Wednesday, July 02, 2008

MY DARK PLACES by James Ellroy

The Book: James Ellroy, MY DARK PLACES. Vintage trade paperback reprint, 1997 (11th printing). Inscribed by the author: "To Clair -- She lives!" Fine condition.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2007 (this copy)

I already owned a copy of this book, but could not pass up the chance to have James Ellroy sign one for me when he came to the Mystery Bookstore's booth at the LA Times Festival of Books last year. He was so charming he could have led a parade of adoring fans through the streets of Westwood, and I wanted to remember that. James Ellroy has been through the wars and back again -- as MY DARK PLACES describes -- and it was magical to see him laughing.

In 1958, 40-year-old Geneva Hilliker Ellroy was found dead near a baseball field in El Monte, California. She left behind a 10-year-old son, Lee Earle, and her murderer was never found.

Lee Earle, who hated his name, went to live with his father, a small-time grifter who sometimes used the alias "James Brady." MY DARK PLACES tells the story of how Lee Earle Ellroy, juvenile delinquent, became the world-famous crime writer James Ellroy -- but could not escape the central, horrifying mystery of his life.

In 1994, Ellroy returned to Los Angeles to reopen the investigation into his mother's murder. With the help of L.A. homicide Sergeant Bill Stoner, he retraced the old investigation and followed up new leads, looking for connections with other, similar unsolved cases. The prime suspect was someone identified as "a swarthy man," but Ellroy and Stoner have still not been able to give him a name.

By the end of MY DARK PLACES, though, Ellroy found a different kind of success. His beautiful red-haired mother left him on a Saturday night to go out partying, and got herself killed -- and Ellroy never forgave her. At some level, he blamed her for putting herself in that situation, for making herself a victim; his rage, unrecognized and unacknowledged, shaped his life for the next 40 years.

In the course of the investigation, he learned things about his mother that surprised him, as adult children always do. MY DARK PLACES ends with Ellroy coming to terms with the woman who bore him, who was a great mother five days a week and something else on the other two. He's learned to live with the anger and the guilt; he ends the book with a promise that he will never stop looking, and an apology for exposing her secrets to the world.

MY DARK PLACES is far and away James Ellroy's best work, so powerful and intimate that it is often hard to read. I'm glad to have this copy, and so sorry he had to live it to write it.

Five Random Songs

"Don't Let Me Down," Marcia Griffiths. A reggae cover of the Beatles song; it works perfectly.

"Pinch Me," Barenaked Ladies. Ugh, I got so sick of this song. Way too cute. Next.

"Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," Warren Zevon. I own a couple different versions of this song. This one is from the soundtrack of the movie, directed by my lifelong friend, Gary Fleder. According to Crystal Zevon's oral biography, Zevon was pissy about the use of his song title for this movie, and I wish he were still alive so I could argue with him about it. Isn't it annoying when people die just so they can have the last word?

"Sign of the Times," Bryan Ferry. For some reason I hear this song and have a mental image of Bryan Ferry looking down from a pair of very tall platform shoes. Is that my imagination, or was that the video for this song?

"How Can You Live in the Northeast?" Paul Simon. Perfect -- a song about the 4th of July and the judgmental nature of Americans. "If the answer is infinite light/Why do we sleep in the dark?"

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