Jessica's Reviews > My Dark Places

My Dark Places by James Ellroy
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Apr 30, 08

bookshelves: california-über-alles, crime-and-punishment, dicklits
Recommended to Jessica by: most recently, cate peebles
Recommended for: probably not to everyone
Read in April, 2008

I love this goddamn book, and I love James Ellroy. Reading this made me remember why I liked his books so much when I read them years ago, but this is much better than his fiction. Still, I think having read some of his other stuff definitely helped me appreciate this more.

Ellroy really gets it. He gets so many things that most people don't: Ellroy gets misogyny. He gets bigotry and racism. Ellroy gets brutality and violence. He gets crime. He gets sexuality, he gets desire, he gets pain. He gets honesty. He gets dissimulation and avoidance.

He gets memoir.

In my fascist state, anyone who wants to write a memoir has to sit down and read this one first. Then, we sit down in a room together under a bright light and I ask you whether or not you can justify writing an entire book about your life. Has there been anything exceptional about your life that might be of interest to other people? Moreover, are you capable of writing about it in an engaging and emotionally challenging way?

James Ellroy's got a lot of heart (in the boxing sense).

My Dark Places did not make me cry at any point, which usually disqualifies a book from the five-star rankings. However, I got myself in a bit of a rating bind, because I liked Bright Lights, Big City okay even though it was pretty mediocre, so I gave it three stars. Then I read Less Than Zero and felt like I liked it so much more than BLBC so I had to give it four stars; then I got to this and was like, I can't POSSIBLY give James ELLROY the same number of stars as Brett Easton Ellis...! I've heard something similar happens with grading at a lot of colleges. Bookface inflation is on the rise!

My number one favorite thing about Ellroy has always been the way he evokes seedy mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles with such palpable grit and glamor. I love his aesthetics. I love that era, and few writers describe it as convincingly or compellingly as he does. He basically pulls up in a two-toned '57 Buick and wrestles you into his car and forcibly drives you to a certain time and place, and there you are. It's great!

My other number one favorite thing about Ellroy is the way he understands and exploits the dynamics of his subject -- his subject being murdered women, in this case his mother, who was brutally killed when he was ten years old. Ellroy understands the eroticism of this kind of violence, and instead of denying or denouncing or sanitizing the eroticism, he embraces and obsesses endlessly on it. Ellroy's is the antithesis to a common facile fascination with ugliness and degeneracy. He plunges straight into the heart of darkness, and then instead of trying to scalp front row seats like so many other interested parties, he casts himself in a starring role, and hams it up.

To me Ellroy represents a certain type of guy who has baptized himself in some hardboiled, vastly unappealing fires -- guys who have seen terrible things, done terrible deeds, been terrible people -- and come out the other side with all the bullshit burned away, naked and sensitive as a wizened, tragic, tiny little boy.

Here's my favorite passage from the book. It's about Ellroy and a retired cop whom he enlists to help him solve the mystery of his mother's murder almost forty years after it occurred:

We drove. We talked. We spun off our case and encapsulated the whole criminal world. We drove freeways and surface streets. Bill pointed out body dump locales and riffed on his old cases. I described my pathetic crime exploits. Bill described his patrol years with picaresque zeal. We both worshiped testosterone overload. We both reveled in tales of male energy displaced. We both saw through it. We both knew it killed my mother. Bill saw my mother's death in full-blown context. I loved him for it.

It rained like a motherfucker all through January. We sat out rush-hour traffic and freeway floods. We hit the Pacific Dining Car and ate big steak dinners. We talked. I started to see how much we both hated sloth and disorder. I lived in it for 20 years solid. Bill lived it once-removed as a cop. Sloth and disorder could be sensual and seductive. We both knew it. We both understood the rush. It came back to testosterone. You had to control. You had to assert. It got crazy and forced you to capitulate and surrender. Cheap pleasure was a damnable temptation. Booze and dope and random sex gave you back a cheap version of the power you set out to relinquish. They destroyed your will to live a decent life. They sparked crime. They destroyed social contracts. The time-lost/time-regained dynamic taught me that. Pundits blamed crime on poverty and racism. They were right. I saw crime as a concurrent moral plague with entirely empathetic origins. Crime was male energy displaced. Crime was a mass yearning for ecstatic surrender. Crime was romantic yearning gone bad. Crime was the sloth and disorder of individual default on an epidemic scale. Free will existed. Human beings were better than lab rats reacting to stimuli. The world was a fucked-up place. We were all accountable anyway.

I knew it. Bill knew it. He tempered his knowledge with a greater sense of charity than I did. I judged myself harshly and passed the standards of my self-judgment on to other people. Bill believed in mitigation more than I did. He wanted me to extend a sense of mitigation to my mother (pp. 353-354).


I really appreciated Ellroy's perspectives on crime, especially since I'm about to start a new job in forensic social work. I've always thought there were some interesting parallels between crime novels and the social service work I do (for example, there's a lot of crossover in populations dealt with, and similar issues of vicarious trauma for cops and social workers) and reading this felt very timely. I appreciate having another perspective than the one I'm used to, and I liked reading his thoughts about victimhood. I'm not sure if I'll let him keep all five stars -- I might go back and assign Bright Lights, Big City two, and readjust everything downward -- but for now I feel he's earned this. I tore through this book, and neglected other duties and activities so that I could read it. One thing that was interesting to me while reading was that I didn't find the graphic descriptions in this book particularly frightening or disturbing. I think that might be because I felt I trusted Ellroy, and the spirit in which he wrote.

