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My Dark Places Paperback – August 19, 1997
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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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Similarly, in his trademark staccato style he offers keen insights into sexually ravenous and murderous men, the cultural allure of victimhood, and the foibles of the criminal justice system. Yet such passages are tucked randomly among prose that, in stark contrast, exhibits a remarkable lack of insight into both his own psyche and the minds of others. The book is far too long, marred by interminable recitations of drivel. He is too hooked on his own greatness to put himself into the shoes of the average reader and realize that overloading us with random factoids destroys the drama of his long search for answers in his mother's death. As other reviewers have noted, a tough editor would have helped immensely.
One thing that surprised me---but maybe it is because I was raised in the 60s---did no one speculate that the "Swarthy man" might really be a woman? When I read the description of "his" freakishly narrow jaw, "woman in drag" was my first thought. I ran it by my husband--that was his first thought, too. A woman could have committed the crime(s). A woman could not strangle a conscious woman the way a man could, but she could beat her over the back of the head and then strangle her when she was unconscious. And the covering of the lower torso with a coat struck me as a feminine thing to do, like the killer trying to conceal her own vulnerable parts.. Hollywood in the 1950s had plenty of gays and probably had plenty of cross dressers, too, and women are not typically squeamish about hanging around butch lesbians the way that men can be squeamish about hanging out with feme gays.
There's a moving self portrait that's 100 pages shorter buried in this memoir. And the endless simple declarative sentences (zero variety, a dreary "just the facts" parade) become grating. What willpower Ellroy has to sustain such an extreme noir style! For me it became tiresome, a schtick that gives equal weight to the harrowing and the mundane.