The Black Dahlia (novel)
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1st ed. cover
|Cover artist||Jacket design by Paul Gamarello
Jacket illustration by Stephen Peringer
Art direction by Barbara Buck
|Genre||Crime fiction, noir, historical fiction|
|Publisher||The Mysterious Press|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback), audio cassette, audio CD, and audio download|
|Pages||325 pp (1st ed., hardcover)|
|ISBN||0-89296-206-2 (1st ed., hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3555.L6274 B53 1987|
|Preceded by||Killer on the Road (1986)|
|Followed by||The Big Nowhere (1988)|
The Black Dahlia (1987) is a neo-noir crime novel by American author James Ellroy, taking inspiration from the true story of the murder of Elizabeth Short. It is widely considered to be the book that elevated Ellroy out of typical genre fiction status, and with which he started to garner critical attention as a serious writer of literature. The Black Dahlia is the first book in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, a cycle of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles, which is portrayed as a hotbed of political corruption and depravity. The Quartet continues with The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. 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."
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The novel is narrated by LAPD officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, a tough, pragmatic former boxer. Living alone and friendless, he is estranged from his father, a member of the German American Bund. When this was discovered by the police, Bleichert preserved his job by reporting two Japanese-American friends (Sam Murakami and Hideo Ashida), resulting in their deportation to Manzanar. This earns him a reputation as a "stoolie", which he also feels personal guilt over. While caught up in the Zoot Suit Riots, he meets Officer Lee Blanchard. The savvy, well-connected Blanchard is sure of promotion to Sergeant, while Bleichert feels pigeonholed as a radio car patrolman in Bunker Hill. Blanchard's ascension to a Detective bureau is threatened, however, by his cohabitation with a woman, Kay Lake, to whom he is not married, in violation of police policy. Lake is the former girlfriend of a gangster whom Blanchard famously arrested.
In November 1946, Bucky and Blanchard are coerced into squaring off in the boxing ring. The match is a promotional tool to gain public approval for a bond measure that will give the police a bigger budget, and an eight percent pay raise for everyone on the force. Bucky is billed as "Ice" while Blanchard is "Fire". Bucky, outweighed and outclassed, decides to throw the fight, his winnings enough to put his father in a good nursing home and get proper care for his dementia. A victory, however, would earn him a plainclothes job in the Warrants Division, and a date with Rita Hayworth. During the fight he decides to try and win, but fails. However, he is able to keep his winnings honestly and gets the job in Warrants anyway, because his performance impresses District Attorney Ellis Loew. Partnered with Blanchard, 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 Lake becomes attracted to Bucky, telling him she doesn't sleep with Lee. Bucky rebuffs her, despite a powerful attraction, because he sees Lee and Kay as a sort of surrogate family.
On January 15, 1947, the body of a woman is found in an abandoned lot, horrifically mutilated and cut in two. The murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed "The Black Dahlia", immediately becomes a sensation, horrifying the public and overwhelming the LAPD. It appears to hit Lee especially hard; years earlier, his beloved sister Laurie vanished and was never found, and the Dahlia's tortured corpse embodies all of Lee's worst fears about what might have happened to Laurie. Bucky, for his part, finds himself developing a strange obsession with the Dahlia. He falls in love with her, seeing her troubled, nomadic, desperate existence as akin to his own.
During the investigation Bucky comes across Madeleine Sprague, a spoiled, wealthy and promiscuous socialite and wannabe actress who greatly resembles Elizabeth Short. When he questions her, he finds she has a peripheral relationship with Short; they once had sex because Madeleine was curious what it would be like to sleep with someone who looked so much like herself. She plies Bucky with sex in exchange for keeping her name out of the papers. Bucky agrees to suppress evidence and they begin a torrid affair, with Bucky fantasizing that Madeline is the Dahlia. He meets her twisted family—a corrupt, cruel father (Emmett) who builds houses with shoddy, unsafe materials that have killed people in earthquakes, brutalizes his drug-and-alcohol-addicted wife (Ramona), emotionally torments his daughters Maddie and Martha, and ridicules his former best friend and business partner (Georgie), who now serves as the gardener.
