Friday, February 11, 2005

Black Dahlia (by James Ellroy)

Somewhere, maybe on the interweb, maybe in a newspaper, I read about how James Ellroy is the most literary crime writer and that his growth as a writer can be tracked through his four crime novels set in Los Angeles, the first of which is the Black Dahlia. Now, this is a reference to a gruesome true crime: in 1947, the body of nascent actress Liz Short was found, hacked in half with a butcher’s knife, possibly while alive, and with various defilements. She was a young woman who had moved in from small town America to Hollywood, hoping to make it big. It is not that little is known about her life so much as there are so many stories, the reality is hard to discern, although it is accepted that she’d hit the spots, dressed in black, trying to make out with servicemen and, reputedly, Marilyn Monroe. It is possible that she was a cheap prostitute who was killed by some fellow she annoyed. This is unlikely if one story about her is true: it is alleged that she lacked female genitalia. The last known fact about her life is that she was picked up by a man from the Biltmore hotel. The crime has never been solved, although more than 50 confessed, out of guilt for other stuff they’d done, to get their moment of fame, the result of an obsession, whatever. In his book, Severed, John Gilmour claims that the killer was identified by the LAPD but died before they could get him.

This provided the stuff of Ellroy’s novel. His narrative ultimately provides an answer to the question of who killed Liz. Like many crime thrillers, the killer’s identity is never obvious until near the end and in fact, the killer barely gets a mention until the final chapters. As you’d expect, there is a close focus on the actual investigation, so there are elements of the police procedural here. But the story is really focused on one policeman, Bucky Bleichert, and his relationship with the force and obsession with getting the answer. The start reminded me so forcibly of a recent NYPD Blue episode that I think there must have been a borrowing: the first 50 pages are devoted to a boxing match between Bucky and fellow cop Lee Blanchard and the pressures brought to bear on Bucky to make sure he’d fight. Post-fight, they are united as dream partners “Fire” and Ice” with a plum assignment working for the DA, until all hell breaks loose when Liz’s body is found.

All hell breaks loose with the storyline as well, with Ellroy following up multiple threads. Lee become totally obsessed with tracking down Liz’s killer – this trail leads him off to
Mexico, where his own past catches up with him. Bucky is reluctant to get involved, as he wants to keep on with what they’d been doing. Not that he has any choice. Being the “star”, he of course gets the best leads, and we follow him as he tracks Liz’s life: the three major elements being guys from the armed forces, “lezzies” and a porn film. This is all against the internal politics of the police: the DA doesn’t want any publicity about things that might make their victim lose public sympathy or make him look bad (he’s up for promotion). Things get real bad for Bucky when he implicates colleagues in some dodgy dealings: he’s put on foot patrol but by this time has caught the bug to solve the crime himself. Another motif played out is the way in which the early building developers really ripped people off, with their shoddy building techniques and dodgy deals with the city council. Not easy how this might all fit in with finding the killer, but it does: for a start, it is when some of these crappy buildings are being torn down that they find the spot where Liz had actually been killed. There’s more.

Oh, and being a fairly masculine sort of novel, Bucky has to be either a complete bitter loner or there has to be a woman or two involved. Two as it happens, both with their own complications: Kay, who just happens to be the wife of his partner, Lee and Madelaine is the daughter of one of the property developers and just happens to like going out of an evening dressed up as the Black Dahlia. Her sister, Martha, is actually my favourite character even if Bucky didn’t think much of her (at first):

I shook her firm hand feeling sorry for her; she caught what I was thinking immediately. Her pale eyes fired up as she yanked her paw away.

Next up in the quartet is the Big Nowhere, a phrase that pops up twice in the Black Dahlia (being able to search within books can be useful! Thanks, Amazon.) as indicating space beyond the control of the LAPD.


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