The Black Dahlia (novel)

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The Black Dahlia
JamesEllroy TheBlackDahlia.jpg
1st ed. cover
AuthorJames Ellroy
Cover artistJacket design by Paul Gamarello
Jacket illustration by Stephen Peringer
Art direction by Barbara Buck
CountryUnited States
SeriesL.A. Quartet
GenreCrime fiction, noir, historical fiction
PublisherThe Mysterious Press
Publication date
September 1987
Media typePrint (hardcover & paperback), audio cassette, audio CD, and audio download
Pages325 pp (1st ed., hardcover)
ISBN0-89296-206-2 (1st ed., hardcover)
813/.54 19
LC ClassPS3555.L6274 B53 1987
Preceded byKiller on the Road (1986) 
Followed byThe Big Nowhere (1988) 

The Black Dahlia (1987) is a crime fiction novel by American author James Ellroy. Its subject is the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles, California, which received wide attention because her corpse was horrifically mutilated and discarded in an empty residential lot. The investigation ultimately led to a broad police corruption scandal. While rooted in the facts of the Short murder and featuring many real-life people, places and events, Ellroy's novel blends facts and fiction, notably in solving Short's crime when in reality her murder was unsolved. James Ellroy dedicated The Black Dahlia, "To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958 Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood." The epigraph for The Black Dahlia is "Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator, My first lost keeper, to love and look at later. -Anne Sexton."

This book is considered the one that gained Ellroy critical attention as a serious writer of literature, expanding his renown beyond the crime novels of his early career.[1].[2] The Black Dahlia is the first book in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, a cycle of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles. He portrays the city in this period as a hotbed of political corruption and depravity. The Quartet continues with The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.


During World War II, LAPD officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, a former boxer, is estranged from his father, a Nazi-sympathizer. When his father's membership in the German American Bund is discovered by the police, Bucky is forced to allow two Japanese-American friends to be sent to an internment camp, for which he feels guilt. During the Zoot Suit Riots, Bucky meets Lee Blanchard, who is rising through the ranks in the department. Lee's career is threatened, however, because of his cohabitation with Kay Lake, in violation of LAPD policy. Kay is the former girlfriend of a gangster whose arrest by Lee helped make his reputation.

In November 1946, Bucky and Lee are coerced into a boxing match which is being held to promote a proposed bond measure to increase the LAPD's budget. Bucky, outweighed and outclassed, initially tries to throw the fight, as his winnings would be enough to put his dementia-addled father into a good nursing home, but decides to win as that would get him a plainclothes job in the Warrants Division. He fails, but he gets the Warrants job anyway. Partnered with Lee, the two men quickly become friends. They work well together until an arrest goes wrong and they kill four men in a gunfight. Meanwhile, Kay becomes attracted to Bucky, telling him she doesn't sleep with Lee. He rebuffs her, despite a powerful attraction, because he sees her and Lee as a surrogate family.

On January 15, 1947, the hideously mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, or the "Black Dahlia", is found in an abandoned lot and becomes a media sensation. Lee is especially disturbed by the case; Bleichert learns Lee's beloved sister Laurie vanished without a trace years earlier. For his part, Bucky develops a strange obsession with Short, identifying with her troubled, nomadic, and marginal life. As he investigates the murder, Bucky encounters Madeleine Sprague, a spoiled socialite who greatly resembles Short and had a one-time sexual encounter with her. In exchange with keeping her name out of the papers, Madeleine plies Bucky with sex, causing him to fantasize that Madeline is Short. Bucky meets her family, which endures constant abuse from her father Emmett, a property developer.

Digging into the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, Bucky finds a film of Short and uncovers a familial web of police corruption peripherally tied to her murder. One person commits suicide, and an officer who solicited kinky sex from Short is convicted. In the midst of this, Bucky gives up Madeleine and commits to Kay. As he continues his investigation, he hears contradictory descriptions about Short, learning that she had been raped as a teenager, was rescued by some servicemen, learned she was infertile, and became promiscuous with servicemen as she thought of them as her saviors. Meanwhile, Lee disappears, seemingly having travelled to Tijuana, Mexico.

