The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

15 Aug

This is not a book I would normally choose, and to be fair to my great taste in literature, I didn’t choose it.  It was a selection from one of my book club members.  I finished this book about a month ago and have read several others in the meantime but it’s taken me some time to really digest my thoughts and compose them in such a way that I write a review that’s not just a rant.  It should have some value, right?  The review, not necessarily the book.

 If you’re not familiar with this book (or the movie that followed), it’s about the events surrounding the 1947 torturous murder of 22 year-old Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles.  What followed was the greatest manhunt in California history.  Sadly, even after reaching national attention and notoriety, 65 years later the murder remains unsolved.

 

The author took the basic facts of the investigation and wove in his own characters and details and ultimately solves the case.  In his young life, Mr. Ellroy experiences great trauma with his own personal and life-changing encounter with murder and clearly draws on that experience to paint a picture that’s dark and perverse.  It’s a book based on fact but rooted in fiction.  If after reading my review you decide to read the book, I would recommend you first do some research on the case itself.  It would be helpful to know where the lines of fact and fiction have been blurred.  Not blaming anyone for my own choice, but in hindsight, I wish I had researched a bit.  I was under the impression it was a book of actual events, not an author’s stab (no pun intended) at creative license.

The story is seen through the eyes of flawed Bucky Bleichert, ex-prize fighter and something of a boy wonder on the police force.  He and fellow cop (and boxing rival) Lee Blanchard are assigned the case together.  Collectively they delve into the short life and mutilation death of the young lady later dubbed The Black Dahlia.  Through the stress and obsession of the case, their friendship, work ethic and love for the same woman will be tested significantly. Both are fixated with the Dahlia, driven by dark needs to know everything about her past, to indentify and capture her killer and to possess the woman even in death. Their quest will take them on a hellish journey through the underbelly of post-war Hollywood, to the core of the dead girl’s twisted life, past the extremes of their own psyches-into a region of total madness.

Each character is described in great detail.  Corrupt cops, city officials, pimps, GIs, Mexican bar owners, prostitutes, society matrons… they tend to get confusing.  I found it hard to follow at times and wasn’t sure which characters needed to remain in the forefront and which could be forgotten.  Another aspect I struggled with was the vernacular.  I understand cop-speak and have read many books set in the ‘40s.  What was confusing was that the author used so many words and expressions that frankly, I got tired of looking up to understand what they meant.  Many I didn’t find at all.  I don’t typically read sitting in front of a computer with the internet to rescue me.  I found that when I encountered one of these characters or expressions, I would just continue on and hope it wouldn’t be important later. 

Ultimately I found very little was important and I pushed myself simply to finish.  Needless to say this wasn’t a book I enjoyed at all.  It was crude, violent, gratuitous and gory at every turn.  I don’t have a prudish outlook and can handle most subject matter, but it just felt as though the author tried to push this to the limit.  Maybe he wanted us to experience the gruesome and unfathomable crime that was committed.  Maybe he wanted some exposure to the notorious murder that might light a fire under a detective’s chair and get the case re-opened.  Maybe he wanted to tell a little of his own personal story and used the Dahlia as his vehicle.  Whatever it was, I found it fell short in every way.

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