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My Dark Places by James Ellroy
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Nov 30, 2009

really liked it
Read in December, 2009

The murder rate in this part of the country seems to have steadily increased over the last fifteen to twenty years. I have no empirical evidence to back up this claim, only the fact that I have noticed a greater frequency over time in the local television station doing what I call the ritual.

The ritual consists of at least four distinct movements. The first is the sudden announcement that a murder has happened. No names or locations are released, thus getting everyone who is paying any attention at all abuzz with excitement or worry. People with little to do take a greater interest in any law enforcement activity going on in the area during this phase. This soon gives way to phase two: The release of the victim’s name and the location of the incident. Any incidental details that register as either strange or disturbing are also revealed at this point. Phase three seems designed to occur as quickly as possible after phase two. It involves seeking out a friend or loved one of the victim and securing an on-camera interview. Everything that follows such as the investigation, arrest, and trial falls under phase four for the purposes of the sloppy categorization that I have going on here.

Phase three is the one that has always caused me discomfort. It just seems wrong to shove a camera in the face of someone who has only recently found out that a friend or family member has been murdered and ask them for their thoughts on the matter. Often the viewers at home are treated to the sight of someone who may not be too articulate to begin with trying to form words around tears. The broadcasted image leads to conflicted thoughts of sadness and empathy for the person’s loss mixed with a cringing embarrassment over the spectacle that they have allowed themselves to be caught up in.

Obviously it would be a bit short-sighted to place all of the blame on the news media for approaching stories in this way. Similar to Paris Hilton or emails for herbal male enhancement products, there has to be a market for this type of thing somewhere out there or else it would just dry up and go away, right? In my more wrong-headed moments I would also tend to chalk this up to being a symptom of these current times. However, when I saw the photo of ten-year-old Lee Ellroy only moments after he was told that his mother had been murdered along with the accompanying explanation behind the photo of the journalist who lead him into the landlord’s woodshop and posed him at the workbench, it became obvious that there is really nothing new about phase three.

It would be an understatement to say that such an event is going to cause some developmental issues in a child. Raised in a permissive environment with a father who wanted to be more like an older brother (and this is one of his more attractive personality traits), young Lee grew up to be just about the biggest jack off walking the streets, both figuratively and literally. He delves into a life of petty thievery, addiction, and perversion (I’m trying to avoid that skinless flute joke that I want to make right here…) and appears to be on the senseless path of one day becoming either victim or murderer in his own right. Something happens along the way, however, as Lee turns his obsessions with the Black Dahlia and his own mother outwards, changes his first name to James, and starts down the path to becoming a great crime writer. His mother’s case is never solved, and this is something that he feels he must attempt to rectify years later.

On the surface this book is about the reinvestigation into the murder of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, but there are so many other things going on here such as a biographical portrait of Ellroy himself along with an examination of the very tumultuous relationship that he had with both of his parents. One surmises that this title served to provide Ellroy with both a reconciliation along with a small sense of closure over the crummy hand that he had been dealt in his early years. He shows tremendous courage in the unflinching way that he relates the details of his youthful escapades along with the unresolved sexual conflicts that he had towards his mother.

Having said that, I had some trouble getting totally wrapped up in the police procedural aspects of this book. This is most likely splitting hairs on matters of personal preference, as I’m not naturally drawn to most crime fiction or cop shows. Under Ellroy’s tight prose hand I still found these sections interesting, but for me they did not pack that enthralling brass knuckle punch in the stomach that his fiction does.

There was one other minor complaint that I had with this book. Ellroy seemed to gloss over the moment where he marshaled the will to turn from jack off Lee to hard-ass, demon dog James. It reads almost like Clark Kent bumbling into the telephone booth and emerging as Superman and I wanted more details. A sentence near the end of the book made me reconsider this judgment.

The paperwork and the pictures formed a life in ellipsis. Pg. 343

This sentence was a resulting final reflection on his mother as he moved pictures of her around on his desk along with police reports of the murder to look at them in different juxtapositions. It was then that it dawned on me that a recurring image in this book is his constant rearrangement of images and facts in search of newer, less visible meanings. He was constantly doing this either at his desk, on a cork board, or inside of his own head. In my mind, this single personality trait speaks volumes of insight into the Lee/James question that I was so curious about.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony I dug this one.


Noemie Vassilakis The murder rate has steadily DEcreased since the early 1990s. Look it up and you will learn!


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