Book Review: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

book reviews



The Black Dahlia
James Ellroy

e-book | 384 pages


Amongst the grassy plot of land, a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, lay the disfigured body of a young woman. Split in half, her legs spread, grass shoved inside her most intimate of places; the upper half of her body mutilated with cigarette burns, slashes on her breasts and a hideous slice through her face, contorting her mouth into the widest of bloody smiles.

This woman was tortured and murdered, bled dry then dumped for passers-by to find. And find her they did. That crisp winter morning in January 1947 was the opening of one of the longest unsolved murders in LA history. It was a murder that horrified and yet captured the fascination of many people.  It has inspired books, films and multiple theories. Like the Jack the Ripper murders in London in 1888, there is no shortage of material on this shocking crime.

I heard about this murder, but recently decided to read the famous novel written by James Ellroy, on which a film was based, and have become morbidly curious about this case myself.

The Black Dahlia is Elizabeth Short. She was known by many names; Betty and Beth being the most frequent it seems, and she was a Boston-born fame-seeker who was on a mission to make it in the movies and marry a serviceman.  Her nickname, The Black Dahlia, appears to have been a press concoction, blending her penchant for dressing in black when prowling the bars for new love interests, with the title of a then-famous film, The Blue Dahlia. Many men came forward and confessed to the murder though the real culprit was never caught. Theories float around but without the evidence, that is all they are.

Ellroy’s novel looks at The Black Dahlia case from the perspective of some police officers in the LAPD. It follows their untangling of the case, and even solves it – however it is a work of fiction inspired by the murder, and so one must always remember it bears little to the real facts.

Ellroy himself is a fantastic writer with a troubled past. His own obsession with the Black Dahlia case comes from the tragedy that stuck his family when he was young. His mother was murdered. He is said to have transferred his unresolved feelings about his mother’s murder to Short. From this fascination, Ellroy eventually wrote this novel – about two police officers and their own obsession with the Dahlia case.

Bucky Bleichart is our main character. He is a former boxer who finds himself moving up to warrants thanks to a friendly rival. I find myself reluctantly liking Bucky at first – maybe from a sense of pity. This like becomes tolerating later in the novel as things take their toll on him. I much preferred his partner, Lee Blanchard, who is a far more interesting character with a bit more depth to him.

Bucky and Lee become involved in the Dahlia case when one of their warrants leads them to the nearby crime scene and the severity of the case and publicity lead to them being transferred temporarily to the case where they get a bit too involved.

The novel is a slow starter. I found myself bored of the boxing talk and the warrants and wondered how it would all fit in to the Dahlia case, but as soon as the murder was introduced things began to pick up.

As a mystery, Ellroy does well to keep the truth covered and each twist leads to another. The ending didn’t blow me away, but it certainly made me feel glad I read the book. It was satisfying, but at the same time there is the bitterness that comes with the fact that this is a fictional ending to a factual crime. Who knows who the real murderer is, and really, we may never know.

I haven’t seen the films based on this novel, so I think I will try to find them and review them at some point, but from what I have heard, none of them measure up and the book is superior (as is the case in most adaptations!)

Overall, I would say despite the initial slow pacing and the fact the main protagonist is a bit boring, the Black Dahlia is a good read, and will certainly entertain those who like true crime novels.

As my first introduction to Ellroy, I can say that I will certainly look at his other work now on the merit of this novel.

I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


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