Friday, December 21, 2007

James Ellroy, "My Dark Places" (1997).

In November I wrote a review for James Ellroy's Black Dahlia (1987). That piece of hard-boiled crime fiction introduced me to the author's obsessions with the seedy Los Angeles of the 40's and 50's. His subsequent stories of mid-Twentieth Century Southern California were increasingly lauded, and he was touted as the spiritual heir of such Noir writers as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. He could never be accused of downplaying the more sensational details in his tales, and several of his books (including L.A. Confidential) were eventually adapted for the big-screen. Ellroy's mix of gritty realism and salacious trimmings owes itself in part to his own experiences growing up in and around L.A.

The tragic plight of Geneva Hilliker is perhaps the defining moment of James Ellroy's life. Hilliker was found in 1958, slaughtered and dumped off on an access road leading into a public school complex. She had been strangled with stocking and cord ligatures, and was partially disrobed. Although the 11-year old James Ellroy seemed to be nonchalant about this event, it would later return to haunt him. Geneva Hilliker was his mother. Ellroy's parents were initially separated by age (his father Armand was over a decade older), and later by hard emotions and thwarted expectations. Because of Armand Ellroy's inability to hold down a steady job in his later years, Geneva was awarded custody of James. Mother Geneva struggled to keep her household afloat in order to provide a decent environment for her child. Meanwhile his father still took him on the weekends, and took every opportunity to poison his son's mind against his mom.

Because of Armand Ellroy's systematic campaign against Geneva Hilliker, James viewed her murder as something of a blessing. He had been convinced that his mother was a drunken whore, and looked forward to spending all of his time with his indulgent father. The younger Ellroy was on such a long leash that he had the run of a string of neighborhoods in downtown Los Angeles. It didn't take him very long to find trouble. He became a peeping tom and a petty thief, and found himself incarcerated more than once during his young adulthood. Throughout his 20's he abused alcohol until his body was just about ruined. Forced sobriety led him to consider the trajectory of his life, and he became a golf caddy and an aspiring author. Eventually he garnered both national sales and critical acclaim.

In the early 90's Ellroy was moved to come to terms with the memories of his mother. He had repressed the meaning of her life and death for way too long. He decided to re-investigate her murder, which had never been solved. He enlisted cops and reporters in his quest, and set out to find the answers that would define the missing parts of himself. Obviously the nearly forty intervening years had left a tremendously cold trail. Ellroy tried to get his hands on whatever records survived from the initial investigation. He identified a list of living witnesses, with the help of his buddies and contacts in law enforcement. He set up a chain of interviews which started in the little bar in which Geneva was last seen, and extended in concentric circles that stretched far across the country.

Along the way Ellroy was forced to confront plenty of unpleasant details about his mother's life. Most of us would probably be indelibly scarred by much of the information he unearthed. Yet this upheaval instead evoked much emotional re-evaluation in the son. The brutal honesty of Ellroy's evolving reflections on the case reveals the author in ways that a dispassionate account could never do. It is often difficult to like James Ellroy, as we accompany him on his harrowing personal journey. Unfortunately his clinical approach and irritatingly repetitive style drags the impact of My Dark Places down into a murky police-procedural mess. But in the gloomy corners of his prose one finds an occasional glimpse of humanity that comes across unexpectedly. If Ellroy had employed a better editor, this might have had the potential to become a classic within the genre.

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