As he searches Tijuana, Bucky learns that Lee has been murdered. After he tells Kay, she tells him the truth about Lee: he masterminded the robbery for which Kay's ex-boyfriend was convicted, framing him and keeping the money. Lee was being blackmailed by the only other survivor from the robbery, who was killed in the gunfight. Bucky is horrified, but forgives Lee. Bucky eventually marries Kay, but their marriage deteriorates. He is eventually transferred to the nascent forensics division, where he performs routine work on a wealthy suicide who lived a block away from Madeleine. Digging deeper, Bucky learns from a wealthy socialite that Madeleine's mother Ramona and family friend Georgie had the kids engage in gory reenactments of World War I trench warfare on the front lawn.

Bucky sees a painting of a clown with garish makeup that resembles a Glasgow smile, similar to Short's facial mutilations. His obsession piqued again, he follows Madeleine around at night. She has made herself up like Short, and begins to pick up strange servicemen for one-night stands. She and Bucky rekindle their affair, causing Kay to leave. Meanwhile, as the city tears down the last four letters of the "Hollywoodland" sign, a hut is discovered with walls covered in dried blood. They call in Bucky, who realizes that the hut, owned by Emmett Sprague, is where Georgie lived and had murdered Short.

Bucky confronts Madeleine and Emmett, who he finds incestuously entwined on a bed. Bucky lays out the sequence of events: Madeline is the daughter of Georgie, who had a morbid fascination with dead things since his return from the war; Lee deduced he killed Short, but used the information to blackmail Emmett for $100,000, which led to his trip to Tijuana and his subsequent murder by Madeleine. Bucky kills Georgie for some measure of justice, but knows that turning in the rest of the family would blow back on him for suppressing evidence. He gradually realizes that every member of the Sprague family were accomplices in some way, as well as Kay, who picked up the $100,000 for Lee.

Bucky is removed from the force while Madeleine is declared mentally ill and institutionalized. Emmett and Ramona Sprague escape punishment. The novel ends with possible hope for Bucky's future as he and Kay reconcile and have a baby in Boston, Massachusetts, Short's birthplace.


The Black Dahlia was one of numerous neo-noir novels published in the late 1970s and 1980s. Ellroy was known as an author of crime fiction but this novel is considered to have gained him critical notice as a serious writer of literature.[1]

Ellroy wrote three other novels in what he termed the L.A. Quartet, a cycle of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles. He portrays the city in this period as a hotbed of political corruption and depravity. The Quartet continues with The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.

Film adaptation[edit]

The Black Dahlia was adapted for a 2006 film of the same name by director Brian De Palma. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart, it was a critical and commercial failure, with the consensus being that it had been poorly made and acted. It was criticized as sometimes appearing incoherent [1]. The latter fault may have been caused by De Palma's drastic editing of the finished product, which initially ran for three hours and he eventually cut down to two.

Graphic novel[edit]

In 2013, Matz and David Fincher adapted James Ellroy's novel into a comic called Le Dahlia noir, with Miles Hyman ( as the illustrator. Originally published in French, it was published in English in 2016 as The Black Dahlia: A Crime Graphic Novel.


The Black Dahlia has several references to characters having been committed to Atascadero State Hospital, but this institution did not open until 1954. The character Madeleine is committed there (ch. 3-5), but the hospital's patient population was historically limited to men.

Madeleine tells her father she and Bucky met at an art show at Stanley Rose's bookstore. However, that store closed permanently eight years prior in 1939.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Phillips, Keith (Dec 1, 2004). "James Ellroy". Onion A/V Club.
  2. ^ Tibbetts, John C.; James M. Walsh (September 1999). Novels into Film: The Encyclopedia of Movies Adapted from Books. Checkmark Books. ISBN 0-8160-3961-5.

External links[edit]