Who killed Jean Ellroy?

HE is tall, softy spoken, warm but not effusive, confident without swagger

HE is tall, softy spoken, warm but not effusive, confident without swagger. He talks easily and in sound bites - he is on a book tour and he knows it. "I love doing publicity," he says, with sufficient conviction to make three solid weeks of wall to wall interviews sound like a jolly romp by the sea.

But there must be some mistake here, surely. Where's the Hitler hairdo, the expletive littered vocabulary, the wacky world view? Is this the guy whose mother's murder, when he was 10 years old, triggered a nightmare adolescence punctuated by alcohol and drug addiction, shoplifting and burglary, virulent anti semitism and bizarre masturbatory fantasies? Whose life story, a no holds barred chronicle of flabby bodies trapped inside pointless lives, stinks of vomit and dog do and cheap Saturday night sex?

Well, yes, it is. James Ellroy is also the author of a number of bestselling crime novels, some of which - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and White Jazz, for instance - have won the sort of acclaim for which many literary types would cheerfully offer up their eye teeth. His last novel, American Tabloid, which is devoted to a minute examination of the underbelly of Kennedy era America, prompted comparisons with Norman Mailer. His books have been praised for their gritty realism and morbid sensibilities; to put it another way, they wallow in the kind of dubious fluids most writers prefer to step carefully around. But then most writers make all this stuff up. James Ellroy, as the publication of his autobiography, My Dark Places, shows only too clearly, just wrote it all down.

It began on a sunny summer's morning with the discovery of a woman's body near a high school sports field in an insalubrious area of Los Angeles County. By mid afternoon the woman had been identified as Jean Ellroy Hilliker, a 43 year old divorcee and registered nurse who worked at an aircraft parts plant in downtown LA. By early evening her 10 year old son, who spent every weekend with his father, had returned to find his house surrounded by cop cars and men in suits. "I knew she was dead," writes Ellroy in My Dark Places. "This is not a revised memory or a retrospective hunch. I knew it in the moment - at age 10 - on Sunday, June 22nd, 1958."

What Ellroy didn't know, since the murder was never solved, was who killed his mother - and what he didn't realise until much, much later was that he had never really known her when she was alive. As a teenager, his view of her was influenced by that of his father, with whom he went to live after her death, and who habitually referred to her as a drunk and a whore. It was only when the painful adolescence was over, when he, was married and sober and a successful crime writer, that James Ellroy decided to search not just for Jean Ellroy's killer but also for Jean Ellroy.

His is an extraordinary story which, though it can be self conscious and repetitive, is fascinating both for its irresistible, quasi fictional narrative momentum and for the loving detail with which Ellroy sets down the minutiae both of the original murder investigation and of the additional evidence which he, in the company of a retired Los Angeles detective named Bill Stoner, gradually uncovered. He discovered things about his mother which most sons, surely, would rather not know, from the temperature of her liver when her body was discovered, to the fact that she had been married before she met his father, to the sleazy details of her weekend love life and the final, fatal "Saturday night snuff".

So is it an autobiography, or the story of a murder investigation? "Oh, an autobiography," says Ellroy. "But I wouldn't have written my autobiography without the lynchpin of my mother's murder. I honestly don't think that a straight autobiography of a 48 year old man - any 48 year old man - would be that interesting. You should live a bit more first. But it was the perfect time for me to write this story.

"It was also tremendously exhilarating to write. It was exciting to be able to give absolutely everything about my mother to the world, all in one package." Absolutely every,"thing includes the fact that his mother had been an alcoholic since her mid 20s; that in 1938 she was named America's most charming redhead in a competition sponsored by a cosmetics firm; that she was rampantly promiscuous for her time. She was also secretive about her Saturday night outings - wasn't it painful for her son to reveal those outings to the world in all their tawdry glory, to relate in deadpan, cop speak detail, how she met a blonde woman at a local bar and then left with a swarthy man, the man who is presumed to be her killer? Ellroy says no. "It wasn't painful for me; it was occasionally disturbing as I thought back on my mother's life, and my life many years ago. But it was the most thrilling creative experience of my life. And it's really, as a friend of mine said to me, about how a woman made a man."

Ellroy not only wrote My Dark Places in seven months, he wrote it - as he writes everything - by hand. "I'm computer illiterate," he says. "I don't know anything about modems and stuff." He began his love affair with books as a reader, working his way through, first, the Hardy Boys and Ken Holt, then on to Mickey Spillane and thence to just about every crime thriller ever written. It was, he says, a way of maintaining a dialogue with his mother's murder - from the safe distance of the printed page.

EVEN during the depths of the drug and drink problems described so graphically in My Dark Places, potential stories were working their way through Ellroy's befuddled head. And then came an unlikely saviour golf. He began to work as a golf caddy at various luxury golf clubs around Los Angeles. "The surroundings were beautiful, I could earn a living, I didn't have to steal. I could go out and buy my food, have a shower, sleep in a bed. It was great. I had a false start in 1978 where I outlined the first half of a book - this happens, this happens, this happens - but I didn't start it because I was afraid I'd fail. Early the next year I was out on the golf course and I sent up a prayer to my seldom sought God; God, let me finish this book. And I've been at it ever since. And I knew immediately that I was good."

Writing My Dark Places has obviously been cathartic, at some level; but as a portrait of parenthood it makes Philip Larkin's "They fuck you up/Your mum and dad" seem like the understatement of the century. Ellroy, however, appears almost unconcerned about his upbringing; certainly he doesn't wish his life had been any different. "I never blamed anybody for making me what I was," he says. "I don't think about my father very much - I've been focusing my imagination very much on my mother, just as I describe in the book. I think she was a complex, tormented woman, full of weird ambivalences - she was profligate on the one side, she was moralistic and judgmental on the other, and I'm sure these contradictions in her parenthood drove her crazy."

But does he plan to have children of his own some day? "No. I think it's a conscious decision and an informed choice. People have asked me `is it because of your mother's murder and the wretched life that you had?' And I'm sure that that's a contributing factor, but it's not a major one. It's simply this: children have no part in my imagination. It's like saying, `why don't you move to Cardiff, Wales and take up hang gliding?' Well, you know, because it doesn't send me - because I don't think about it. If I wanted to have kids, I would; I wouldn't let my wretched upbringing inhibit me.

Instead, he lives a quiet life with his wife Helen, who is also a writer, in Kansas City, well away from the ugly suburb of Los Angeles where his mother met her end. He is working on the sequel to American Tabloid and the second in his Underworld America trilogy, which will span the years from 1963 to 1968. He has stopped reading crime novels - stopped reading altogether, in fact. "Most popular culture just feels like shit in my brain. It feels like clutter. If something doesn't get me from point A to point B, I'm really not interested.

"I think, I brood, I listen to the romantic composers and some of the more modern Russians. I like boxing on TV. I exercise a lot. I think about animals." Animals? "Yeah. I'm fixated on animals. I love wild animals, and I dream about animals two or three times a week." What kind of animals? "Oh, just tigers and cougars, jungle beasts, you know."

And he thinks about his mother, and about her death. "It's an ongoing process. There is no closure." Does he think the flood of publicity following the publication of his book in the US will wash up a key witness? "The blonde woman knows who killed my mother - she must have told somebody. There's people out there who know, either the full story or elements of it; and the more publicity we get, the more chance there is we'll find them. But it's a mild expectation. What I'm confident of is that we'll learn more about my mother."