My Dark Places By James Ellroy


My Dark Places (Unproduced) TV writer (Cold Case) and documentary director (Th ank You and Good Night)Jan Oxenberg does a fair job of adapting Ellroy's autobiographical tome. Th e story switches cuts between a young Ellroy and the present day (1997, actually) author on the. In My Dark Places, our most uncompromising crime writer tells what happened when he teamed up with a brilliant homicide cop to investigate a murder that everyone else had forgotten - and reclaim the mother he had despised, desired, but never dared to love. What ensues is a epic of loss, fixation, and redemption, a memoir that is also a history of the American way of violence. Editions for My Dark Places: (Hardcover published in 1996), (Paperback published in 1997), (Kindle Edition), (Paperback. The man who reenergized the hard-boiled detective genre (American Tabloid, 1995, etc.) delivers a true-crime noir unflinchingly detailing his mother's murder and his own belated but obsessive investigation of it. Jean Ellroy was strangled in 1958, when James was 10. Initially relieved because her death allowed him to fulfill his wish to live with his father, young James develops an obsession. From the author of L.A. Confidential comes My Dark Places, an investigative autobiography by James Ellroy. In 1958, Ellroy's mother, Jean, was raped, killed, and dumped off a road in El Monte, California, a rundown L.A. The killer was never found, and the case was closed. It was a sordid, back-page homicide that no one remembered.

My Dark Places
James Ellroy

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Title:My Dark Places
Author:James Ellroy
Length:355 pages
Availability:My Dark Places- US
My Dark Places- UK
My Dark Places- Canada
Ma part d'ombre- France
Die Rothaarige- Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : straightforward, harrowing tale of Ellroy's life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
The Guardian.14/11/1996Dominique Baldy
Harper's Bazaar.11/1996A-1/12/1996Mark Arax
The NationA2/12/1996Emily Gordon
New StatesmanB-8/11/1996Carole Angier
NewsweekA11/11/1996Malcolm Jones Jr.
The New Yorker.20/1/1997.
The NY TimesA-5/11/1996Michiko Kakutani
A-24/11/1996D4/11/1996Charles Taylor
The SpectatorA30/11/1996Michael Carlson
TimeB+25/11/1996Paul Gray
The Village VoiceB17/12/1996Hugh Garvey

Review Consensus:
Very positive, with a few exceptions. Most have some reservations (re., for example, the style and the approach and the subject matter) but feel the book ultimately works.
From the Reviews:
  • 'While Part One may occasionally grate with readers less than fascinated by police procedure, the book comes into its own in Part Two when Ellroy leaves the investigation behind and gets to work describing life in the rough-and-ready 'white trash heaven' town of El Monte.' - Dominique Baldy, The Guardian
  • 'My Dark Places is remarkable in part for what's on the page, but also for what's never said -- Ellroy's lack of affect is especially haunting.' - A.M.Homes, Harper's Bazaar
  • '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.' - Mark Arax, The Los Angeles Times
  • 'Well known for genre-mixing and -bending, Ellroy here makes his biggest leap yet: a true-crime detective story, an L.A. social history and a kind of romance. The result is a twisted literary memoir, the white-hot spinning of a loner and autodidact.' - Emily Gordon, The Nation
  • 'What is (Ellroy), if he can use (his mother's) tragedy -- their tragedy many times in his ambitious career? He gives some answers to that: a showboat, a memory rapist, a murder pro. (...) Right -- and a writer, especially a fiction writer. I imagine his novels are better than My Dark Places. It's still gripping; but I think all these facts slightly interfere with his fantasies. For better or worse, James Ellroy is fantasy man: worse for his peace of mind, his morals and his mother, but better for his fiction.' - Carole Angier, New Statesman
  • 'It's his bleakest book yet, and his most heartfelt. 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. (...) 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 Jr., Newsweek
  • 'The reader finishes My Dark Places with the sense that Mr. Ellroy is still struggling with his mother's life and legacy, that closure, as it were, may always elude him. As a result, this compelling book feels somehow incomplete: it feels less like a conclusion than a beginning. At the very least, it should serve as an introduction for new readers to this gifted writer's disturbing oeuvre. For longtime fans of his work, it provides a revealing map to the autobiographical sources of his fiction.' - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
  • 'What (Ellroy) 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. (...) At its best, his work suggests Genet and Céline -- Mr. Ellroy actually sounds a great deal like Céline in translation. All in all, a rough and strenuously involving book, though perhaps not for the Trollope crowd.' - Bruce Jay Friedman, The New York Times Book Review
  • '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 (...) which is almost a parody, like Jack Webb on a bad drunk.' - Charles Taylor, Salon
  • '(A) book in which things speak for themselves: a murder is not solved, but the facts of four people's lives are revealed, and for one of them life will never be the same. Ellroy's portrait of Fifties LA is casually brilliant. His autobiographical venture is moving, chilling and funny. Ellroy wrote his valediction to his mother ten years ago. This is her benediction; she and her son have reached a measure of peace.' - Michael Carlson, The Spectator
  • '(T)he entire book, even after he switches to the memoirist first person and comes clean about his pathological adolescence, resembles his novels: prurient fact piled upon fact in relentless declarative sentences. (...) The effect isn't so much rational, cold, cause-and-effect explanation as it is chaotic scattershot. If you say enough, often enough, you'll eventually hit your target, and some pattern is bound to appear.' - Hugh Garvey, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

