Friday, January 07, 2022

the last book I read

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

Dwight Bleichert, known to everyone as Bucky because of the size of his, erm, dental appendages, is one of a large number of American men who emerged from the armed forces after World War II looking for something useful to do, ideally providing a similar level of excitement to being constantly shot at by Nazis. Bucky decides that joining the LAPD is the thing to do, and soon encounters and partners up with Lee Blanchard, who he vaguely knows from his army days as they were both successful amateur boxers. 

Bleichert and Blanchard become mildly legendary in police circles for staging a fund-raising boxing match against each other, and also for their exploits in gunning down four perps on the streets of Los Angeles. So when the gruesome discovery of a young woman's mutilated nude body is made on an empty building plot in the city, Bleichert and Blanchard are quickly assigned to the case.

This isn't just any old clumsy shooting or stabbing in the heat of passion though; someone has taken some trouble over this. The body has been bisected, most of the organs removed, drained of blood, various ritual wounds inflicted on it after death and then brought from wherever the preliminary torturing and murdering was done to the drop-off location and arranged in a stylised sexual pose to be found. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill murder.

Obviously the first thing to do is to identify the victim, and she turns out to be Elizabeth Short, a young woman in her early twenties and an aspiring film starlet who didn't seem to have been getting much legitimate movie work but may have been earning a living in, hem hem, other ways.

Bleichert and Blanchard have an odd sort of partnership outside of the job as well, with an odd three-way relationship with Kay Lake, a woman Blanchard became involved with after he put her abusive mob boyfriend away for a bank robbery. This is strictly frowned upon by LAPD policy, as is the relationship Bucky enters into with Madeleine Sprague, a woman who may or may not have hooked up with Elizabeth Short at one of LA's lesbian bars before her death, and who closely resembles Elizabeth, now nicknamed the "Black Dahlia" by LAPD and the local press.

It turns out Elizabeth appeared in a couple of lesbian-themed, hem hem, "stag movies", and after the acquisition and private screening of one of these by LAPD Lee has an odd turn and flees. It turns out he is haunted by memories of his younger sister, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances and whose body was never found. Lee ends up all the way over the Mexican border in Tijuana,. and when Bucky follows him there it transpires that Lee has been killed and buried on a beach.

Meanwhile the Black Dahlia plot thickens: it turns out that an LAPD officer had hired her for sex only a couple of days before her gruesome demise. Could the killing be an inside job? Well, long story short, the answer is no: by chance one of Bucky's colleagues finds an abandoned shack up near the Hollywood sign with a crusty old blood-stained mattress inside, and this leads Bucky back, via Madeleine, to the Sprague family and in particular their former employee George Tilden, who Bucky traces to another abandoned property in the area and has a climactic showdown with among a gruesome collection of body parts in jars.

But wait a minute, what's this? Holy last-minute plot twist (and, needless to say, PLOT SPOILER ALERT), it turns out that, while George was certainly involved, the prime instigator of the killing was none other than Ramona Sprague, Madeleine's mother. Bucky has to decide whether to shop the now cancer-riddled Ramona for the murder, thereby torpedoing his own future career (since he suppressed the original evidence relating to Madeleine) or keep schtum and wait for nature to take its inevitable course.

James Ellroy write quite a few books before The Black Dahlia in 1987, but it is generally regarded as the first of the novels on which his reputation rests. Most people will be familiar with his work from the classic 1997 adaptation of his later novel LA Confidential. It's interesting to see some echoes of that in this earlier work, in particular the Bleichert/Blanchard partnership as a precursor to the Exley/White one, and Lee Blanchard and Bud White both having an odd mix of brutality and protectiveness towards women as a result of being unable to protect a family member earlier in life (Blanchard's sister and White's mother). I haven't read LA Confidential; the only other Ellroy I've read is American Tabloid, set in the early 1960s and culminating in the assassination of John Kennedy. That one is if anything even terser, denser and more complex than The Black Dahlia, and similarly marinated in booze, cigarettes, amphetamines and a kind of corrosive misanthropy which I would guess might become exhausting if you read too many of these in quick succession. The mid-20th-century LA setting and queasy incest subplot (here involving Madeleine and her father) are strongly reminiscent of Chinatown as well. The Black Dahlia was itself filmed, somewhat less successfully, in 2006

The Black Dahlia is based on real-life events: there really was a woman called Elizabeth Short, she really was an aspiring starlet, she really was murdered in gruesome circumstances in 1947 and she really was given that nickname afterwards. Outside that real-life framework most of the other details and characters in the book are fictional; in particular the killer was never found, although even now someone occasionally pops up to say MY DAD DID IT and get a lucrative TV interview and book deal out of it. The other relevant real-life event is the (also unsolved) murder of Ellroy's mother in 1958, something he credits in interviews with getting him interested in crime as a general topic in the first place. Ellroy revels in the nickname "the demon dog of American crime fiction", a moniker that, rather like Paul Ince's "the guv'nor", would carry more weight if it were not for the suspicion of being self-applied.

One of the things that you'll see if you watch any of the gazillion true-crime video clips associated with the case is that Americans say the word "dahlia" differently from people in the UK. I had a brief moment where I thought whoa, maybe it's just me, but no, British people do tend to say day-lia, while Americans say dah-lia, or maybe dal-lia. This is another of those cases where you laugh indulgently to yourself and say: haha, stupid Americans, but of course if you think about it that is actually a much more sensible way of pronouncing it, since the flowers were named for Anders Dahl, an 18th-century Swedish botanist (rather than, say, Jim Dale).

Anyway, enough horticulture, back to the book: I enjoyed it very much and recommend you read at least one Ellroy novel, though they are dense and dark and rich and you might need to freshen the palate afterwards with something a bit more well-disposed towards humanity in general. As it happens both the Ellroys I've read (The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid) are the first book in a series (a quartet and a trilogy respectively) so they might be good ones to start with.

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