MY DARK PLACES
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 with crime--especially homicide. In his teens he begins a life of petty theft fed by alcohol and drug abuse, social alienation, and his father's laissez-faire approach to child-rearing. This steep personal slide--related frankly and graphically in Ellroy's trademark tough-guy staccato--lasts into his 30s, when he channels his murder fascination into a first novel. His feeling toward his mother during these lost years is an unseemly mix of emotional disconnection and sexual attraction. Active interest in her death is ignited in 1994 when a reporter writing about unsolved murders contacts him. Ellroy writes about her death for GQ, which only whets his appetite. And so he enlists the help of retired L.A. police detective Bill Stoner and launches an exhaustive investigation that revisits old witnesses and reconciles Ellroy with family members long abandoned. Eventually, the quest transmogrifies from identifying the killer--an elusive suspect known only as "The Swarthy Man"--to learning the details of his secretive mother's life. Jean's murder remains unsolved and under investigation, but the child is reconciled with his late mother. Ellroy's short, simple sentences set up a punchy but monotonous rhythm that's as unrelenting as a jackhammer--and as wearing, since the book, bogged down in background that indulges Ellroy's fascination with police procedure, is overly long. Fanatics will undoubtedly savor the facts behind Ellroy's fiction (and his murder riffs), but those expecting autobiographical exposâ€š of the writer's psychological clockwork will feel stonewalled by macho reserve.