The police reconstructed the crime.
My mother went out drinking Saturday night. She was seen at the Desert Inn bar in El Monte with a dark-haired white man and a blonde woman. My mother and the man left the bar around 10 P.M.
A group of Little Leaguers discovered the body. My mother had been strangled at an unknown location and dumped into some bushes next to the athletic field at Arroyo High School, a mile and a half from the Desert Inn.
She clawed her assailant's face bloody. The killer had pulled off one of her stockings and tied it loosely around her neck postmortem.
I went to live with my father. I forced some tears out that Sunday--and none since.
My flight landed early. L.A. looked surreal, and inimical to the myth town of my books.
I checked in at the hotel and called Sergeant Stoner. We made plans to meet the following day. He gave me directions to the Homicide Bureau; earthquake tremors had ravaged the old facility and necessitated a move.
Sergeant McComas wouldn't be there. He was recuperating from open-heart surgery, a classic police-work by-product.
I told Stoner I'd pop for lunch. He warned me that the file might kill my appetite.
I ate a big room-service dinner. Dusk hit--I looked out my window and imagined it was 1950-something.
I set my novel Clandestine
in 1951. It's a chronologically altered, heavily fictionalized account of my mother's murder. The story details a young cop's obsession: linking the death of a woman he had a one-night stand with to the killing of a redheaded nurse in El Monte. The supporting cast includes a 9-year-old boy very much like I was at that age.
I gave the killer my father's superficial attributes and juxtaposed them against a psychopathic bent. I have never understood my motive for doing this.
I called the dead nurse Marcella De Vries. She hailed from my mother's hometown: Tunnel City, Wisconsin.
I did not research that book. Fear kept me from haunting archives and historical sites. I wanted to contain what I knew and felt about my mother. I wanted to acknowledge my blood debt and prove my imperviousness to her power by portraying her with coldhearted lucidity.
Several years later, I wrote The Black Dahlia.
The title character was a murder victim as celebrated as Jean Ellroy was ignored. She died the year before my birth, and I understood the symbiotic cohesion the moment I first heard of her.
The Black Dahlia was a young woman named Elizabeth Short. She came west with fatuous hopes of becoming a movie star. She was undisciplined, immature, and promiscuous. She drank to excess and told whopping lies.
Someone picked her up and tortured her for two days. Her death was as hellishly protracted as my mother's was gasping and quick. The killer cut her in half and deposited her in a vacant lot twenty miles west of Arroyo High School.
The killing is still unsolved.
Excerpted from Crime Wave by James Ellroy. Copyright © 1999 by James Ellroy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.