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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

My Dark Places

James Ellroy

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To purchase My Dark Places

Title: My Dark Places
Author: James Ellroy
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1996
Length: 355 pages
Availability: My Dark Places - US
My Dark Places - UK
My Dark Places - Canada
Ma part d'ombre - France
Die Rothaarige - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : straightforward, harrowing tale of Ellroy's life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/11/1996 Dominique Baldy
Harper's Bazaar . 11/1996 A.M. Homes
The LA Times A- 1/12/1996 Mark Arax
The Nation A 2/12/1996 Emily Gordon
New Statesman B- 8/11/1996 Carole Angier
Newsweek A 11/11/1996 Malcolm Jones Jr.
The New Yorker . 20/1/1997 .
The NY Times A- 5/11/1996 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 24/11/1996 Bruce Jay Friedman
Salon D 4/11/1996 Charles Taylor
The Spectator A 30/11/1996 Michael Carlson
Time B+ 25/11/1996 Paul Gray
The Village Voice B 17/12/1996 Hugh Garvey

  Review Consensus:

  Very positive, with a few exceptions. Most have some reservations (re., for example, the style and the approach and the subject matter) but feel the book ultimately works.

  From the Reviews:
  • "While Part One may occasionally grate with readers less than fascinated by police procedure, the book comes into its own in Part Two when Ellroy leaves the investigation behind and gets to work describing life in the rough-and-ready 'white trash heaven' town of El Monte." - Dominique Baldy, The Guardian

  • "My Dark Places is remarkable in part for what's on the page, but also for what's never said -- Ellroy's lack of affect is especially haunting." - A.M.Homes, Harper's Bazaar

  • "The investigation to solve Jean Ellroy's murder really never comes alive because the trail is so cold. Trying to compensate, the author takes us down the path of too many bum leads and too many white female murder victims. But these are minor excesses that never overwhelm the literary gift at the center of this journey, which is Ellroy's brutal honesty." - Mark Arax, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Well known for genre-mixing and -bending, Ellroy here makes his biggest leap yet: a true-crime detective story, an L.A. social history and a kind of romance. The result is a twisted literary memoir, the white-hot spinning of a loner and autodidact." - Emily Gordon, The Nation

  • "What is (Ellroy), if he can use (his mother's) tragedy -- their tragedy many times in his ambitious career? He gives some answers to that: a showboat, a memory rapist, a murder pro. (...) Right -- and a writer, especially a fiction writer. I imagine his novels are better than My Dark Places. It's still gripping; but I think all these facts slightly interfere with his fantasies. For better or worse, James Ellroy is fantasy man: worse for his peace of mind, his morals and his mother, but better for his fiction." - Carole Angier, New Statesman

  • "It's his bleakest book yet, and his most heartfelt. My Dark Places is a genre-busting, oddball classic. A creepy primer on murder one, it's also packed with enough raunchy mother love to make you want to wash your hands between chapters. (...) This is literary necrophilia that Poe might envy. Ellroy is a haunted man, and more than writer enough to haunt anyone who hears his tale." - Malcolm Jones Jr., Newsweek

  • "The reader finishes My Dark Places with the sense that Mr. Ellroy is still struggling with his mother's life and legacy, that closure, as it were, may always elude him. As a result, this compelling book feels somehow incomplete: it feels less like a conclusion than a beginning. At the very least, it should serve as an introduction for new readers to this gifted writer's disturbing oeuvre. For longtime fans of his work, it provides a revealing map to the autobiographical sources of his fiction." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "What (Ellroy) has produced can't be neatly categorized. It is a kind of hard-boiled Bildungsroman; and it may be the mother of all mother-and-son stories. (...) At its best, his work suggests Genet and Céline -- Mr. Ellroy actually sounds a great deal like Céline in translation. All in all, a rough and strenuously involving book, though perhaps not for the Trollope crowd." - Bruce Jay Friedman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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 (...) which is almost a parody, like Jack Webb on a bad drunk." - Charles Taylor, Salon

  • "(A) book in which things speak for themselves: a murder is not solved, but the facts of four people's lives are revealed, and for one of them life will never be the same. Ellroy's portrait of Fifties LA is casually brilliant. His autobiographical venture is moving, chilling and funny. Ellroy wrote his valediction to his mother ten years ago. This is her benediction; she and her son have reached a measure of peace." - Michael Carlson, The Spectator

