cover image My Dark Places

My Dark Places

James Ellroy. Knopf Publishing Group, $25 (351pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44185-4

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. (Nov.)