The brutal 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short—-the Black Dahlia—- remains one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history. For writer James Ellroy, it took on a greater, grim significance. In June of 1958, person(s) unknown killed his mother. Some wondered if her murderer was also Short’s. While this seems unlikely, both killings remain unsolved, and both haunt Ellroy's career.
Inevitably, he wrote a book inspired by the Dahlia. His seventh novel, it established his name beyond the world of mystery readers. Ellroy has been celebrated as the man who reinvented the hardboiled detective novel, and made it literary. The Black Dahlia, the first of his "L.A. Quartet," weaves a fictional narrative around the actual case. Ellroy combines a detailed, unsentimental portrayal of 1940s Los Angeles with an homage to the hardboiled genre. The novel's noir elements occasionally border on camp, but the story remains powerful:
The room was a cordite-reeking slaughterhouse. Bobby De Witt and a Mexican man lay dead on the floor, bullet holes oozing blood all over them. Brain spatter leaking fluid covered one entire wall; De Witt’s neck was bruised from where I’d been throttling him. My first coherent thought was that I’d done it during my blackout, vigilante vengeance to protect the only two people I loved. Fritzie must have been a mind reader because he laughed and said, "Not you, boyo. The spic is Felix Casco, a known dope trafficker. Maybe it was other dope scum maybe it was Lee, maybe it was God. I say let our Mexican colleagues handle their own dirty laundry and let’s go back to LA and get the son of a bitch who sliced the Dahlia" (163).
Dahlia features doppelganger detectives, Bucky Bleichert, the narrator, and Lee Blanchard, his partner. They’re set against each other in a celebrated cop boxing match, and later work together. They fall in love with the same woman, Kay Lake. Bleichert also becomes involved with a femme fatale named Madelaine Sprague. She comes from a wealthy, eccentric family and has a fondness for dressing as Elizabeth Short. Madelaine has a connection to the case, though the nature of that connection eludes Bleichert for most of the novel. The book also features a corrupt father-and-son cop team, zoot zuited hepcats, mid-century racism, old-style dyke bars, sleazy hotels, insane suspects, an occultic stag film and haunted road trips to Tijuana. Ellroy recreates the feel and sweat of the boxing match, the slang and brutality of the recent past, the seediness of night-tourist Mexico.
The author has obviously made a study of this case. He includes both authentic details and events suggested by popular rumor. For example, popular (though unsupported) 40s innuendo suggested Short may have been a lesbian or bisexual, and in this novel, Bleichert pursues a lesbian connection to the case. Ellroy also invents a good deal from the depths of his own mind; not all of this serves the story equally well.
As a result of the coverage the case received, the Dahlia became a symbol for every sin in L.A.'s history, and possibly America's as well. Ellroy recognizes this fact, and provides a solution related to the multiple meanings Elizabeth Short's killing has been forced to carry. As a result, the plot becomes convoluted and grotesque in the final chapters. It’s a strong, bleak novel, and it established Ellroy’s distinctive voice, but many readers will find that his later, (comparatively) more restrained work makes for better reading.
At the same time, if you've never read Ellroy, this book makes a good first read. If The Black Dahlia holds your attention to its dark, twisted conclusion, you will likely enjoy Ellroy's other major works.
The Black Dahlia
Author: James Ellroy
First published in 1987
A movie version of The Black Dahlia was released in the autumn of 2006. It simplifies the plot, yet still seems convoluted. Although an interesting adaptation with an effective 1940s noir feel, it lacks the power of the novel.