The Black Dahlia murder is the centerpiece of this novel.

No history of Los Angeles is complete without at least a passing reference to the Black Dahlia murder in 1947, when a young woman named Elizabeth Short was brutally tortured, murdered, and mutilated. The case dominated the press for weeks and left a lasting imprint on the city’s image of itself. A total of 750 investigators became involved, producing 150 suspects. Yet the case remains unsolved, despite innumerable theories advanced in a torrent of books, magazine stories, and media interviews. One of the best known of those books was crime writer James Ellroy’s 1987 novel, The Black Dahlia. In the book, published forty years after the event, Ellroy offers his own, entirely fictional theory of the case.

In Ellroy’s imagination, two L.A. cops are drafted into the investigation of the murder. They’re both large men and champion boxers who had recently celebrated their fifteen minutes of fame for fighting each other in a high-profile match. The two men, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, both become obsessed with the case—and that obsession ultimately leads them to their doom. “Our partnership was nothing but a bungling road to the Dahlia,” Bucky muses. “And in the end, she was to own the two of us completely.”

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) 386 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

A fiendishly complex story about the Black Dahlia murder

The plot in The Black Dahlia is the most fiendishly complex I’ve encountered in a long time. Just when you think Bucky has solved the case, something else comes to light, and he’s forced to shift his attention to someone else. And that happens several times. It’s exhausting. However, Ellroy’s style is compelling, and his portrayal of the LAPD during the most corrupt period in its history is fascinating. The out-of-control violence and sheer sadism of some of Bucky and Lee’s colleagues is appalling. Yet I have no reason to believe the picture is anything but accurate.

In a curious Afterword to the novel written in 2006, Ellroy confesses that his obsession with the Black Dahlia case arose from the murder of his own mother when he was ten years old. “The death corrupted my imagination,” he writes. The novel “was a salutary ode to Elizabeth Short and a self-serving and perfunctory embrace of my mother.”

About the author

James Ellroy is the quintessential Los Angeles crime writer. He’s the author of fifteen novels, most notably The Black Dahlia and L. A. Confidential. The two books were part of his L. A. Quartet, four novels published between 1987 and 1992 that gained him a wide following among mystery fans. He’s currently at work on a second L. A. Quartet, having completed two novels to date.

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