Where much of James Ellroy's fiction (especially his early work) is a coming to terms with his mother's brutal and unsolved murder in 1958, My Dark Places is a cold-eyed analysis of the actual incident and its effects on the author. It is a compelling story and Ellroy, for the most part, adopts the proper tone in approaching it. (Notable exceptions are the embarrassing elegiac notes prefacing each of the book's four sections as well as closing the book, addressed directly to Ellroy's mother.)
This is a true crime story, and it ain't pretty. Even -- or especially -- the parts that aren't about the crime are not pretty. Certainly, the book offers a better understanding of Ellroy and his writing. Perhaps it is a bit more than some readers would like to know.But ugly stories deserve to be told too.
The book is divided into four sections. The first describes the actual murder of Geneva 'Jean' Hilliker Ellroy and the (failed) investigation, all told in the third person. Much is recreated or taken directly from the police records, including descriptions of the body, what was done to it, witness and suspect interviews and the like.The writing is in brief, to the point sentences and extremely short paragraphs, with little embellishment.James Ellroy appears, but only peripherally.
Jean Ellroy was fairly brutally murdered, possibly raped. The police followed up all available leads; they led nowhere. The trail grew cold, the murderer was never caught.
James Ellroy was ten at the time of his mother's death. His parents were divorced, and he had been spending that weekend with his father. Hints of his relationship with his mother (and Ellroy's sometimes annoying style) already come in the description of mom's funeral in the first section: 'Jean's son copped a plea and stayed away.'
The second section is told in the first person. This is where Ellroy's story begins. The section is titled 'The Kid in the Picture' and the picture is printed as well: a terrible one of young Ellroy posed by a photographer after he learns of his mother's death.
This wasn't your usual 'mommy gets killed, what a tragedy' story. Ellroy realizes even then: 'My mother's death was a gift -- and I knew I had to pay for it.'
Ellroy venerated his father and was less fond of his mum. After the divorce he would have preferred to live with the old man (seventeen years Jean's senior). Instead he only got to see him weekends.
Mom was a complicated woman, the mother and son relationship ambivalent and fairly screwed up. She drank, and James would often find her in bed with someone. Life with Dad, after her murder, was more fun.
Ellroy remained a confused kid. He read a lot, didn't fit in with his classmates too well, and eventually took to a life of exploring and of crime, of sorts (lots of shoplifting, some B & E without much stealing).Ever obsessive he became particularly obsessed by murder, especially the infamous Black Dahlia case ('She came to me in a book. An innocent gift burned my world down.'). Mom hovered ever in the background.
Dad turned out to be something of a loser too and his age and lack of success caught up with him. Ellroy lived without many limits or much guidance. High school didn't really work out, he briefly gave the army a go, Dad died and Ellroy wound up taking lots of nasty substances and spending much of his time living on the streets. Eventually he gave life a go again, wrote some books, became famous and fairly well off. Eventually he decided to reexamine mom's death.
The third section examines Ellroy's efforts, together with a retired homicide detective named Bill Stoner, to find Jean Ellroy's killer. They go through the old reports, re-interview witnesses, pursue other leads. Their efforts get written up in newspapers, the story runs on TV. They get lots of calls from psychics, and run down lots of dead ends. It is a detective procedural with no payoff.
The final section continues the search, with Ellroy perhaps closer to knowing what he is actually looking for.
There is no tidy conclusion here, except perhaps in Ellroy's own redemption, his transition from a life of drug-addled misery to that of a successful author. It is interesting and revealing as an autobiographical piece. It is certainly more than we care to know.
Ellroy, for the most part, keeps an admirable authorial distance, neither wallowing in too much self-pity nor becoming too emotional in describing mom's death and his own unravelling. There is no need to, because the facts speak for themselves. Police jargon and some of the clipped sentences can annoy, but generally Ellroy writes engagingly and convincingly. It is not a pretty story, but probably of interest to anyone who enjoys Ellroy's work.
Warily recommended.

