Tuesday, July 25

Anatomy of Noir


A&E


Monday, December 2, 1996

Crime novelist James Ellroy takes his readers with him to ‘My
Dark Places,’ his nonfiction work about murder and crime in L.A.By
Brandon Wilson

Daily Bruin Staff

"Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty
sniffers, punks and pimps, I’m James Ellroy," is the standard
greeting issued by the writer at his signings. And from there, the
crime novelist launches further into a profane and imaginative
routine much to the delight of his fans, who have come to expect as
much from him. While some writers regard book signings and readings
as a chore, Ellroy relishes the opportunity to meet his fans and
turn his blistering prose into spoken-word performance art.

But this tour is a little different from any before it, because
this time around the author is traveling with his first work of
nonfiction. Aptly titled "My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir"
Ellroy has written about the mother he lost to murder almost 40
years ago, and how that murder has shaped and continues to
profoundly affect his own life.

On the Nov. 25 night reading mentioned above, the fans had come
into the cramped space of Dutton’s in Brentwood to hear Ellroy
read, and the fact that the reading was set in Simpsonland was an
irony lost on few. For besides the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson
and Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, the author’s mother, are members of the
same sorority of women cut down in their prime, the exploits of
O.J. ran concurrent to the reopening of Geneva Ellroy’s case.

The novelist’s search for the killer of his mother is another
tale at the heart of "My Dark Places." The book is also an
autobiography of the author, a biography of the retired L.A.
sheriff’s detective who joined him in his quest, and a memorial to
and reconciliation with the woman who has haunted Ellroy his whole
life ­ the mother he lost at 10 years old on June 22,
1958.

Rigorous self-examination and demon-confronting is nothing new
for Ellroy. His crime fiction (11 novels and one collection of
short stories) has until now been the sole outlet for Ellroy’s wild
imagination, his obsessions and his tremendously dark point of
view. The specter of his mother has presided over his life and
literary career; there’s even a fictionalized account of the murder
in Ellroy’s accomplished second novel "Clandestine." But finally
the writer has put fiction writing and genre aside to deal frankly
with his life and the death of "The Redhead."

In person, Ellroy isn’t brooding and bleak, nor is he
self-important and aloof. He’s a tall man who, despite the approach
of his 50th birthday in less than two years, has the gait and
energy of a man half his age. And despite the raucous action and
bursts of violence in his work, he actually enjoys living in quiet
Kansas City and is quite mad about his wife, writer Helen Knode.
While speaking with The Bruin at the lounge of his West Hollywood
hotel (appropriately done up in elegant and noirish art deco),
Ellroy mentions Knode often, such as how she initiated his search
and reunion with his mother.

"Helen got me the kid picture that’s in the book (taken minutes
after hearing of his mother’s murder) for Christmas ’93," says
Ellroy. "I had no idea that the picture would affect me the way it
did. I stared at the picture, and stared at the picture and started
thinking about my mother. I had no picture of myself or my mother
from that era before. Then my buddy Frank Girardot from the San
Gabriel Valley Tribune told me he’d seen my mother’s file as part
of a piece he’s writing on five unsolved San Gabriel Valley
homicides. And I realized, I had to see that file, too. Seeing my
mother’s file was as shocking and revelatory an experience as you’d
think it would be, and I knew in that moment that this isn’t over.
I’d always tried to prove myself impervious to her power, and
seeing her in that file was when I decided to write the book."

Ellroy’s fiction has always been peppered or laced with history.
His grand achievement, the four-novel series known as the "L.A.
Quartet," details the political and spiritual corruption that
occurred in Los Angeles between 1947 and 1959. The books were best
sellers and established Ellroy as one of the most explosive talents
in his genre, and last year the writer scored another major victory
with "American Tabloid" (Time magazine’s 1995 Novel of the Year),
an epic of national politics and crimes of historic proportions
between the years 1958 and 1963.

Now Ellroy has upped the stakes by taking a chance with writing
nonfiction, and he’s found the transition less difficult than you
might imagine. "With nonfiction, you can’t make it up. But you can
choose how you place various facts of the book, you can control the
emphasis. Midway through the investigation, I started to realize
how the book would be structured: Part 1 would be in the third
person and I would recreate from official records and witness
testimonials the original 1958 investigation into my mother’s
death; Part 2 would be my autobiography, starting from my personal
perspective on June 22, 1958, going back and then forward to the
time I wrote my first novel; Part 3 would be Stoner’s story in the
third person; and Part 4 would be the story of our
re-investigation. I took copious notes on my mental state
throughout the course of the investigation, and that was good
because the basic arc of Part 4, since we don’t find the man who
killed my mother, was my evolving relationship to her memory, and
it was amazing writing the book. I wrote it in seven months, and it
was the most exciting, frightening and exhilarating seven months of
my writing career and the biggest thrill of it all was giving my
mother to the world."

