James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA: to Soothe post-True Detective Blues.
March 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
As the end of True Detective drew near, I began to panic. I had become addicted to the madness, the obsession and the convoluted relationship between Marty and Rust, and I didn’t know where I’d get my fix when the penultimate eighth episode was done and dusted. True Detective was unlike anything I’d ever seen or read, so I had no idea where to start looking for something similar. Fortunately, Pulp Fiction came to the rescue, and recommended that I start out with James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA.
As you may be aware, The Black Dahlia refers to an actual, exceptionally gruesome murder. Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a star-struck would-be actress, was found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in January of 1947. Her murder remains one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles’ history, and has long been a subject of fascination for scholars and entertainers alike. Ellroy’s version of The Black Dahlia’s tale is fictionalized by necessity, but remains true to the facts as much as possible.
Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is working his way through the ranks of the LAPD when he is presented with a major PR opportunity. An amateur boxer with a reputation for his cool-headedness in the ring, Bucky is asked to go up against Lee “Mr Fire” Blanchard, a colleague in the Warrants division, to drum up public support for the police department. Despite being lighter than Blanchard, Bucky finds that competing in the fight might open up doors that would otherwise remain closed to him – so he accepts.
When the fight between the now-infamous “Mr Fire and Mr Ice” drums up enough support for the police to be approved for an 8% pay rise, Bucky finds himself faced with more opportunity than he knows what to do with. He takes a promotion and a partnership with his rival, Lee Blanchard, in the Warrants division. As they develop a partnership, Blanchard and Bleichert find that their contradictory natures are, in fact, complementary, and the pair find professional and personal success together. On a routine bust one night, Lee and Bucky find themselves in the middle of a crime scene – the worst murder that LA has seen in decades.
Elizabeth Short is found bisected at the waist with her innards removed and her mouth slashed from ear-to-ear. Despite not technically being on the homicide beat, the prolific partnership of Blanchard and Bleichert are assigned to the case of the murder of the Black Dahlia.
As the investigation deepens, Lee and Bucky become obsessed with finding and apprehending the sadist responsible for Betty Short’s horrific murder. And just as their boxing strategies differ, Lee and Bucky find their obsessive tendencies manifesting in different ways. Bound by the woman they both love, they are forced to work with and against each other in order to stay sane, and to keep one another alive.
The case of the Black Dahlia is, as you know, unsolved. And, as we also know, Ellroy’s account is a fictionalized one – but that doesn’t stop him from naming a culprit. I expected the novel to focus on the degradation of Bleichert and Blanchard’s mindsets, and I would have been happy with this – but Ellroy stepped it up a notch, and ID’d a killer in the process. And just in case this alone wasn’t enough for the reader, the killer’s identity comes in the form of a major twist – and THEN, it takes a roaring bend to tie up ends that you didn’t even realize were loose. After all that, the story ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note – what more could you want?
I think I’m a bit late in jumping on the Ellroy bandwagon. He’s already a highly respected crime writer, and considered one of the best contemporary noir authors. But I’d like to rhapsodize anyway. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a compelling examination of the way in which trauma, both direct and indirect, has an interminable knock-on effect. It is an investigation of the life of a homicide detective, and a lament for the way in which his life is irrevocably changed by the atrocities he faces daily. It is a portrait of psychopathy on several levels, and a study of the way in which human beings use each other. It is dry, sparsely written and utterly compulsive. It is haunting, affecting and highly disturbing, and I couldn’t put it down.
As with any true crime derivative, I think it’s important to remember the victim. In the case of THE BLACK DAHLIA, Ellroy never forgets that at the heart of this fascinating story is a girl whose life was cut too short by the worst means possible, and that our fascination comes at the cost of her life. However she chose to live her life, Betty Short never got the chance to turn it around, or even to decide whether she wanted to. That is the tragedy that permeates the pages of Ellroy’s addictive noir novel, and never once does he cheapen the experience of the oft-forgotten victim.
If you’re missing Rust and Marty’s dysfunctional partnership, and you’ve a taste for hard-hitting noir, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a must-read.
Are you a Brisbanite? Then surely, you know where to go by now – go and visit Pulp Fiction in Central Station and ask them to order you a copy.
I actually bought my copy of The Black Dahlia from the wonderful second-hand bookstore, Bent Books! Located in Brisbane’s West End, Bent Books is full of unexpected finds and lovely people – go check them out too.
Got a recommendation for a book like True Detective? Leave me a comment below!