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My Dark Places Paperback – August 19, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 116 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

James Ellroy's trademark is his language: it is sometimes caustically funny and always brazen. When he's hitting on all cylinders, as he is in My Dark Places, his style makes punchy rhythms out of short sentences using lingo such as "scoot" (dollar), "trim" (sex), and "brace" (to interrogate). But the premise for My Dark Places is what makes it especially compelling: Ellroy goes back to his own childhood to investigate the central mystery behind his obsession with violence against women--the death of his mother when he was 10 years old. It's hard to imagine a more psychologically treacherous, more self-exposing way in which to write about true crime. The New York Times calls it a "strenuously involving book.... Early on, Mr. Ellroy makes a promise to his dead mother that seems maudlin at first: 'I want to give you breath.' But he's done just that and--on occasion--taken ours away."

From Publishers Weekly

Crime novelist Ellroy (American Tabloid) was 10 in 1958 when his mother, a divorced nurse and closet alcoholic, was found strangled to death in a deserted schoolyard in California's San Gabriel Valley. The case was still unsolved in 1994, when Ellroy hired retired L.A. homicide detective Bill Stoner to investigate. In this emotionally raw, hypnotic memoir, Ellroy ventures into the murky, Oedipal depths of his lifelong obsession with sex crimes and police work, setting his mother's murder against a grisly backdrop of similar L.A. homicides, from the 1947 Black Dahlia case (the subject of Ellroy's 1987 novel The Black Dahlia) to the indictment of O.J. Simpson. Ellroy recounts his troubled coming-of-age: in the wake of his mother's death, he immersed himself in the Nazi literature, petty theft, voyeurism, pornography and crime fiction that pollinated his flowering "tabloid sensibility." Eventually bottoming out on booze and drugs, he sobered up in AA and moved to the East Coast to write fiction. Returning to L.A., Ellroy culls LAPD archives to reconstruct the 1958 investigation of his mother's murder. While he fails to figure out who killed her, he unravels her secretive life, exploring the dalliances and weekend binges she hid from her son and ex-husband. If Baudelaire had produced an episode of Dragnet, it might have resembled the feverish, staccato way Ellroy confronts his mother's ghost, re-staging her murder with creepy meticulousness and addressing her repeatedly in the second person. Ellroy's degraded tough-guy shtick at times sounds disingenuously novelistic, and it occasionally gets mired in lists of sex crimes amassed from police archives. That the book lacks the closure or catharsis it sets out to achieve, however, is just one of the hard-won lessons of this deeply disquieting glimpse into Ellroy's heart of darkness and his ongoing battle with the past. Photos not seen by PW. 75,000 first printing; BOMC and QPB selections.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 427 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 19, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679762051
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679762058
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,457 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on February 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
Readers often wonder what makes their favorite writers tick--we want to point to a significant moment in their lives, a single event which made them become writers. When asked this question, most authors tend to shrug it off, saying that they were always compelled to write. James Ellroy would answer the question differently, because he knows the defining event of his personal life and writing career. It happened in 1958, when he was ten: his mother, Jean, was found murdered, a nylon stocking and a cotton cord lashed around her neck. Her corpse was found in an ivy patch near a high school, looking, as Ellroy himself describes it, "like a classic late night body dump." Despite a thorough investigation, her murderer was never found.

When his mother died, Ellroy, the innocent victim of his parent's acrimonious divorce, was already well on the way to perfecting his "Crazy Man Act". Always somewhat of a misfit, Ellroy began to revel in his strangeness under his father's care. After his father's death seven years later, Ellroy spent the next thirteen years in a steep downward spiral, engaging in petty crime, serving jail time, and abusing drugs and alcohol. His only solace during this time were the wild fantasies he concocted in his head, and the crime novels which fueled those fantasies.

During those decades, Ellroy struggled with the memory of "the redhead", as he often refers to his mother. Outwardly professing to hate her, he was confused by his true feelings. These repressed emotions produced a life long obsession with crime and crime fiction, which eventually surfaced in the recurring themes present in many of his novels. "Her death corrupted my imagination and gave me exploitable gifts.
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Format: Paperback
Ellroy is an internationally best-selling crime author (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, etc.). He also grew out of true crime--his mother Jean Ellroy was assaulted, murdered, and had her body dumped in a ditch in 1958, when James was 10 years old. James's father poisoned him against his mother, portraying her as a drunken whore. The boy grew up a troublemaker and serious addict, stealing, burglarizing, lying, using, and living on the streets. Somehow (not covered in this book, to my disappointment), he got his life together, became a star as a crime novelist, and then decided to re-open the 30-year-old unsolved murder of his mother.

Ellroy himself admits that he had dubious motives for re-visiting his mother's murder case--he thought writing an article for GQ about his fascinating past would generate some excellent publicity for his upcoming novel. To his own surprise, Ellroy became engrossed in the dead-end case. He was mystified as the concept of his mother as anything other than a "drunken whore." Ellroy ends up partnering with seasoned homicide detective Bill Toner to re-open then case, investigate 30-year-old leads, trace old witnesses, and garner publicity for potential witnesses to come forward. During the course of the new investigation, Ellroy learns more than he planned about his mother's past, her motivations, and her heritage...which is his own heritage.
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Format: Paperback
James Ellroy's unique voice in contemporary crime fiction springs from events in his own life which are the basis for My Dark Places. This book reveals a tortured early life overshadowed by the murder of Ellroy's mother and subsequent contact with police along with an adolescent descent into petty crime and drug use. That the person portrayed in these pages manages to sublimate his demons and channel them into some of the best noir fiction ever written, is a remarkable human achievement. Those who love Ellroy's books should read this memoir for the insight into the man it provides and, also, for the pleasure of reading a real life version of what could easily be a typical Ellroy subplot to an L.A. mystery.
Really interesting stuff. Read this and you will know why Ellroy seems stuck in L.A. in another age - and why he can make it come to life with such power.
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Format: Paperback
"My Dark Places" is about the author's futile search for his mother's killer. It is also a fascinating memoir of one of today's most successful crime writers. Although there is an obvious link between these two themes - a link that Ellroy indulges a very large chunk of his book to - the two parts fail to form a complete marriage. For my money the memoir elements of "Places" are much more compelling and readable. The second half of the book, which documents his work with a retired homicide detective to find the killer, is, well, a little dull. I found myself wishing he would dip back into the well of his youth, when his life was herky-jerky and wild. The investigation into his mother's death is spiked with dead-ends and ponderous soul-searching. And it is dreadfully repetitive at times.
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