Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987): Horror in Hollywoodland

The woman is severed, the two halves of her pale, bloodless body placed as carefully in a Los Angeles lot as one would hang a painting in an art gallery. Her face bears a camprichico smile, battered sunken eyes, a pulped nose. Cigarette burns stubble her breasts, one of which is still attached by only a gristle of meat. Beneath the rib cage, nothing. She is disassembled.

Her second half begins above her pubic bone, her legs spread in a necrophiliac's wet dream pose, an open gash like an arrow pointing towards her vagina. Her knees are broken and a triangle of flesh is missing from her left thigh. We can easily read the secrets she will never tell: days of unspeakable torture, and, in her portrait photos, of dreams deformed into horror. She is the Black Dahlia, a young woman named Elizabeth Short, and her murderer will never be found.

My introduction to this disturbing real-life horror story came in the form of James Ellroy's 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, which I read for the first time in 1991. It is the masterful crime writer's fictional account of this infamous unsolved murder case, complete with a wish-fulfilling conclusion. It's a relentlessly intense pulp novel, bursting at the seams with violence, perversion, macho aggression (and weakness), and the gutter-glimmer of a Hollywood buried beneath nearly 60 years of history.

Two young LA cops burning with ambition and haunted pasts, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, become obsessed with the alluring murder victim Betty Short. Glamor photos of her in tight black dresses with her pale blue eyesas well as the gruesome images of the famous corpse she would come to bebecome talismanic. Each finds his life in disarray because of it. Now all of the LAPD is on the case as the largest manhunt in the state's history gathers to find the murderer, but in the end only one man will be strong enough to handle (or, indeed, care) about the truth.

Ellroy rubs our noses in the grit and the dirt of investigating the murder of a beautiful girl on the skids; as Bucky and Lee roust lowlifes in LA's warzones you can smell the cheap liquor, the stench of bum urine, feel the California heat as it shimmers on the blacktop, your bourbon hangover gripping your skull like a vice as you try to slice through inter-departmental bullshit, the politics and the lies, to find out who killed a worthless two-bit beautiful piece of cheap Hollywood cooze (as Ellroy might put it).

The atmosphere is heavy with neon, rain-slicked streets at night and reeking bachelor pads, sunlight filtered through venetian blinds, men and women frozen in a time we can only imagine as film noir. The dialogue is realistic, staccato, and filled with the period tough-guy slang of bebop jazz and cop-shop talk. The plot twists and turns, with a long jaunt to filthy Mexico graveyard, where Bucky literally digs up his past; to the early Hollywood machinations of (real-life) Keystone Kops director Mack Sennett and mobster Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. Lee Blanchard disappears, leaving Bucky to fend off three women: Kay Lake, who loved Lee; Madeleine Sprague, a Dahlia-lookalike; and the Black Dahlia herself, who even in death casts a spell over men.

Ellroy ends his novel with the killer caught; the Black Dahlia's final hours revealed in gut-wrenching detail ("She bit on the gag and blood from where I took the Joe DiMaggio to her teeth came out due to her biting so hard. I stuck the knife down to a little bone I felt, then I twisted it"); one of the saddest of all unsolved murder mystery cases finally laid to rest. The climax is drawn out over the final 30 pages in a jagged wave of secrets uncovered and killers come forth.

Ellroy gives you your money's worth, that's for sure. This book is so dark it's virtually a horror novel; horror not in the sense of Stephen King but in the true sense of the word: awe at the depths to which humanity can sink and how it stains all our lives. Ellroy calls this book his "Valediction in Blood" and it's easy to see why: as a boy, his own mother was killed by an unknown man, and here in The Black Dahlia, he has solved one murder for another. RIP.

Mia Kirshner as Short in the not-so-good '06 movie version

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