Sunday, July 28, 2019

James Ellroy's THE BLACK DAHLIA Is a True Classic in the Genre of Crime Fiction

Everyman's Library has just published a new hardback volume containing all four of the novels that comprise James Ellroy's first L.A. Quartet. Ellroy was at my local bookstore a few weeks ago promoting this book and his new novel, This Storm, which is the second novel in his new L. A. Quartet. With signed copies of both books in hand, it seemed like a good time to return to The Black Dahlia, the first novel in the original series.

Set in booming and corrupt post-World War II Los Angeles, it takes as its starting point one of the most famous unsolved murders in the history of L.A., or of the rest of the country for that matter. The victim was a promiscuous young woman named Betty Short, who seemed to captivate everyone who fell into her orbit, at least as Ellroy imagines it. Short was tortured over several days before her body was cut in half, disemboweled, and abandoned in a vacant lot.

Short was only one of a number of young women who came to Hollywood at this time, dreaming of success, only to come to bad end. But the press dubs Short The Black Dahlia, and the discovery of her brutalized body turns into a sensational murder case that captures the city's attention--a case that can make or break reputations. Spearheaded by an ambitious deputy D.A., the police devote thousands of man hours interviewing witnesses, potential subjects, and tracking down leads. 

Caught up in the maelstrom are two young cops, Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert. Former boxers, the two men bond over the murder case. They become partners and ultimately fall in love with the same woman. They also fall in love with the Black Dahlia, and the case consumes both of them with irrevocable consequences for them and for the woman, Kay, with whom they are involved.

This novel is in many respects a coming of age story for Bucky Bleichert, who is at the center of the novel. Beginning as an idealistic young patrolman, Bleichert will be tested and corrupted by the Dahlia case in ways he never could have imagined, and the reader watches in awe and horror as he descends into the hell of his obsession with Betty Short.

Mixing fictional characters with real ones, The Black Dahlia is also a stunning portrait of postwar Los Angeles and of the people and the forces that were shaping the city at that time. James Ellroy's own mother was raped and murdered a decade or so after Betty Short, when Ellroy was still a young boy. As in the case of Betty Short, the killer was never found, and this may explain Ellroy's fascination with the Black Dahlia. Blunt, brutal and beautifully written, this is a riveting story and a true classic in the field of crime fiction.

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