My Dark Places, By James Ellroy

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The Independent Culture

James Ellroy's first memoir, from 1996 – reissued to tie in with the publication of his second The Hilliker Curse, which covers similar ground – recounts the story of his mother's murder in 1958 and his attempt, nearly 40 years later, to solve the crime.

It is notable chiefly for what it reveals about the genesis of the author's literary imagination. Jean Ellroy's death had a profound impact on young James, and he slid into drug and alcohol dependency in his late teens. Though he emerged from these rootless years to become a fêted crime writer, the ghost of his mother haunted his fiction. With characteristic detachment, he describes her as "a body on a road and fount of literary inspiration": the source of his lifelong obsession with the dark underbelly of urban America.

In 1994, Ellroy resolved to track down Jean's killer, persuading a veteran detective to reopen the case. The investigation proves something of an anticlimax, and the narrative drive fizzles out as leads dry up and the trail runs cold. But then, perhaps that's the message of this compelling book: unlike Ellroy's perfectly honed crime novels, real life is full of loose ends.

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