Book Review: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Preview… Admittedly, I am not much of a fan when it comes to detective novels. In fact, mystery is probably my single least favorite genre—that’s right, I’d rather read romance or young adult almost any day.
Bearing this in mind, my decision to recommend James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia” (a novel that is based on some of the facts surrounding the famous real-life murder that has been unsolved since 1947) may seem a little out of character. Allow me to explain…
The first novel in Ellroy’s “LA Quartet” series has many elements that I can appreciate, including complex, highly motivated characters, an intriguing plot line, a dark sense of purpose and a large personal stake on behalf of the author. Above all else, it is the ability of the prose and dialogue to transport one back in time to 1940’s Los Angeles that makes the novel so enjoyable.
We follow Bucky Bleichert, ex-pugilist cop, as he begins his partnership with fellow ring man, Lee Blanchard. The two are popularly referred to as “Fire and Ice” for their unique fighting styles (and personalities). The two become good friends, even though Bucky becomes smitten with Lee’s live-in companion, Kay Lake.
On an early morning stakeout, the pair discovers the savagely mutilated body of aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short. The exaggerated brutality sickens them. Bucky becomes obsessed with finding the killer as Lee races toward Tijuana to find some answers of his own.
Bucky falls in with an intriguing Black Dahlia impersonator, Madeline Sprague. She agrees to a sexual relationship in exchange for a cover-up regarding her connection to the Dahlia. Bucky’s obsession with solving the mystery leads to his eventual madness, destroying his career and almost causing him to lose both of the women he loves. In the end, he is able to identify the killer, but only he (and the reader) will ever learn the (fictional) truth behind one of history’s most brutal murders.
Largely influenced by his own life experiences, Ellroy writes for his mother, who was murdered by an unknown killer when he was just 10 years old. The author explores these feelings directly in his memoir titled “My Dark Places”.
You may like this book if…you enjoy crime novels; you like well-written period pieces; you are intrigued by the real-life murder mystery; you delving deep into the psyches of a book’s characters; you like it when a book shows that people can be messed up—no matter what their socioeconomic status; you have a fondness for other members of the 4-part series (which includes “LA Confidential”).
You may not like this book if…you shy away from gory, savage details,; you need a book to become interesting immediately if it is to be worth your time; you want to follow likable characters, even if you don’t generally like detective stories; I suspect you’ll enjoy this one.