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 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 mutilated. The investigation ultimately led to a broad police corruption scandal.
This book is considered the one that gained Ellroy 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. 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.
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James Ellroy dedicated The Black Dahlia, "To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915–1958 Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood." He included an epigraph: "Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator, My first lost keeper, to love and look at later. —Anne Sexton."
The novel opens during the 1940s and World War II; it is narrated by LAPD officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, a tough, pragmatic former boxer. Living alone, he is estranged from his father, a member of the German American Bund. When his father's membership is 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. He earns a reputation as a "stoolie", and feels guilt for his action. 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 limited as a radio car patrolman in Bunker Hill. Blanchard's ascension to a Detective bureau is threatened, however, by his living with a woman, Kay Lake, to whom he is not married, in violation of police policy. Lake is the former girlfriend of a gangster whose arrest by Blanchard helped make his reputation.
In November 1946, Bleichert and Blanchard are coerced into squaring off in the boxing ring. The match is a promotion to gain public approval for a bond measure to provide a bigger budget to the police, and an eight percent pay raise for everyone on the force. Bleichert is billed as "Ice" while Blanchard is "Fire". Bucky, outweighed and outclassed, decides to throw the fight, as his winnings would be enough to put his father in a good nursing home and get 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. He can honestly keep his winnings, and he 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 Blanchard. Bleichert rebuffs her, despite a powerful attraction, because he sees Lee and her as a sort of surrogate family.
On January 15, 1947, the body of a woman is found in an abandoned lot, severely mutilated and cut in two. The murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed "The Black Dahlia" by the press , immediately becomes a sensation. The public was horrified, and the case overwhelmed the LAPD. Lee is especially disturbed by the case; Bleichert learns that years earlier, his beloved sister Laurie vanished and was never found. The Dahlia's tortured corpse embodies Lee's worst fears about his sister's fate. For his part, Bleichert develops a strange obsession with the Dahlia. He identifies with her troubled, nomadic, and marginal life.
During the investigation Bleichert encounters Madeleine Sprague, a spoiled and wealthy socialite who greatly resembles Elizabeth Short. When he questions her, he finds she had a peripheral relationship with Short; they once had sex because Madeleine was curious about having sex with someone who looked so much like her. She plies Bucky with sex in exchange for keeping her name out of the papers. Bucky agrees to suppress this evidence and they begin a torrid affair, in which he fantasizes that Madeline is the Dahlia. He meets her family— her father (Emmett) built houses with shoddy, unsafe materials; they have collapsed in earthquakes, killing inhabitants. He brutalizes his drug-and-alcohol-addicted wife (Ramona), and emotionally torments his daughters Madeleine (Maddie) and Martha. He ridicules his former best friend and business partner Georgie, who now serves as the gardener at his estate.
Digging into the seedy world of aspiring young actresses who turn to prostitution and porno films to survive, Bucky finds a film of the Dahlia. Lee, meanwhile, had disappeared, thought to have gone to the border city of Tijuana. Bucky starts uncovering the father/son police corruption of persons peripherally involved in the Black Dahlia story. One person commits suicide, and an officer who solicited kinky sex from the Dahlia shortly before she died is convicted and imprisoned. Bleichert gives up Madeleine and commits to Kay Lake. He investigates a variety of people in seeking more information about Short. He hears various and contradictory descriptions about her. She had been raped as a teenager and was rescued by some servicemen. When she saw a doctor after the rape, she learned she was infertile. She became promiscuous with servicemen, as she thought of them as her saviors.
Bucky goes to Tijuana to search for Lee, where he learns that his friend was killed by a Mexican woman. After he tells Kay, she tells him the truth about Lee: he was the mastermind behind the robbery for which Kay's gangster ex-boyfriend was convicted and imprisoned. Lee framed that man and kept the money. Lee was being blackmailed by the only other survivor from the robbery; he killed that man in the gunfight that kicked off his and Bucky's Warrants careers. Bleichert was Lee's unknowing accomplice to that murder. Bucky is horrified, but forgives his late friend.
Bucky marries Kay but two years later, their marriage deteriorates. His career 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. The suicide lived a block from Madeleine Sprague. He ends up talking with a wealthy socialite who lives there and learns more about the eccentric Sprague family. His informant says that Ramona and Georgie Sprague 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 exaggerates a scar the clown has from having been cut ear to ear. He realizes this is much like the Dahlia's facial mutilations. His obsession piqued again, he follows Madeleine around at night. She has made herself up like the Dahlia, and begins to pick 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. This means that Georgie killed Elizabeth Short. Fingerprinting of the hut confirms this.
Bleichert goes to confront Madeleine and her father, and discovers them incestuously entwined on a bed. Madeline is Georgie's daughter, and Emmett mutilated Georgie when he found out. Georgie, a veteran of World War I, 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 kills Georgie for some measure of justice. He knows that turning them in would have had consequences for him because he suppressed evidence. He gradually realizes, based on the clown painting, that Ramona Sprague was also involved in the murder of Short, likely because of the woman'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. After he learns that Madeleine killed Lee in Tijuana, she is declared mentally ill by the court and institutionalized at the state hospital. 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. This is where Elizabeth Short was born.
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 ..
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.
The Black Dahlia was adapted for a 2006 film of the same name by director Brian De Palma. Starring Scarlett Johansson, 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 . 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.
The Black Dahlia has several references to characters having been committed to Atascadero State Hospital—but this institution did not open until 1954. Madeleine is committed there (ch. 3-5), but the hospital's patient population was historically limited to men.
- Black Dahlia – Details of the murder of Elizabeth Short.