The Books: “My Dark Places: An LA Crime Memoir” (James Ellroy)

Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt:

0099549611.02.LZZZZZZZ.gif.jpegThe following book in my true crime section is My Dark Places, by James Ellroy.

Now I am a MASSIVE fan of Ellroy’s fiction, but this book is not fiction, and I have to say: it’s one of my favorites. James Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was 10 years old. The crime has, to this date, never been solved. James Ellroy was a troubled youth, angry, perpetually horny, in a rage, obsessed with unsolved crimes (for obvious reasons) like the Black Dahlia. His first sexual fantasies were about the murdered girl known as the “Black Dahlia”. And, of course, Ellroy fans will be familiar with the fact that his first hit book (many years later) was called The Black Dahlia. All of that unexpressed torment and guilt and sex were poured into novel after novel after novel. I’ve gotta say it: I just LOVE this guy’s work. I’m passionate about it. He is a perfect example of what my great acting teacher Doug Moston used to say: “I am a big fan of sublimation. You take your pain and you make it sublime.” Ellroy, the straight-talker, would probably pooh-pooh such grandiose words, but I don’t care. I think his prose is SUBLIME. My Dark Places, in a weird way, explains how Ellroy became Ellroy. It makes you appreciate the real genius of his work, the real persistence it took, the real Jacob-wrestling-with-angel dynamic going on there. Ellroy is not a happy man. He is a haunted and tormented man. But instead of becoming a sex offender or a drunk or a dead-inside automaton (all highly plausible end-results for such a person) … he became a writer. He took that stuff and he made it INTO something.

My Dark Places, though, is not a novel. After becoming a huge success (writing novels which were all about the underbelly of Los Angeles, the crime world, gorgeous dames, tough-talkin’ assholes) he finally decided to turn his focus towards his murdered red-headed gorgeous mother. He decided to investigate her death. (If you haven’t read this book, I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s so SO good. Ellroy teaches other writers how to be brutally honest. If you can’t be brutally honest about yourself, then how can you be brutally honest about any character you create? You almost cringe at times, reading the book … like: woah. Did he just reveal that?? His sexual feelings towards his mother, his rage at the fact that she was obviously sexually active after the divorce … and how he sublimated all of that into a veritable OBSESSION with the Black Dahlia girl. It’s astonishingly honest. James Ellroy is FEARLESS.)

Anyway, he contacts a soon-to-be-retired homicide detective named Bill Stoner, and asks if he would team up with him to re-open the case, and try to piece it all together.

This book is the story not only of James Ellroy’s bleak very difficult childhood – but also of Ellroy and Stoner’s tracks through the past, trying to figure out what might have happened to James Ellroy’s mother. It’s written in that classic James Ellroy style – unmistakable – but now, instead of turning that scalpel-eye on his own fictional creations – he turns it on himself and his family. And it’s also a classic true-crime book. Piecing together random fragments, new discoveries, revelations … a picture becoming clear, slowly … imperfectly.

It’s a stupendous book, and … I am going to post a couple of GINORMOUS excerpts because I just can’t help myself.

Bill Stoner, the detective Ellroy teams up with to try to solve this murder from 1958, is almost like a character out of an Ellroy book. That’s why Ellroy is so good. He KNOWS that world. If you have ever known a homicide detective … you’ll know that they are a certain breed of people. They just ARE. Maybe from experience, sure … but I think there might be something else there. Some sixth sense. They understand people. They can SMELL a lie. They also – even though they’re usually big tough guys – they’re usually HUGE empaths. Bill Stoner, a man who dedicated his life to chasing down men who had killed women (he is a real life Bud White), is the epitome of that stereotype.

I know I’m biased, but I just think his prose is so GOOD. The following couple of excerpts are how Ellroy introduces his partner, Bill Stoner. I won’t explain why I think it’s good – I’m not that good at expressing it. Let’s just say that I find him unbelievably readable – but not facile or shallow. He’s deep, man, but he just says it like it is.

And so it goes … and goes … It’s a grim and ugly book, filled with horrible crime scene details. But it’s Ellroy’s most personal work.

