Matt Osborne is an American original, a Southern intellectual and anti-intellectual who practices law by day and fights crime by night. In his cape. All tatted up. Cue soundtrack: Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones). I’m kidding about a few of those things but not all! Today, Matt illuminates by taking us into the dark.
James Ellroy is the undefeated and still heavyweight champion of American crime fiction.
There are giants who came before – Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson – but Ellroy owns the modern era.
His first L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz), published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, brought him great acclaim. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s, these four books are neutron bombs of noir – dense, rich, violent, probing, unflinching, and utterly compelling.
He followed in the mid-1990s and 2000s with the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy, the first book of which, American Tabloid, was Time magazine’s Best Fiction Book of 1995. With this trilogy (completed by The Cold Six Thousand in 2001, and Blood’s a Rover in 2009), Ellroy expanded his scope beyond Los Angeles, and drove his writing ever further into a stark, clipped, propulsive, machine gun style, like reading a series of telegrams aloud on speed.
Ellroy recently embarked on a second L.A. Quartet, set in the years prior to the start of his original Quartet. The first novel in the series, Perfidia, was published in the fall of 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlRDaX7vxHU
At age 68, Ellroy is still clanging and banging, pouring out his dark fever dreams in longhand, and making the bookstore mystery shelves unsafe for the innocent.
For all his distinction as a writer of fiction, however, the central piece in the Ellroy oeuvre is a work of nonfiction – his 1996 book, My Dark Places. It is part biography, part investigative journalism, part psychological analysis, part love letter – and all killer.
You should read it.
“I stand now as your witness. Your death defines my life.”
Part I of My Dark Places, “The Redhead,” provides a third person, Dragnet-flavored account of the investigation into the death of forty-three-year-old Geneva “Jean” Hilliker Ellroy.
Jean was last seen alive at 2:40 AM on Sunday, 22 June 1958. She was at Stan’s Drive-In with a “swarthy” man variously described as Mexican, Greek, or Italian. According to the carhop, Jean appeared to be drunk. The Swarthy Man appeared to be sober and bored.
Her body was later found nearby on King’s Row, behind Arroyo High School, at 10:10 AM. She had been struck in the head several times and strangled with a cotton cord and one of her own nylon stockings.
Jean was an industrial nurse who worked at an aircraft parts plant in Los Angeles. She was divorced and lived in El Monte, in the San Gabriel Valley (“the rat’s ass of Los Angeles County”). She had primary custody of her 10-year-old son, whom a school vice-principal would describe to police as “a frightened and rather volatile child.”
The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of the son, posed expressionless by a workbench, taken shortly after learning of his mother’s death. He was Lee Earle “James” Ellroy, the future Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.
The son, 38 years after the fact, describes his mother’s murder, and the subsequent investigation, over the course of 95 startlingly dispassionate pages in My Dark Places:
“[T]he victim had been struck in the head at least six times. She may have been unconscious when she was strangled. She’d engaged in recent sexual intercourse. She had probably eaten a full meal one to two hours before her death. It was most likely Mexican-type food – she had partially digested beans, meat and cheese in her stomach.”
Despite the diligence of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the investigation would stall out and go cold. The physical evidence would go into storage, and The Swarthy Man would go unpunished. James Ellroy would go to live with his father, and begin a life of crime, both personal and literary.
* * *
“A quest for dark knowledge.”
Part II of the book, “The Kid in the Picture,” revisits the events of Part I in the first person, as Ellroy recounts his life at the time of his mother’s death and carries the reader forward to the publication of his first novel in 1981.
It remains the most harrowingly honest self-examination I have ever encountered. Consider this recollection of his 10-year-old self’s mindset: “My mother’s death was a gift…. I hated her. I hated El Monte. Some unknown killer just bought me a brand-new beautiful life.”
Following his mother’s death, Ellroy moved to Los Angeles to live with his father, a marginally employed non-certified accountant. Ellroy stumbled upon newspaper clippings his father had collected about his mother’s murder. Ellroy “wanted answers,” but none being forthcoming, he “diverted [his] curiosity to kid’s crime books”:
It was a literary formula preordained directly for me. It let me remember and forget in equal measure. I ate those books up wholesale and was blessedly unaware of the internal dynamic that made them so seductive…. Every book I read was a twisted homage to her. Every mystery solved was my love for her in ellipses.
Ellroy’s other vocation was prowling:
My father gave me free run of the neighborhood. I explored it and let it fuel my imagination…. I loved to prowl…. I walked and gawked and strolled and trolled…. I stood out in the darkness and looked in.
Ellroy spent his childhood and teenage years reading, shoplifting, and prowling. At school, he “was the poster boy for the If-You-Can’t-Love-Me-Notice-Me chapter in all child psychology textbooks.” He “possessed exhibitionist flair – but lacked stage presence and control of [his] effects.” He “came off as a desperate clown.”
School, though, was purely secondary – “The books I loved were my real curriculum.” Reading an account of the Black Dahlia murder case “sent [him] way off the deep end.” The Dahlia, Betty Short, “became [his] obsession” and a “symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy.” He describes it thus: “Dead women owned me.”
During Ellroy’s high school years, his father suffered a stroke, and Ellroy’s behavior continued to spiral. He joined the Army but was discharged due to “marked unsuitability for military service.” His father suffered another stroke and died soon afterward. Ellroy was 17 years old and alone.
