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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

But first, he had a long and drawn-out flirtation with self-destruction. Only 17 when his father died, Ellroy drank and drugged his way well into his 20s. He kicked his habits, only to have a complete breakdown. Hospitalized, he says he wrote his name on the wall to remember who he was, his real name, Lee Earle Ellroy, and this promise to himself: I will not go insane.

He found work as a caddy. Meanwhile, in Alcoholics Anonymous, he rediscovered the power of narrative and storytelling. "In AA, I became a world-class public speaker," he says. "It was as if I was suddenly willing to tell the story of my life."

He wrote his first book, "Brown's Requiem," in 1979. Although he knew he wanted to write about the Black Dahlia, he waited almost a decade, conscious that he needed to mature as a writer before he was ready for this subject. Published in 1987, "The Black Dahlia" became his break-out book -- in part because he was willing to use his mother's murder for publicity.

"I knew I could go out and mine it," he says. "I dislike cheap sentiment and I'm not really good at it, but I understood the symbiosis and I consciously cultivated the idea that there was my mother and the Black Dahlia, and I was on a plane above it."

He wasn't. Encouraged by his second wife, writer Helen Knode, he hooked up with Stoner and began the search for the Blonde and the Swarthy Man. It gives away nothing to tell that they never found them. In the end, Ellroy writes, the Swarthy Man was irrelevant. The only person who mattered was Geneva "Jean" Hilliker Ellroy. He had focused on her death, when he should have been researching her life.

The catharsis

"That's why I love talking about this book," he says. "This has given my mother to the world, and it's very satisfying."

In "My Dark Places," Geneva Ellroy first appears as a corpse, in a crime-scene photograph labeled "The Redhead." By the end of the book she is restored to life and her full name, a striking young woman sitting on a rail fence. But Ellroy's search is clearly not over.

"I robbed your grave," he writes. "I revealed you. I showed you in shameful moments. I learned things about you. Everything I learned made me love you more dearly."

"My Dark Places" seems to have broken a fever of almost 40 years. Ellroy now speaks of writing more optimistic books. He wants to explore the concept of eroticism within a monogamous relationship, something he says no one is doing in literature. Then again, he admits that he reads almost no one else. He prefers brooding and listening to the German romantic composers in darkened rooms, passions that his wife happens to share.

Over the years, as a traveling author, Ellroy has scrawled many memorable inscriptions in his books. "Hideous obsessions devour," for example, in copies of "White Jazz," his last Los Angeles-based crime story. Another time, another book, it was "Call me Dog I bark; I wear a leash; I drink out of toilet-bowls."

For "My Dark Places," he says, there is only one line to write: "She lives!"

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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