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My Dark Places:James ellroy next book
  • Vintage publicity page
  • Beatrice interview
ReviewsJames ellroy written works:
  • Berliner LeseZeichen(German)
  • Jungle World(German)
  • Lire(French)
  • Pol'Art Noir(French)
James Ellroy:

My Dark Places By James Ellroy

  • James Ellroy at Guardian Unlimited
  • Interview at identity theory
  • Interview at The Richmond Review
  • Interview at Worldguide
Other books by James Ellroy under review:Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Biographical works under review
  • See Index of Mysteries and Thrillers

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About the Author:

American writer Lee Earle ('James') Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948.

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© 2000-2010 the complete review
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Apr 23, 2021

James Ellroy doesn’t do technology, so the crime fiction writer and self-described “demon dog of American literature” is on the phone—a landline—from his apartment in downtown Denver. “I’ve never used a computer for anything,” he says. “I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t know how to text message. I write my books by hand, and I write historical novels, and it all works.”

It’s worked for 40 years. In June, Knopf will release Widespread Panic, the latest in the 73-year-old author’s more-than-20-book oeuvre. That includes the L.A. Quartet, which spans 1946 to 1958 in Los Angeles and incorporates two of Ellroy’s most famous novels, The Black Dahlia—his breakout book in 1987—and L.A. Confidential; the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which starts with American Tabloid and covers the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.; and the Second L.A. Quartet, set during World War II, beginning with 2014’s Perfidia. According to Knopf, his books have sold a combined 2.5 million copies.

Ellroy has also written the 1997 memoir My Dark Places, reckoning with the still-unsolved murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, which took place when he was 10 years old, and the 2010 memoir The Hilliker Curse, about his childhood and his complex relationship with women. (On a related note, he got back together with his second ex-wife, author Helen Knode, in 2015, which is how the L.A.-born and -raised Ellroy ended up in Denver. “We figured out the smart thing to do was have two pads on the same floor,” he says. “She’s in 200, I’m in 208.”)

Ellroy came up with the idea for his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, in which an ex-LAPD cop turned private detective is hired by a caddy to keep tabs on his sister, in 1979 while working as a caddy at Bel Air Country Club. “My great love was crime fiction,” he says. “I was 30, not quite 31. I could tell you the date: It was Jan. 29, 1979. I said, ‘Hey God, please let me start this book tonight,’ and I did. I had a cheap hotel, the Westwood Hotel on Westwood Boulevard, and I had no desk, and I had pen and paper, and there you go. I never stopped. What surprised me at the get-go was that I had the sure feel for the craft that I had. I knew that I would succeed. I swear this is not a revised memory of any kind.”

