When James Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was murdered, and the case was never solved. This fact has famously inspired his career as a hard-boiled writer, never more directly than in My Dark Places his 1996 nonfiction account of unsuccessfully trying to solve the murder nearly 40 years after it happened. My Dark Places has been described as procedural, orderly, and clinical. The Hilliker Curse, his new memoir, is a more emotional account, in which he admits to wishing his mother dead shortly before she was killed and chronicles his lifelong pursuit of a woman to replace her.
In the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Klavan writes: “The Hilliker Curse . . . is not meant to be merely a confession. It is an act of creation, Mr. Ellroy’s attempt to take the reader into the experience of his anguish and aberrations. It is a show, all right, there is no question about that. He intends to dazzle and seduce us with the romance of his suffering perversity. But there’s a truth of feeling in it, too, an underlying sense of what it is actually like to live in the vortex of an impossible yearning.”
Other critics have been less kind, tiring of Ellroy’s relentlessly jazzy style and his obsessive themes. In the New York Times, Alexandra Jacobs says “it’s impossible not to sympathize” with Ellroy, but that his patented treatment of women (in life and on the page) not surprisingly limits his female audience: “Tough-guy Ellroy is not one to sink into the soft cushions of the therapeutic couch, and any lingering anguish about his grim childhood — along with the bonus trauma of being molested by a German baby sitter — is not analyzed here so much as mystified. To him, members of the opposite sex have always been superheroines, essentially unknowable, powerful beyond measure, goddesses with a capital G (when he can remember their names, that is).”
At The New Republic, David Thomson writes, “Ellroy’s new book injects his mother’s maiden name — Hilliker — into its veins and describes itself as just a memoir. But its subtitle, ‘My Pursuit of Women,’ is more compulsive than candid, and it leaves one uncertain whether this is the demented recitative of Casanova or of Jack the Ripper, Céline or R. Crumb.”
But it’s John O’Connell in the Guardian who throws the most direct punch:
[Ellroy’s] style is often called “staccato,” but that flatters it by suggesting economy and precision. Here, the clipped, brutal sentences that were once his trademark . . . yield all too often to a ludicrous high-romantic psychobabble, seemingly based on his hero Beethoven’s letters to his Immortal Beloved. Then there’s his weakness for jivey alliteration: “I was frayed, fraught, french-fried and frazzled.” “Pile on the pianissimo and postpone the pizzazz.” Please God, make it stop.
The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy
Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95