Books: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy and Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel

A novelization of an unsolved Los Angeles murder and an attempt to solve it, long after the fact

James Ellroy
The Black Dahlia
Mysterious Press, 1998 (originally published in 1987)
ISBN: 0-446-67436-2
325 pages

Steve Hodel
Black Dahlia Avenger
Arcade Publishing, 2003
ISBN: 1-55970-664-3
462 pages (main text)

In Los Angeles in 1947 a beautiful 22-year-old woman named Elizabeth Short was murdered. When her body was found in a vacant lot, it had been horribly disfigured. Newspapers dubbed the crime the Black Dahlia murder and, despite a very large investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department, the case was never solved. The Black Dahlia is a novelization of the story by an accomplished mystery writer. Black Dahlia Avenger is by a retired LAPD detective and purports to solve the crime.

I didn't know of either book or anything about the murder apart from its memorable name before James Lileks mentioned them. It seemed to me that it would be fun to read the books back-to-back. And it was.

In The Black Dahlia, Mr Ellroy takes the few publicly-known facts of the case as his starting point and spins a remarkable story out of them. The book is told from the point of view of an LA cop and former small-time boxer, Bucky Bleichert, who gets involved with the investigation by accident. At first, he'd like to avoid it, but then the investigation comes to obsesses him. Officer Bleichert is smart, but he's not what you'd call politically-correct even, perhaps, by 1940s standards. People get knocked out or at least roughed-up by him and others pretty routinely. Indeed, the book's atmosphere is sufficiently film-noir-like that I found myself imagining the scenes in black and white. The ending has more twists than a snake in an electric chair.

The Mysterious Press edition that I read is needlessly marred by having been typeset badly; there's far too little space between the lines. That makes reading it a chore. Whoever is responsible for that decision should be made to write "I will not set novel type solid" on a blackboard 500 times. Also, "dying" was left out of a sentence (p. 272).

If The Black Dahlia is a good or very good book in a genre in which there are many good books, Black Dahlia Avenger is an astonishing book and I don't know what genre it belongs in. "True crime" would be accurate, but it's really not sufficient.

The author of Black Dahlia Avenger, Steve Hodel, is a retired Los Angeles cop and he appears to have been a very good one, rising quickly to become a detective in the homicide division and having an exceptionally high "solve rate". He joined the LAPD long after the Black Dahlia murder and knew little about it while he worked there. He became interested in the case after his father's death, when he found two snapshots that look remarkably like Elizabeth Short in a tiny photo album that was among his father's personal belongings. Had his father known the Black Dahlia and, if so, how and under what circumstances?

Mr Hodel becomes convinced that his father was the murderer, and by the end of the book he had convinced me too. If that sounds like something of a spoiler, it's really not. It's pretty clear from early in the book that Mr Hodel thinks that his father was the murderer. And besides, that's not by any means the most remarkable thing that Mr Hodel discovers. The book is a completely fascinating, even riveting, read. The title is not just a reference to Mr Hodel's detective work; it's also how the murderer referred to himself in the taunting notes that he sent to newspapers while the police were investigating the crime.

Mr Hodel is not an elegant writer, but he's a very clear writer. Perhaps years of writing police reports taught him the skill. However he came by it, it stands him in good stead here. Creating a circumstantial case almost 60 years after the fact could have easily turned into a mess of maybes. Instead, the case that Mr Hodel creates is very persuasive.

There are a couple of places where Mr Hodel works at elegant writing. Early in the book, he describes how he and his fellow officers felt the need to live up even to the standards of fictional police officers and says, "Fact and fiction morphed into 'faction'" (p.2). Happily, there are very few similar instances.

It was fun to read the two books back-to-back, but the one doesn't inform the other much. The number of publicly-available facts about the case that Mr Ellroy had to go on was pretty small and, in any case, Mr Hodel's book doesn't require additional background. The Black Dahlia is a very good work of fiction and Black Dahlia Avenger is an astonishing narrative of some remarkable detective work.

Update: September 2, 2004
Steve Hodel kindly wrote to say that as he gets new information that's relevant to his investigation he posts the most important facts to his site for the book, in particular to the FAQ section (caution: Microsoft Word document). He also mentioned that he is working on a new book about pre-Dahlia crimes. I look forward to reading it.

Posted: Thu - July 29, 2004 at 10:00   Main   Category: