Ellroy's unsolved mystery Books: Crime novelist James Ellroy tried but failed to find his mother's killer. In the end, it didn't matter.

November 18, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- John Grisham is standing in the middle of the lobby at the Hay-Adams Hotel, but he is not the writer you have come to see. The writer you want walks in a few minutes later and glances at his best-selling comrade-in-letters.

"Is that John Grisham?" James Ellroy asks.

Yes, it is. See, there's his name, on the luggage tag.

Ellroy doesn't miss a beat. "He's richer. I'm better."

This is the James Ellroy interviewers have come to expect -- brash, funny, super-confident, unrepentant. The man who early in his career announced to anyone who would listen that he would be the greatest crime writer of his generation. The man who once estimated he had given 9 million interviews about the real-life murder of his own mother, primarily in the pursuit of that ambition. The man who cheerfully admits he wrote a magazine article about his first look at the police file on his mother's murder because "it would stir up publicity for my next novel."

But as he settles down with a cup of mint tea to give his fifth or sixth interview of the day about "My Dark Places," his latest book, it quickly becomes apparent that a new Ellroy persona is emerging on this tour. We now have Ellroy as grown-up and, perhaps a little more startling, Ellroy as feminist.

"Women like it more than men," the 48-year-old novelist says of "My Dark Places," admitting that's a first after a dozen novels notable for crime and violence. "Women are passionate about the book. Women get it more than men. Across the board. Across the board. The intimacy scares men. And they react against the fact that it's a polemic against misogyny."

"My Dark Places" centers on his mother's murder. One could argue that every Ellroy book is about this long-ago homicide. Certainly, two were consciously shaped by this event -- "Clandestine," his second novel, and "The Black Dahlia," in which Ellroy "solved" one of the most celebrated open cases in the history of California.

In 1994, he decided to try and solve his mother's death, teaming up with Bill Stoner, a retired Los Angeles sheriff's department detective. Against the backdrop of a city obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, the two tracked down old cops and older witnesses. Ellroy set up an "800" number, cultivated publicity, went on "Unsolved Mysteries," dredged up every memory he could of the summer he was 10.

The result is what Newsweek called "a genre-busting, oddball classic." Writer A.M. Homes, no stranger to the dark and macabre, concludes in Harper's Bazaar: " '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."

The story begins with a "Dragnet"-style recitation of the facts surrounding the June 22, 1958, discovery of Geneva "Jean" Hilliker Ellroy, strangled and dumped near a high school playing field.

Young Ellroy, then known as Lee, was visiting his father, as he had almost every weekend since his parents' divorce. He knew what had happened when he saw the cops waiting for him at their little rental house in El Monte.

"I knew she was dead," he writes. "This is not a revised memory or a retrospective hunch. I knew it in the moment A half-dozen men crowded around me. They leaned on their knees and checked me out in close-up.

"They saw one lucky kid."

He had learned to hate his mother during his parents' acrimonious breakup. He shared his father's view: Jean Ellroy was a slut and a drunk. The night before her death she was seen drinking with two strangers, known only as the Blonde and the Swarthy Man. His father had a theory about what really happened. It wasn't the kind of theory that was likely to elevate a woman in her son's eyes.

Obsessed with mysteries

After he started living with his father, Ellroy became obsessed with the Hardy Boys and other mystery books. "Every book I read was a twisted homage to her," he writes. "Every mystery solved was my love for her in ellipses."

But it was another book, "The Badge" by Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame, and another "her" that changed his life. A gift from his father, Webb's book exposed him to the uncensored details of famous Los Angeles homicides, including the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia.

Tortured, bisected at the waist and dumped in a vacant lot in 1947, Elizabeth Short found the fame that eluded her in life, obtaining immortality as an all-purpose muse -- not only for Ellroy, but for John Gregory Dunne, who offered his version of her life and death in "True Confessions." Lucie Arnaz even had a go at the role in a television film. But in Ellroy's hot-house imagination, he owned the Dahlia. The Dahlia was his stand-in for his mother. He would save her. He would find her murderer and kill him.

Without realizing it, the young Ellroy had found his salvation -- storytelling. Both his parents had been fabricators, constantly embroidering the stories of their lives. Narrative was his coping device, the way he would make sense of his world.

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