Bucky gets involved in the seedy world of down-on-their luck wannabe actresses who turn to prostitution and porno films to live, and finds a film of the Dahlia. Lee, meanwhile, runs away, seemingly to Tijuana. Bucky starts uncovering scandals and police corruption that lead to a suicide and the imprisonment of an officer who solicited kinky sex from the Dahlia shortly before she died. This upset leads him to finally surrender to his love for Kay Lake, and he breaks things off with Madeleine. Then, he investigates underaged prostitutes, a dope-dealing anesthesiologist who saw Elizabeth Short a few days before she died, a wife-beating, alcoholic sailor who had sex with her for money, and a whole host of different tales about Elizabeth Short. She is described as having a vivid imagination, but also clumsy, careless, lazy, a pathological liar, and promiscuous. It turned out that she had been raped as a teenager but was rescued by some servicemen. When she saw a doctor after the rape, she learned she was infertile, and so became promiscuous with servicemen, seeing them as her saviors and her only hope of becoming pregnant.
Bucky goes to Tijuana to search for Lee, and eventually discovers he was killed by a Mexican woman, confirming it when he digs up his rotting corpse. He tells Kay, and learns the truth: Lee was the mastermind behind the robbery that Kay's gangster ex-boyfriend went to prison for. The convicted man was framed by Lee, who kept the money. Lee was being blackmailed by the only other survivor from the robbery, whom Lee disposed of in the gunfight that kicked off their Warrants careers—this makes Bucky Lee's unknowing accomplice to murder in connection with Lee's theft. Bucky is horrified, but forgives his late friend, and he and Kay marry.
Two years later, their marriage deteriorates and Bucky's career is destroyed; he is transferred to the Science Investigation Division and becomes a lab technician. While doing routine work on a wealthy man who has committed suicide, he begins thinking of the still unsolved Dahlia case because the suicide lives only a block from Madeleine Sprague. He ends up talking with the wealthy socialite who lives there and learns more about the eccentric Sprague family, particularly how Ramona and Georgie would have the kids engage in highly inappropriate, gory reenactments of World War I trench warfare on the Spragues' front lawn. Bucky also eyes a painting of a clown with garish makeup that exaggerates the scar the clown has from having been cut ear to ear, much like the Dahlia's facial mutilations. His obsession piqued again, he follows Madeleine around at night. She, seeing him, has made herself up like the Dahlia, even acting like her, and begins picking up strange servicemen for one-night stands in seedy places. She and Bucky rekindle their affair, causing Kay to leave. The city decides to tear down the last four letters of the "Hollywoodland" sign, and as the police clear the area they find a hut with walls covered in dried blood. They call in Bucky, and he realizes that the hut, owned by Emmett Sprague, is where Georgie lived, which can only mean that Georgie killed Elizabeth Short. Fingerprinting of the hut confirms it.
He goes to confront Madeleine and her father, and discovers them incestuously entwined on a bed. It turns out Madeline is Georgie's daughter, and Emmett mutilated Georgie when he found out. Georgie, son of a doctor and a veteran of WWI, has a morbid fascination with dead things. Lee had also deduced who the killer was, but used the information to blackmail Emmett Sprague for $100,000, which facilitated his trip to Tijuana. Bucky, knowing that turning them in will have consequences for him as well after his having suppressed evidence, kills Georgie for some measure of justice. But then he realizes, based on the mutilated clown painting, that Ramona Sprague was also involved in the murder, because of Short's resemblance to Madeleine; Emmett, Madeleine, and Martha were all accomplices, as they each knew part of what had happened. Even Kay Lake played a part; she picked up the $100,000 for Lee.
Bucky is removed from the force. Madeleine is declared mentally ill and institutionalized, after Bucky discovers she killed Lee in Tijuana; while 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, the same city that Elizabeth Short was born in.
The Black Dahlia was adapted for a film of the same name by director Brian De Palma in 2005 and released in 2006. It was, however, a critical and commercial failure, with the consensus being that it had been poorly made and acted, and at times appeared incoherent . The latter fault may have been caused by De Palma's drastic editing of the finished product, which initially ran for three hours and eventually cut down to two.
The Black Dahlia has several references to characters having been committed to Atascadero State Hospital—which did not open until 1954. This includes Madeleine's commitment there (ch. 35)—Atascadero's patient population is all male.
- Black Dahlia – Details of the murder.