Ellroy recalls that he used a Writers Market reference guide to find an agent, went with “the guy who sounded the most aggressive,” and sold the book to Avon for $3,500 minus commissions. “I paid back-rent, bought a cashmere sweater, bought a cheap car. I had a girlfriend, and we drove to Santa Barbara for the weekend. Then I was broke.”

Times may be different—at the very least, the advances have gone up—but in many ways, Ellroy is not. He gets around using email with the help of an assistant and a fax machine. He remains fascinated by the actor Lois Nettleton, who appeared in episodes of Naked City and The Fugitive that he watched at 13 and was “the pure voice of my adolescent loneliness transposed to an adult female.” (Nettleton appears in Widespread Panic, which is dedicated to her, and Ellroy has flowers sent to her grave each year on her birthday.)

Ellroy loves old cars and midcentury modern furniture and “will watch any crummy film noir on TV just to see shots of L.A. as it really looked in 1951—the architecture, the clothes, everything else,” he says. “I live in the past. One can make the point—it’s been made before, I’ve made it myself—that my life is freeze-framed at the time of my mother’s death, which was 1958.”

In Widespread Panic, Ellroy again returns to that time, spinning a fictionalized story about the real-life Fred Otash, a former L.A. police officer who became a private investigator and “the head strong-armed goon for Confidential magazine,” a celebrity scandal rag that he helped fill with gossip. There is a brief glance at 2020, though: Otash, stuck in purgatory for 28 years since his death in 1992, has been offered a way out by telling all. “There’s Heaven for the good folks, Hell for the beastfully baaaaaad,” Otash explains. “There’s Purgatory for guys like me—caustic cads that capitalized on a sicko system and caused catastrophe.... Baby, it’s time to CONFESS.” Whether he succeeds or not ends up less a focus than what landed him in purgatory and the demons he continues to struggle with.

In 2012, the online publisher Byliner released the novella Shakedown, the original version of the first section of what became Widespread Panic. “I realized I could compress, paradoxically expand, enhance, delete the action of Shakedown... and follow it up with two longer novellas—hence, I would have a novel,” Ellroy says. He wrote the remaining two parts, “Perv Dog” and “Gonesville,” last summer, giving Otash and real-life characters such as James Dean, John F. Kennedy, and Rebel Without a Cause director Nick Ray the classic Ellroy treatment—a kind of hyper-stylization combining myth and truth.

It’s a “wiiiiild riiiiide full of laffs,” as Ellroy might write, as well as darkness and despair and sex and murder; it’s a commentary about love, women and men, and the troubled essence of human nature. Otash is “just ripped in half by his desire to do good and his desire to roll around in the dirt of the human condition,” says Ellroy, who describes the novel as “satire, parody, a big riff on this male figure at midcentury. If you look at the rhythm of it, it’s just rollicking. It’s my fondest book: Otash and his ridiculous adventures with these various women, with the imposition of violence in the middle of it. I just laughed my ass off when I wrote it.”

But going back and revising history fulfills a very deep need, Ellroy says, growing more serious. “Memory lives and relives. It incubates. It re-incubates. It mutates. It assumes different forms continually in my mind.”

In the wake of his mother’s death, Ellroy remembers thinking that there was some other world that adults weren’t telling him about. “That this crime, my mother’s death, went unsolved, and in every fictional depiction of the time, movies, television, books, you always get the killer... No, not really.”

James Ellroy Mother's Murder

Yet in his books, Ellroy gets what he wants. So in Widespread Panic, Otash becomes a great detective: “He knows how to go into a place and roll fingerprints. Give him an evidence kit, he can go and he can run this test and that test.” He even gets a soul.

Whether Otash can be saved remains to be seen—“If worst comes to worst, he’ll just hit you over the head with a phone book”—but Ellroy is already working on another book about him.

Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).

James Ellroy Written Works

A version of this article appeared in the 04/26/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Scene of the Crime