The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy


A fictionalised account of the real life murder of Elizabeth Short in LA in the late 1940’s, James Ellroy explores the unsolved case and LA’s seedy underbelly in the Golden Age of Cinema. You might recognise James Ellroy’s name from his best seller LA Confidential, (which was made into a really good film which I reviewed HERE). This book was also made into an apparently forgettable film in 2006.

The unsolved case of the murder of the young woman, dubbed by press at the time as the Black Dahlia, in an effort to sensationalise the case, has fascinated people for years, and many books have been written about the details of her life, her case, and her grisly death. Elizabeth was said to have come to LA to be in films, that she was beautiful, there are rumours that she engaged in prostitution to survive (these are unsubstantiated). When you read about her, she is so young, alone in a city of dreams that became a nightmare for many girls who headed out to find fame on the silver screen. Since we are talking about a murder, please be aware that the book and the real events are pretty gruesome, so this certainly isn’t a post for everyone.

In the novel, Ellroy explores the case through the eyes of Dwight Bleichard, a young cop who ends up on the case with his partner and soon friend, Lee Blanchard. The LA they live in revolves around Hollywood and the studios, with organised crime being rife, a war just over, and impressionable girls pouring in to the city hoping for their shot at stardom. Whilst Ellroy does play with the facts, his story does contain a lot of truths. He certainly captures the era very well, as well as the history of the city, and the impact that the discovery of the body had on the police investigating and the public at large, as well as the media storm that followed. The book focused most on the way that the two become obsessed with the killing, and how it brings them together and drives them apart.

In a lot of ways, it’s a very dark book, and not an easy read, be warned. But we are talking about a killing in which a young woman was killed, clearly tortured, and then cut in half, washed clean and dumped in an empty lot, naked. It goes to some dark places in searching through a city that could house such a killer. It’s bleak, but it is well written, and the pressures on the investigators of the case is made clear. If you like your crime books or your LA history, this book might be for you. Or if you’ve long been fascinated by the case.

A mugshot of Short when she was arrested for underage drinking.

One thing that struck me as I read this book, as much as we talk about and theorise about the Black Dahlia, we’re talking about a young woman called Elizabeth, and although the book is clear about the circumstances of her death, perhaps calling her a call girl or a compulsive liar, when there is not evidence to support all this, isn’t entirely fair? Is it OK to read about this as entertainment? Or is it important to keep her story alive? To immortalise her?

As someone who loves Hollywood history and who works in movies, I come across her story every now and then, and feel the pull towards the mystery of her death, mostly because I feel incredibly sad for this beautiful girl, full of dreams, who perhaps put her trust in the wrong person, and paid for it dreadfully. No one should have to experience that. She was someone’s little girl.

Read It If: you loved LA Confidential, are into true crime or unsolved crime or LA history. But it’s a dark book, certainly not for the faint of heart or the sensitive.

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