Cherchez la femme


James Ellroy’s breakthrough 1987 crime novel The Black Dahlia opens with a rookie cop being given words of advice about how to solve cases. “Cherchez la femme,” his mentor says. The rookie cop’s French isn’t up to the task. “What?” “Look for a woman,” translates the mentor. Or as Ellroy’s life and work obsessively reiterate: “Look for the woman.” The Black Dahlia elevated Ellroy to the pantheon of US crime writers alongside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It was dedicated to his mother with the inscription: “Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood.” The reference was to Jean Ellroy’s murder in 1958 when Ellroy was 10. The crime went unsolved. Ellroy, both a canny self-publicist and a genuinely extreme personality, has deployed this original trauma to devastatingly powerful effect in his writing and public persona. In his case, “Cherchez la femme” leads with gothic inevitability back to the same woman: his dead mother.

more from Ludovic Hunter-Tilney at the FT here.