One of his five best books about writers' lives, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
My Dark PlacesRead about the other books on the list.
by James Ellroy (1996)
Every memoir is a private investigation, but James Ellroy makes the connection explicit in this amped-up exploration of the brutal murder of his mother, Geneva, in 1958 when he was 10 years old. The first part of the book, a coming-of-age story as if imagined by Poe on meth, tells of Ellroy's teenage years in Los Angeles, living in the blowback of the crime. He was a schoolboy Nazi who doodled swastikas; a compulsive thief and porn addict; a homeless drug addict and "kiddie noir" jailbird obsessed with murders such as that of Betty Short, the Black Dahlia in 1947. ("My brain was a police blotter. . . . Dead women owned me.") The book's second part is an account of how Ellroy, having somehow miraculously pulled out of this anarchic free-fall and embarked on a successful career as a crime-fiction writer ("L.A. Confidential"), revisits his mother's murder 35 years later. He hires a former police detective, and they thoroughly re-imagine the crime, investigating the dark aspects of Geneva's life as well. Ellroy doesn't find the perpetrator, but the writer achieves an unforgettable ecstatic communion with his dead mother.