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The Trail of a Killer : Thirty-seven years after his mother's murder, crime writer James Ellroy hopes to uncover the life of the woman and find out who took it away.


In his 1987 crime novel, "The Black Dahlia," James Ellroy had the audacity--what he would call the "righteous au thorial authority"--to cook up a solution to Los Angeles' most famous unsolved homicide.

Leading his readers on a tour of the City of Angels' seediest streets, Ellroy wrote of a young homicide dick who became obsessed with the Dahlia--a would-be actress named Elizabeth Short who in 1947 was found slain and severed in two. In fiction, Ellroy did what no real detective has ever done: He made the Dahlia's killer pay.

Now, Ellroy has set out to solve another decades-old Los Angeles-area killing. Fresh from a promotional tour for his acclaimed 11th novel, "American Tabloid" (Knopf, 1995), he has begun researching a book about the mysterious 1958 murder of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, his own mother.

Crime literature may never be the same.

After all, this is the murder that Ellroy says made him the man he is today. The 47-year-old author traces his fascination with all things criminal back to the day his mother was found, strangled and half-nude, near Arroyo High School in El Monte. And he admits that over the years he has used her death to stir up interest in his novels.

"I've exploited it," he says flatly, recalling how a previous publisher, eager to promote "The Black Dahlia," encouraged him to tell interviewers about his past. "He said, 'If you're willing to talk about this on the media circuit, we can put you out there and sell some books.' And he was right. I told the story 9 million times."

A self-described "master self-promoter with a tight grip on a pop-psych show-and-tell," Ellroy used to tell reporters that his mother--a divorced alcoholic who could sometimes be harsh to her son--got "whacked." More than once, he referred to her slaying, which occurred when he was 10 years old, as "the Geneva snuff."

But today his tone is fervent, not flip. Thirty-seven years since he lost her, he is trying to find his mother again, to recognize the woman who gave him voice.

"To one degree or another I've exploited her or ignored her. I've understood that for a long time. But now, I know the true force that this woman and her death has had on me," he says, explaining that by investigating her murder, he hopes also to understand more about her life. "This is an attempt to go back, to portray the woman with love and, if possible, bring her killer to justice."


So it is that Ellroy, whose raw, tautly written but very dark books have won him both a faithful following and a coterie of critics, has arrived in an uncharacteristically soft-spoken place. This is a man who made a career out of chronicling the lives of burned-out cops, has-been or never-was stool pigeons, two-bit snitches and three-time losers. This is a man who can--and does--use the words milieu and Zeitgeist in a single sentence, a 6-foot-3-inch espresso addict who manages to appear brooding even when wearing loud Reyn Spooner Hawaiian shirts (his favorite apparel).

This is no mama's boy. On the contrary, Ellroy says he hated his mother when she died.

"On my 10th birthday in March, 1958, she said, 'Now you're a young man. You can decide if you want to live with your dad or live with me,' " he recalls. When he chose his father, "she whacked me in the face. I had made up my mind that was the last time she was going to do that and, of course, it was. . . . The next thing I know, she's dead."

Ellroy's decision to reopen the investigation of his mother's slaying came after a newspaper reporter-friend discovered Geneva Ellroy's murder file while researching a story about unsolved San Gabriel Valley homicides. Ellroy had never thought to track down the file himself, but once he learned it was there, he couldn't get it out of his head.

If nothing else, he knew, it would make a great story: a grown man confronting a gruesome incident from his childhood, a hardened crime novelist coming face to face with the most personal of crimes. He arranged to write a piece for GQ magazine about reading the murder file--a collection of police reports, mug shots and coroner's data--for the first time. The article, called "My Mother's Killer," was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. But it didn't give Ellroy the peace he'd hoped for.

"I thought the pictures would wound me," he wrote in GQ. "I thought they would grant my old nightmare form. I thought I could touch the literal horror and somehow commute my life sentence. I was mistaken. The woman refused to grant me a reprieve."


So, he resolved to go further, to expand the article into a book, to be titled "My Dark Places."

Embarking on a real homicide investigation was a daunting task, even for someone who'd written about so many fictional ones. Ellroy hired a detective he'd met when he first viewed the murder file, Sgt. Bill Stoner, who was retiring after 32 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and was looking for a new challenge.

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