Ellroy spent the next several years prowling, stealing, avoiding work, and fantasizing (“Free time meant time to dream and cultivate my sense of potent destiny.”). He discovered alcohol and drugs, a cheap favorite being the wads of cotton in Benzedrex inhalers, which he would swallow for the high from the propylhexedrine. He lived in parks and empty houses. He was periodically arrested and jailed. Ingesting 10 to 12 cotton wads per high, he began hearing voices, and eventually his mind shut down:
I couldn’t say my own name. I couldn’t think my own name. I couldn’t form one simple thought or any thoughts. My mind was dead. My brain circuits had disconnected. I was brain-dead insane.
He was diagnosed with a lung abscess and “post-alcohol brain syndrome.” Upon release from County Hospital, he found work as a golf caddy. The work “was mentally undemanding,” and he could let his mind roam. He decided “to give [his] mental stories to the world.” He wrote his first novel (Brown’s Requiem) and sold it to Avon Books. He relocated to Eastchester, New York, and took a job caddying there. He began to write in earnest:
My mother gave me the gift and the curse of obsession. It began as curiosity in lieu of childish grief. It flourished as a quest for dark knowledge…. The gift assumed its final form in language…. I had to write a great crime novel. I had to attack the central story of my life.
Ellroy eventually was able to earn enough income from his writing to allow him to quit his caddy gig and write full time. The release of The Black Dahlia in 1987 was his professional breakthrough, and his career accelerated. He married, and his then-wife (journalist and novelist Helen Knode) characterized him as a “bullet”:
She knew why I despised everything that might restrict my forward momentum. She knew that bullets have no conscience. They speed past things and miss their marks as often as they hit them.
Knode also implored Ellroy to reconnect with his mother: “She wanted me to know my mother. She wanted me to find out who she was and why she died.”
Ellroy would take this step in early 1994.
* * *
“You were a ghost. I found you in shadows and reached out to you in terrible ways.”
Part III of My Dark Places, entitled “Stoner,” introduces the reader to L.A. County Sheriff’s Department homicide detective Bill Stoner, who later would assist Ellroy in reinvestigating his mother’s murder.
This section of the book runs more than 50 pages, and some have complained that the Stoner portrait breaks the book’s momentum.
While I don’t disagree, I think the Stoner section serves two purposes – to help explain why Ellroy would decide to share this most personal of journeys with Stoner (like Ellroy, Stoner is haunted by dead women), and to bring home (via a recap of Stoner’s professional life) that murder in America is both numbingly commonplace in its frequency and painfully singular in its impact.
Ellroy writes of Stoner: “Bill saw my mother’s death in full-blown context. I loved him for it.”
* * *
“You can’t run from me . . . . It’s our time now.”
In a perversion of his wife’s advice, Ellroy’s initial idea was to view the case file and write a magazine piece that would help generate publicity for American Tabloid.
Ellroy would indeed review the file. The file photographs of his mother were the first time he had seen her in many years.
He would read the autopsy report, view the crime scene photographs and the suspect mug shots, and peruse the investigative notes. He would write his magazine piece (published in GQ), but find it an unsatisfactory “reckless pass.”
He then decided to expand the magazine piece into a full book (My Dark Places), and enlisted the help of Stoner, who had facilitated Ellroy’s access to the case file but had since retired from active duty. This would take Ellroy back to the San Gabriel Valley and to his mother’s childhood hometown in Wisconsin.
Ellroy would open the evidence bundle and place his mother’s death dress to his nostrils. He would hold the cord and nylon stocking in his hand, noting that The Swarthy Man had constricted them to three inches in diameter in strangling his mother. He would visit the house he shared with his mother and the site of the old Stan’s Drive-In. He would linger at King’s Row, the road behind Arroyo High School where his mother’s body was found. With Stoner’s help, he would exhaustively review the investigative notes, speak to old witnesses, and dig up new witnesses. He would find El Monte to be “a perfectly circumscribed zone of loss.”
Does Ellroy solve the case and find The Swarthy Man? Does it even matter in the end? Ellroy acknowledges his hate for The Swarthy Man, but ultimately rejects any notion of closure, and comes to view The Swarthy Man merely as a pointer:
The Swarthy Man was irrelevant. He was dead or he wasn’t. We’d find him or we wouldn’t…. He was only a directional sign. He forced me to extend myself and give my mother her full due. She was no less than my salvation.
* * *
“I’m with you now. You ran and hid and I found you. Your secrets were not safe with me. You earned my devotion. You paid for it in public disclosure.”
Ellroy’s work, and My Dark Places in particular, is not for everyone.
Ellroy uses the vernacular of the times about which he writes, thereby exposing their racism and misogyny. His humor is dark. His scrutiny is unrelenting. He doesn’t just hold up a mirror to your face – he opens your skull and exposes the fire, and ash, and wreckage inside. Obsession is his constant companion.
But this is precisely why Ellroy needs to be read. We all inhabit the dark places from time to time, and Ellory has been there. When we visit, he is our lampholder.
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For more from Matt Osborne, please check out some of his prior guest posts at Bacon including essays on Please Be With Me, A Song for My Father, Duane Allman, and Go Set a Watchman.
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Photo of James Ellroy with framed book covers from his website.
Photo of James Ellroy and mother in newspaper clipping from https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2008/06/geneva-ellroy-r.html.
Photo of Geneva Ellroy in nurse’s uniform from https://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2008/02/james-ellroy-hollywood-interview.html.