  • "(T)he entire book, even after he switches to the memoirist first person and comes clean about his pathological adolescence, resembles his novels: prurient fact piled upon fact in relentless declarative sentences. (...) The effect isn't so much rational, cold, cause-and-effect explanation as it is chaotic scattershot. If you say enough, often enough, you'll eventually hit your target, and some pattern is bound to appear." - Hugh Garvey, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Where much of James Ellroy's fiction (especially his early work) is a coming to terms with his mother's brutal and unsolved murder in 1958, My Dark Places is a cold-eyed analysis of the actual incident and its effects on the author. It is a compelling story and Ellroy, for the most part, adopts the proper tone in approaching it. (Notable exceptions are the embarrassing elegiac notes prefacing each of the book's four sections as well as closing the book, addressed directly to Ellroy's mother.)
       This is a true crime story, and it ain't pretty. Even -- or especially -- the parts that aren't about the crime are not pretty. Certainly, the book offers a better understanding of Ellroy and his writing. Perhaps it is a bit more than some readers would like to know. But ugly stories deserve to be told too.
       The book is divided into four sections. The first describes the actual murder of Geneva "Jean" Hilliker Ellroy and the (failed) investigation, all told in the third person. Much is recreated or taken directly from the police records, including descriptions of the body, what was done to it, witness and suspect interviews and the like. The writing is in brief, to the point sentences and extremely short paragraphs, with little embellishment. James Ellroy appears, but only peripherally.
       Jean Ellroy was fairly brutally murdered, possibly raped. The police followed up all available leads; they led nowhere. The trail grew cold, the murderer was never caught.
       James Ellroy was ten at the time of his mother's death. His parents were divorced, and he had been spending that weekend with his father. Hints of his relationship with his mother (and Ellroy's sometimes annoying style) already come in the description of mom's funeral in the first section: "Jean's son copped a plea and stayed away."
       The second section is told in the first person. This is where Ellroy's story begins. The section is titled "The Kid in the Picture" and the picture is printed as well: a terrible one of young Ellroy posed by a photographer after he learns of his mother's death.
       This wasn't your usual "mommy gets killed, what a tragedy" story. Ellroy realizes even then: "My mother's death was a gift -- and I knew I had to pay for it."
       Ellroy venerated his father and was less fond of his mum. After the divorce he would have preferred to live with the old man (seventeen years Jean's senior). Instead he only got to see him weekends.
       Mom was a complicated woman, the mother and son relationship ambivalent and fairly screwed up. She drank, and James would often find her in bed with someone. Life with Dad, after her murder, was more fun.
       Ellroy remained a confused kid. He read a lot, didn't fit in with his classmates too well, and eventually took to a life of exploring and of crime, of sorts (lots of shoplifting, some B & E without much stealing). Ever obsessive he became particularly obsessed by murder, especially the infamous Black Dahlia case ("She came to me in a book. An innocent gift burned my world down."). Mom hovered ever in the background.
       Dad turned out to be something of a loser too and his age and lack of success caught up with him. Ellroy lived without many limits or much guidance. High school didn't really work out, he briefly gave the army a go, Dad died and Ellroy wound up taking lots of nasty substances and spending much of his time living on the streets. Eventually he gave life a go again, wrote some books, became famous and fairly well off. Eventually he decided to reexamine mom's death.
       The third section examines Ellroy's efforts, together with a retired homicide detective named Bill Stoner, to find Jean Ellroy's killer. They go through the old reports, re-interview witnesses, pursue other leads. Their efforts get written up in newspapers, the story runs on TV. They get lots of calls from psychics, and run down lots of dead ends. It is a detective procedural with no payoff.
       The final section continues the search, with Ellroy perhaps closer to knowing what he is actually looking for.
       There is no tidy conclusion here, except perhaps in Ellroy's own redemption, his transition from a life of drug-addled misery to that of a successful author. It is interesting and revealing as an autobiographical piece. It is certainly more than we care to know.
       Ellroy, for the most part, keeps an admirable authorial distance, neither wallowing in too much self-pity nor becoming too emotional in describing mom's death and his own unravelling. There is no need to, because the facts speak for themselves. Police jargon and some of the clipped sentences can annoy, but generally Ellroy writes engagingly and convincingly. It is not a pretty story, but probably of interest to anyone who enjoys Ellroy's work.
       Warily recommended.

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My Dark Places: Reviews: James Ellroy: Other books by James Ellroy under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer Lee Earle ("James") Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948.

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