I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them.So begins James Ellroy’s wonderfully twisted reworking of the infamous 1940’s murder case of Elizabeth Short, dubbed The Black Dahlia by the LA gutter press due to her penchant for wearing short black dresses. Ellroy’s novel of the same name was first published in 1987 to widespread acclaim and is the accepted first book in the loosely connected “LA Quartet”.
Bucky Bleichert is our narrator, our man on the inside, our guide to the increasing psychosexual-tinged criminal investigation that takes place through the books 383 pages. An ex light-heavy boxer with protruding teeth once ranked in the national top 10 by Ring magazine Bucky ends up working alongside Lee Blanchard, another ex boxer of altogether more powerful dimensions, before they eventually become partners in the Warrants section of the LAPD.
Blanchard and Bleichert or Fire and Ice, as they come be known throughout the force after an epic LAPD boxing match, end up being detailed to the Black Dahlia case where they both, in their separate ways, end up becoming obsessed not only with the case but with the Dahlia herself. Blanchard has issues revolving around the disappearance of his sister, which in some ways must match those felt by Ellroy himself about his murdered mother, whereas Bleichert gets slowly dragged into a deranged sexual obsession that leads to a hotel room and a hooker.
Los Angeles in all its post war, smog-bound, hazy neon glory is fully realized throughout The Black Dahlia with all its power to seduce and frighten its inhabitants. The period detail is wonderfully recreated with the language used by Ellroy both jazz-flecked in its sound, street smart in its apparent authenticity, and filled with descriptions of activities dripping with depravity.
The bar was a urinal trough. Marines and sailors masturbated into it while they gash dived the nudie girls squatting on top.The book is not without flaws however. The plot is interesting but the way the ends are drawn together at the books conclusions seems forced and generic. It appears that the crime fiction genre was still very much within Ellroy’s particular mindset whilst writing the novel and he perhaps relies slightly too much on the genres expectations . The language, whilst described above as excellent, is not as fluent and avant-garde as is often suggested about Ellroy, which prevents this book from fully realizing his clear talents.
Having now read the first 50 pages of The Big Nowhere, his second book in the LA Quartet, it is clear that The Black Dahlia is an important developmental work. Here is where Ellroy starts his transition away from the traditional crime fiction novels of his early days towards his potentially more important later LA Quartet novels The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz and his “big political books” as he terms his latest Underworld USA trilogy.
The Black Dahlia is an excellent crime fiction novel that is darker and deeper than most similar works, yet in this book Ellroy is still fully ensconced in the restrictions of the genre and this book doesn’t quite break free of those in the way I had first hoped. Whilst flawed, this bookcertainly begins to establish Ellroy's credentials as the only true demon dog of American crime writing.