Book review: My Dark Places

My Dark PlacesMy Dark Places by James Ellroy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a bummer.

Yes, because the rest of Ellroy’s writing is full of joie de vivre, right?

Nope. This is a complete bummer. But it’s essential if you’ve enjoyed any of his work in the past, because this book is an honest, gruelling examined of how he became who he is. If you’ve ever had a feeling there were some weird peccadilloes in his writing, they’re at least ameliorated a little here.

The book chiefly concerns three people: Ellroy’s mother, Jean Hilliker, Ellroy himself and Bill Stoner, a detective. Each is separately considered – first Hilliker’s murder; Ellroy’s childhood and adolescence; Stoner’s work as an investigator – but latterly combine when Stoner and Ellroy reopen the unsolved case. It’s part confessional, part police-procedural and part ghoulish tourism.

As with his fiction, the past is recounted with unnerving precision. There’s less-is-more at work, but the sense of knowledge behind the scenes is fearsome. There’s not as much catharsis in the text as you’d expect… but then, Ellroy’s stories rarely end well.

The telegraphic, short style can be a trial. This is the case in his other books, but it hits like a hammerblow here. It feels as though he’s masking his feelings with the pace and brevity, but that’s not so: he’s providing the Teletype version of How It Happened. It’s the language of the notebook from a first responder, the transcript of an autopsy, the just-the-facts-ma’am interview, even when he’s spitballing murderers. But where his fiction is protected by a sort of noir, schlub aura, the style here is like a laser, making you see the horror of his life and his mother’s death.

My Dark Places is not an easy book to enjoy, particularly in the section where Ellroy writes about his own decline into drugs, alcohol abuse and incest fantasy. Or where he writes about his attention-getting excursions into schoolboy Nazism. It’s not pleasant. It’s not meant to be. But there’d be no point in writing this book – an attempt to exorcise and pay tribute to his murdered mother, in equal measure – if he wasn’t relentless and eviscerating. The book shows how much his mother – and her death – has changed him. How his breakthrough novel on another murdered woman, Elizabeth Short, was a tribute to her. And how he knows he’s a fucked-up guy but keeps on anyway.

This book shows Ellroy is (if naught else) braver than most. It shows why he is like he is, without apology. He might be a strange fucker, but you can’t deny his drive.

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