Not one to do things on a small scale, Ellroy goes to great
pains to contextualize his mother’s murder. Countless murder cases
are sketched and detailed that have little to do directly with the
Ellroy case, including the case of a man named Bob Beckett, who
brutally murdered a young woman named Tracy Stewart, picked up by
his son Robbie. Offered up and slaughtered like a sacrificial
virgin, Stewart was slain simply to help the elder Beckett get over
a bad breakup with another woman. Senseless murders of women,
including the Simpson murder, create a tragic continuum of violence
that Ellroy and Stoner continue to be disturbed by.

"Stoner is completely traumatized by some of his cases involving
women. He’s got a gender-wide crush on women and so do I. His key
case of Karen Reilly has always traumatized him because he never
solved it. It’s on his mind a lot. Here you have a woman killing
from 1958, you’ve got the Tracy Stewart case in 1981 and the O.J.
Simpson-Nicole Brown Simpson case today. So my mother’s is just
another woman killing in the grand scheme of woman killings in our
time."

Ellroy’s fearlessness in detailing the nadir of his life (as
well as admitting to some oedipal fantasies at one time) also
stands out in the book, even if he also admits to a certain degree
of exhibitionism. His admission to a lifelong enjoyment of
producing a shock effect in others may, to some, call the
credibility of his candor into question. Yet his honesty remains
salutatory, and for the writer there was little hesitance or
question on the matter.

"I figure I owe my readers that, I owe my mother that and I owe
myself that. Helen has said to me, ‘You’ve never really felt the
self-pity.’ I turned my mother’s death into something useful early
on. It’s the basis for this curiosity of mine with crime, it’s as
if I couldn’t feel the grief I should have at the time of my
mother’s death, so I turned her into the the Black Dahlia, or the
Black Dahlia turned into her. And bingo, I was hooked from that
point on."

The death of Geneva Ellroy and the celebrity of her son as a
writer of crime fiction is a causal relationship of either cosmic
irony or evidence to the existence of fate. As for Ellroy’s take on
his destiny with hard-boiled prose, the writer sees it in terms
that reflect his insight, his awareness of his own powers, and his
self-celebratory sense of greatness ­ which might be
interpreted by some as well-earned, raging egomania.

"(My wife Helen) thinks I’m the greatest crime writer of the
lot, and I can’t dispute that. I’m the radical’s crime writer. What
Helen says is that what people don’t realize is: I am noir. Here’s
the case she made: I was born in 1948, film noir was moving into
its heyday; I was born in Los Angeles, most film noir was set here;
my mother was murdered, it’s an unsolved lust killing from the late
era of noir; and look at the way I lived, look at what I grew up
on. She’s right: I am noir. And that’s what I think this book is,
the anatomy of noir."

As for the future, Ellroy believes his reunion with his mother
will give his books greater diversity of character and motive as
well as temper the relentlessly bleak quality of the stories a
slight bit. Up next, Ellroy will write a sequel to "American
Tabloid" about the diabolical events of 1963-1968. He is currently
polishing up his first original screenplay, and a film, based on
his 1990 masterpiece "L.A. Confidential," awaits release next year.
And surprisingly, Ellroy is honestly happy with the film.

"My Dark Places" has given Ellroy a unique chance to re-evaluate
his life and the people who have shaped it, and the writer of dark
words has nothing but positive ones to offer.

"The most amazing things in my life were meeting Helen Knode,
this journey backward with my mother and meeting Stoner. They’re
three enormously big people in my life, Helen most of all. And more
than anything else I think of that line by the Grateful Dead,
‘Lately it occurs to me what a long strange trip it’s been.’
Forty-eight isn’t that old, but it still feels like a long strange
trip. As much as I’m having a blast in living in the contemporary
world, that world of the past is one I’ll always have to go back
to."

BOOK: "My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir," by James Ellroy is
available from Knopf Books for $20.

SHAWN LAKSMI

Author James Ellroy signs a copy of his new book, "My Dark
Places."SHAWN LAKSMI

James Ellroy reads to his fans at Dutton’s in Brentwood.

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