Anyway, this, like too many of my recent book reports, has become overly long. Sorry! In closing: I definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in crime novels, especially if they don't mind a few graphic oedipal rape/murder details.

I thought this was just great. I really did!
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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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Jessica I've been meaning to read this forever. I went on a little Ellroy kick years ago, before I lost my ability to stomach graphic violence, but I'm pretty sure I never got around to this one. Reading that Ellis put me in the mood for.... disturbing LA lit by guys whose names start with "Ell-"? And Cate lent me her copy at her Film Noir party, so I've had it lying around and have felt pretty guilty, like I should probably read it and give it back to her at some point.

I do hope the laws of attraction that seemed to go into effect when I read Less Than Zero don't apply here.

We'll see how far I get. No promises.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

This a great review of a great book. Damn well done, Jessica. You have nutshelled Ellroy's genuis and failings in the space of a hundred words. The Demon Dog would be proud of you.


Books Ring Mah Bell excellent review...

damn it. I swore I would not add anymore books to my to-read list.


brian   this is weird. i'm standing here with scoobs and james ellroy (seriously. no shit) and wanted to jump on GR and write donald to tell him. but i saw this thread.

the guy is a fucking madman. much stories to tell. gotta sign off now as he's telling a story about him and his dogs "dropping trou and shitting together in the middle of the golf course".

donald - you're gonna flip the fuck out when you hear this shit.

be on later for more reportage.


Jessica Tell him hi!

Ellroy reminds me of my high school biology teacher, a mad Russian who'd take us off into the woods to drink bourbon and shoot guns. He'd lived through some totally insane gonzo bullshit and in one sense was fucked up and scary, but was also extremely sensitive and one of the most deeply caring people I've ever known. I've been thinking the past two days (while reading this) that I should call him up and see how he's doing, and I think I will.

I don't know if James Ellroy's like that too, but hopefully Brian'll get back and tell us!


message 6: by brian (last edited Apr 30, 2008 10:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   jessica that review is amazing. i love it. you're a badass.

yeah... ellroy so far transcends any genre it's ridiculous. with those last few books he's practically created his own fucking language and with the l.a. trilogy (AMAZING!) he surpassed even what chandler did. yup yup. he's pretty goddamn amazing. and deranged.

i'm still a little buzzed from hanging with the guy. he's one of my living literary heroes and, of course, the demon dog of los angeles crime fiction... i'm back home drinking wine and trying to unwind, but gotta let you know that ellroy in person is exactly as you would imagine. he's crass and crude and demented and genius and a five-star storyteller and mid-conversation will actually break out into rhyming, alliterative 'raps'. it doesn't feel right writing out the shit he was saying to me and scoobs on this site, but if you want some info hit me with an e-mail and i'll spill it all...

i got donald (or as ellroy referred to him 'donkey don') a present. watch out.



message 7: by Adrianne (new) - added it

Adrianne Mathiowetz I'd never heard of James Ellroy before this review, but now I kind of want to make out with him. To-read'ed!


Jessica Please let me know if your interest in making out with Ellroy persists after reading this. I'm really interested!

I will say that was not at all my own experience, but everyone's got her own tastes....


message 9: by Kimley (new)

Kimley OK, Brian saying that Ellroy surpasses Chandler definitely woke me up! I haven't read any Ellroy but am now thinking I really must. Although I'm having a hard time buying the better than Chandler comment.

I'd love to hear what the rest of you Ellroy fans think - better than Chandler or was Brian just having a contact high?

Is the L.A. Trilogy a good place to start?


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

LA Trilogy is a great place to start...

Brian, you are so the man!!!

Partying with the Ellroy...

Christ, I hope you didn't ask him about the film version of `Black Dahlia.

I think Ellroy is better than Chandler but I spent many years sniffing glue.


message 11: by Monica (new)

Monica Totally f'ing awesome, guys. I can't take violent crime against women but this discussion is great. Adrianne... well, what can I say? you're remark is very funny but I trust you're old enough to know better. (I hope.) I won't read Ellroy but this review got my attention and earned him recognition, I can't say respect. Thanks, Jessica. Who is your mom?


message 13: by Monica (new)

Monica No reason. Just sometimes you ask her a question and I didn't know which person you were addressing. I've never seen any comments by her. And it certainly didn't have anything to do with this book, if that's what you're thinking. I watched Acts I and II of When The Levees Broke and have to wait for the next installment to be shipped from Madison, WI.


message 14: by Dan (new)

Dan I love that goddamn hat.


message 15: by matthew (new)

matthew that excerpt certainly doesn't lead me to believe he's better than chandler.


message 16: by Lynn (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lynn I'm Jessica's mom, but I don't read all Jessica's reviews and we don't like a lot of the same books. I did read and like this one, though. So am currently ready the Ellroy memoir. Maybe I'll revisit one of his novels too - I can't remember if I read the Black Dahlia or just started it.

Chandler's better.


message 17: by matthew (new)

matthew thank you jessica's mom.


message 18: by Manny (last edited Feb 03, 2009 01:46PM) (new)

Manny Another totally great review. Thank you! Though now I wonder how it can possibly happen that I've never read any of his books...



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