My Dark Places

Charles Taylor reviews James Ellroy's memoir "My Dark Places".

By Charles Taylor

Published November 4, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

There's no genre of writing more in love with its own bullshit than hard-boiled detective fiction. Possessing a rat's eye view of the world is almost always accompanied by the temptation to bully the reader into stomaching the dark, dirty truth of just how lousy and corrupt things are. Hammett and Chandler had enough style to get by with that sensibility; Ross MacDonald, the most gentlemanly and compassionate of American detective authors, saw its limits. James Ellroy revels in it. And he pushes his tough-guy pose into post-modern cynicism. His heroes aren't slumming angels, but brutal, racist sons of bitches almost as dirty as the slimeballs they're up against.

Ellroy's memoir "My Dark Places" is, ostensibly, an attempt to explain the formation of his preoccupation with the seedy side of life. The memoir is about his mother's still-unsolved 1958 murder (Ellroy was 10) and his subsequent slide into junior white supremacism, petty crime, dope, booze and dementia. The trouble is that Ellroy has such a pathetically limited sensibility that the book reads like a sub-Jim Thompson take on the hot trend in literary memoirs. Ellroy writes in ridiculously rat-a-tat prose ("The Ellroy case was stalled out. They weren't coming up with shit on the blonde and the dark man . . . A Narco deputy liked the nurse angle. He forwarded the tip to Homicide. Joe the Barber was interviewed and crossed off as a suspect.") which is almost a parody, like Jack Webb on a bad drunk. And while I understand he's imitating the voices of his characters with the incessant references to "homos" and "fruits" and "wetbacks" and "niggers," Ellroy is also clearly getting off on it, and the genre lets him get away with it.

Although Ellroy claims his attempts to solve his mother's murder (with the help of a retired LAPD homicide detective) are a way of showing the love and loyalty he withheld while she lived, it doesn't read as anything more than a chance to play private dick. I can't imagine what losing your mother to violent crime does to a 10-year-old, and I don't want to deny Ellroy's torment. But using her corpse as an excuse to live out your hardboiled fantasies is about as sordid as it gets. Ellroy is what the pulps he's so enamored of used to call one nasty piece of work.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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