Mysteries intrigue us and unsolved mysteries inspire us. As obsessed as we are with that age-old question, whodunit, we prefer not knowing, especially when the mystery is as shocking and gruesome as the murder of Elizabeth Short. In January 1947, Short was found in a vacant lot. Her killer had disfigured her face and body and severed her at the waist. He poised her naked body in a sexually inviting poise. Then he disappeared; the crime remains unsolved. Due to her habit of dressing in all black, the patrons at a bar she frequented called her Black Dahlia, and it is by this appellation that we know the case, the Black Dahlia Murder.
From this seed of fact, James Ellroy grows a compelling story about Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a warrant officer drafted to help with the Dahlia investigation. The Black Dahlia has all the trappings of a hard-boiled detective novel–fist fights, gun fights, car chases, femme fatales, and an ever-increasing body count. Ellroy language is brutal and tough; it jabs at you like the punches Bleichert exchanges in the ring with his police partner and boxing rival, Lee Blanchard.
But Bucky’s character arc saves this novel from being just another crime novel. At the beginning, he was rudderless and apathetic. He joined the police force in order to atone for betraying Japanese-American friends to the Feds at the beginning of World War II, and he had no strong career goals until Blanchard began directing his career. When drafted to help with the Dahlia investigation, Bucky felt anxious to return to his own duties. He summed the case up as: “She said yes or no to the wrong guy… finding that wrong guy is going to be a hell of a job.”(1)
As the case matured, as he suffered disillusions about Blanchard and his girlfriend Kay, Bucky discovers that the Black Dahlia held a spell over him. She held the key to his own dark psychic. But it was also the key to his compassion. At times, Elizabeth Short was a sexual obsession, but when he learned to see the face behind the myth, his obsession turned to finding her killer.
Ellroy took no shortcuts in tracing this transformation. Nor did he shy away from the ugliness involved in it. Writing in the first person, Ellroy had Bucky tell his story in full detail, the good and the bad, the just and the evil. In parts it reads like a tell-all confession. That confession is the real story in this novel. Like the murder itself, it was brutal and gruesome. Like looking at the disfigured corpse itself, we DON’T want to see, but we CAN’T help but look.
(1) Ellroy, James (2008-08-01). The Black Dahlia (Kindle Locations 1824-1826). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.