Read. The. Book. if you haven’t.

EXCERPT FROM My Dark Places, by James Ellroy.

His name was Bill Stoner. He was 53 years old and a homicide detective with the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department. He was married and had twenty-eight-year-old twin sons.

It was late March ’94. He was leaving the job in mid-April. He’d served 32 years and worked Homicide for the past 14. He was retiring as a sergeant with 25 years in grade. His pension would sustain him nicely.

He was leaving the job intact. He wasn’t a drunk and he wasn’t obese from liquor and junk food. He stayed with the same woman for 30-plus years and rode out the rough times with her. He didn’t go the bifurcated route so many cops did. He wasn’t juggling a family and a series of girlfriends in the new gender-integrated law-enforcement community.

He didn’t hide behind the job or revel in a dark world-view. He knew that isolation spawned resentment and self-pity. Police work was inherently ambiguous. Cops developed simple codes to insure their moral grounding. The codes reduced complex issues to kick-ass epigrams. Every epigram boiled to this: Cops know things that other people don’t. Every epigram obfuscated as much as it enlightened.

Homicide taught him that. He learned it gradually. He saw slam-dunk cases through to successful adjudication and did not understand why the murders occurred. He came to distrust simple answers and solutions and exulted in the few viable ones that he found. He learned to reserve judgment, shut his ego down and make people come to him. It was an inquisitor’s stance. It gave him some distance on himself. It helped him tone down his general temperament and rein in some shitty off-the-job behavior.

The first 17 years of his marriage were a brush war. He fought Ann. She fought him. It stayed verbal out of luck and a collective sense of boundary. They were equally voluble and profane and thus evenly matched. Their demands were equally selfish. They brought equal reserves of love to the war.

He grew up as a homicide detective. Ann grew up as a registered nurse. She entered her career late. Their marriage survived because they both grew up in the death business.

Ann retired early. She had high blood pressure and bad allergies. Their bad years put some bad mileage on her.

And him.

He was exhausted. Hundreds of murders and the rough stretch with Ann made for one big load. He wanted to drop the whole thing.

He knew how to let things go. The death business taught him that. He wanted to be a full-time husband and father. He wanted to see Ann and the boys up-close and permanent.

Bob was running an Ikea store. He was married to a solid woman and had a baby daughter. Bob toed the line. Bill Junior was more problematic. He was lifting weights, going to college and working as a bouncer. He had a son with his Japanese ex-girlfriend. Bill Junior was a brilliant kid and an inveterate fuckhead.

He loved his grandchildren to death. Life was a kick in the head.

He had a nice house in Orange County. He had his health and money socked away. He had a good marriage and a separate dialogue with dead women. It was his own take on the Laura syndrome.

Homicide detectives loved the movie Laura. A cop gets obsessed with a murder victim and finds out she’s still alive. She’s beautiful and mysterious. She falls in love with the cop.

Most homicide cops were romantics. They blasted through lives devastated by murder and dispensed comfort and counsel. They nursed entire families. They met the sisters and female friends of their victims and succumbed to sexual tension hotwired to bereavement. They blew their marriages off behind situational drama.

He wasn’t that crazy or hooked on theatrics. The flip side of Laura was Double Indemnity: A man meets a woman and flushes his life down the toilet. Both scenarios were equally fatuous.

Dead women fired up his imagination. He honored them with tender thoughts. He didn’t let them run his life.

He was set to retire soon. Things were running through his head fast and bright.

He had to drive out to the Bureau. A man was meeting him at 9:00. His mother was murdered 30-some years back. The man wanted to see her file.

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3 Responses to The Books: “My Dark Places: An LA Crime Memoir” (James Ellroy)

  1. Dan says:

    I added to my “To Find List.”

  2. red says:

    Dan – yeah, you’re a huge Ellroy fan, right? This book is amazing.

  3. Dan says:

    Yes, I love his noir stuff. So I really have no excuse for not having gotten around to My Dark Places.

    Incidentally, have you ever read Homicide by David Simon? Might be your kind of book.

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