HE BURIED THAT DAY IN THE RECESSES of his mind, but he never really got rid of it. A 10-year-old in 1958, still reeling from his parents' divorce four years earlier, James Ellroy was returning home from a weekend with his father when he saw the police and photographers outside his mother's bungalow. "I knew she was dead," says Ellroy. "I sensed it. I knew it. I was right."

Jean Ellroy had been raped and strangled that morning, her body tossed into bushes near the El Monte, Calif., home she shared with her son. For years afterward, Ellroy, now 48 and a writer celebrated for crime novels like American Tabloid, simply wrote his mother off—it was easier that way. "I don't recall sadness," he says. "I had my mother's number. She was a drunk and a whore."

Today, Ellroy, who believes his lifelong obsession with crime was triggered by his mother's murder, is making amends for that unforgiving view. In his new book, My Dark Places, he writes of the search he undertook two years ago to discover who had killed 43-year-old Jean Ellroy. He spent 18 months traveling the country, tracking down leads with L.A. County Sheriff's Department homicide Det. Bill Stoner. The pair made no progress toward identifying the murderer—believed by investigators at the time to be a dark-haired man seen with Jean the night before she died—but they did find another victim: Ellroy himself. "I ran from my mother for a long time," says Ellroy, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., with his wife, writer Helen Knode. "I finally saw that she tried to give me a decent life, and she fought the more self-destructive side of her nature to do it. I love her fiercely now."

As a boy growing up in and around L.A., he saved that love for his father, Armand, "a Hollywood bottom feeder," as Ellroy now calls him, who was briefly Rita Hayworth's business manager. "He was permissive," says Ellroy, who remembers that his mother, a nurse, "made me do my schoolwork and had alcoholic mood swings. I took my father's hard line against her."

Shortly before Jean was killed, young Lee Earle Ellroy (who took James as a pen name in 1981) had told her he wanted to live with his father. After her death, he settled with Armand in a seedy apartment and found refuge in crime fiction—Dashiell Hammett and Dragnet's Jack Webb. Rebelling at his mostly Jewish school, he declared himself a Nazi. ("It got attention," he says.) His father died of a stroke when Ellroy was 17, hastening his descent into a decade of drinking, drugs and petty crime. "I went from cheap hotel rooms to park benches," he says. "I'd steal food every day—dine and dash."

Frightened by a bout of memory loss brought on by his substance abuse, Ellroy sobered up at 28. Part of his motivation, he says, was that "I wanted to tell crime stories and put my spin on them." With the publication of Brown's Requiem in 1981, he began churning out noir thrillers, earning more money—and respect—with each one. His mother hardly entered his mind, he says, until his wife, Helen, whom he met through friends in 1992, presented him with a gift. "Helen," he says, "found this damn picture of me taken the day after her death and had it framed."

When a journalist friend announced in 1993 that he was going to include Jean in a story on unsolved murders, Ellroy decided to look up her case file himself. The photos of the crime scene shocked him, he says. "I had freeze-framed her as a lusty 40-year-old, but she looked like a sick woman, a middle-aged alcoholic." Then Bill Stoner showed him the physical evidence: the stocking that had been used to strangle her, the flower-print dress she had worn that night. Suddenly, says Ellroy, "her smell came back to me. The booze and cigarette breath she used to have."

The story that he arranged to do for GQ magazine about his mother's murder would become a book, Ellroy decided, and Stoner, who was about to retire, said he would help him find Jean's killer. The pair talked to a waitress who had served "the swarthy man" (as Ellroy came to describe the prime suspect) along with Jean at an El Monte bar the night before she died. They followed tips they had received after their quest was aired on America's Most Wanted. They spoke to Jean's relatives, who had lost touch with Ellroy during his debauched period. Her family produced photos, says Ellroy, of Jean "looking like a confident, proud, forceful young woman." But in the end, all he and Stoner had was a theory: Jean accepted a date with a local man, necked with him in his car, balked when he wanted sex, and died for refusing.

Still, Ellroy—who lives in a house "that looks like houses I used to break into"—insists that he isn't disappointed. After all, he says, "I got my mother back. She was more tormented and ambiguous than I had thought. And I'm thrilled that I'm able, with this book, to give her to the world."

KIM HUBBARD
STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Stanley Young.