll give up my ways, he promised, to have my mind back.
Ellroy writes of his failed attempts to demystify his mother: "I found you in the shadows and reached out to you in terrible ways. You withstood my assaults and let me punish myself. . . . You live outside of me...I am determined to find you. I know I can't do it alone."
Enter Bill Stoner, a 53-year-old sheriff's homicide detective about to retire. So begins the search for the Swarthy Man, and Ellroy does a fine job dissecting place, using only a few strokes to capture El Monte in the 1950s--a city of divorced women, a honky-tonk dressed in Stetsons and pipestem pants and hoop skirts. His portrait of Stoner, truly one of L.A. County's finest, is equally skilled.
The investigation to solve Jean Ellroy's murder really never comes alive because the trail is so cold. Trying to compensate, the author takes us down the path of too many bum leads and too many white female murder victims. But these are minor excesses that never overwhelm the literary gift at the center of this journey, which is Ellroy's brutal honesty.
"Her death corrupted my imagination and gave me exploitable gifts," he writes. "My mother gave me the gift and the curse of obsession. . . . I outlived the curse. The gift assumed its final form in language."