Watch CBSN Live

James Ellroy

As part of a special series profiling mystery writers, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason interviews James Ellroy.

Anthony Mason

In a sunbaked, low rent suburb of The City of Angels, she was found on a Sunday morning.

ELLROY: (reading) The radio call went out 10:10 a.m. Sunday, 6/22/58. Dead body at King's Row and Tyler Avenue, El Monte.

The redhead had been dumped the roadside. Some Little Leaguers discovered the body.

ELLROY: (reading) A nylon stocking and a cotton cord were lashed around her neck. Both ligatures were tightly knotted.

The victim was a 43-year-old divorced nurse. A mother. Her son: 10-year-old James Ellroy, the day the policeman bent down to tell him, 'Son, your mother's been killed.'

ELLROY: I had touched an unknowable horror that remained a literal mystery. We didn't find the man that killed my mother. The cops didn't get the guy. Well, all literature of the time told you that the cops got the guy. The cops didn't get the guy that killed my mother. I knew things that other 10-year-old boys didn't.

Jean Ellroy's boy saw crime in his daydreams and nightmares. Murdered women obsessed him. They haunt his crime novels: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz - all betray a secret underside of L.A. But until now Ellroy left one dark place unexplored. His own mother's murder:

ELLROY: (reads from prologue) Your death defines my life. I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us. I want to give you breath.

In My Dark Places, Ellroy's latest book, he finally
confronts the truth that fires his fiction.

To reopen the file of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, Ellroy enlisted the help of a retired detective, Bill Stoner from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Unsolved Crimes Unit.

MASON: How hard did you think this was going to be?
STONER: I knew it would be, if anything, near impossible.

Their investigation took them to a place Ellroy had never been:

ELLROY: (walking across lot) My mother's body was dumped right over here.

It was a side street in Elmonte by Arroyo High School where Jean Ellroy's body was discovered:

Boks by James Ellroy

STONER: Here's a photo that shows her body actually laying in the ivy with the shrubbery hanging over.
MASON: So the shrubbery came all the way to the curb and she was obscured in there.
STONER: Yes, and without actually walking down the street her body never would have been found.

MASON: Why did it take you so long to come here?
ELLROY: I was afraid of my mother. I had compartmentalized my mother...I had run from her.

For a year and a half, the crime writer and the cop tried to reconstruct Jean Ellroy's final hours.

ELLROY: (at house) My mother left the house here at about 8 - 8:30 on a Saturday night, June 21st, 1958. George Kryski, our neighbor right over here, saw her drive out the driveway right then in her '57 red and white Buick.

An L.A. county sheriff's photo, June 22, 1958:

ELLROY: (in lot) It shows my mother's car being retrieved behind the Desert Inn bar in El Monte. The car was right here exactly where we're standing.

It's a Mexican joint now - the bar where Jean Ellroy was seen that night. A waitress eyed her drinking with a blond woman and dancing with a swarthy man. The police never found either of them. James Ellroy went back 38 years to hunt down a murderer. He was really searching for his mother.

ELLROY: My mother was a richly ambiguous, complex tormented woman ...she liked liquor, Early Times bourbon, L&M cigarettes, and cheap men. She also liked Brahms symphonies. She also sent me to church, made me do my homework, and fought very hard to keep me from becoming the weak man she married.

Ellroy himself became a richly ambiguous and tormented man.

MASON: Your brief but glorious career in crime started here, didn't it?
ELLROY: Yeah, all too attenuated...

In L.A.'s wealthy Hancock Park neighborhood, Ellroy began
to break into houses of school girls he obsessed over:

ELLROY: ...steal fetishistic, female undergarments, dope outta medicine chests...
MASON: And you never got caught?
ELLROY: Never got caught.
MASON: But you were finally busted for something. What?
ELLROY: I was busted for a lot of things. For being drunk. For disturbing the peace. For trespassing. For drunk driving. I was arrested for burglary once sleeping in a deserted house.

In his 20s, Ellroy posed for an album of mug shots, as a homeless booze and amphetamine addict:

ELLROY: I look back on myself and say, 'you were morally
bankrupt, were without redeeming social value. You
were an acquired taste that nobody ever acquired.' Yeah. But when push came to shove, I changed and cleaned up my life.

Ellroy kicked liquor and pills, and pointed his obsessive
personality at writing:

ELLROY: There have been times when I've been so amped up, so determined to get a paragraph, a line, a simile, a bit of
dialogue perfect, that it felt like I was going insane, and my mental computer would mplode at any second.

ELLROY: (at reading) This book is incendiary. They shipped five boxes over here. Everybody from FedEx died of third degree burns.(laughter)

James Ellroy was on an impassioned mission, as he once put
it, 'to burn crime fiction to the ground.'

MASON: What did you mean?
ELLROY: I've since grown up a little bit I think. I don't have to make those kind of inflammatory statements. What I really want to do is write great novels about 20th century American history.
MASON: Why did you say this though? What were trying to do?
ELLROY: Because I was an egomaniacal glory hound pit bull, baying at the moon.

Artist, performer, self-promoter. Ellroy is all these things. He even admits he exploited his own mother to inspire his fiction. Now he needed her to calm his soul.

MASON: Is the man who came to see you two and a half years ago the same man?
STONER: No. Over the last two years, I've been able to
experience a grown man who fell in love with his mother for the first time as an adult. And it was an emotional experience for both of us.

Ellroy and Stoner are still running down leads:

ELLROY: Bill Stoner and I will never stop looking.
MASON: You tried very hard in the course of this investigation to take yourself back to a time and place in 1958.
MASON: Did you get there?
ELLROY: I was looking to claim my mother. I was looking to determine how I derived from her. I found out those things... The capture of my mother was more important than the capture of her killer ever could have been.

By Anthony Mason
©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue