A Review of “The Black Dahlia”

The Black Dahlia
Novel by James Ellroy
Movie Written by Josh Friedman and Directed by Brian De Palma

Lately I seem to be watching movies before reading the book.  When I was in high school, this never happened.  Even if a movie novelization was released, I would read that before watching the movie.  At this point in my life, however, it seems easier to just spend the two hours on the film than a few days on a book.  Case in point, it took me almost three weeks to read this book, and it is the first book I finished this year.  No, I don’t typically read that slow, but I just haven’t had the time.  A self-imposed writing schedule, chores around the house, and the responsibilities to the book shop demand more time than I can often give to books.  I miss them.

I had wanted to watch The Black Dahlia for a while.  I’ve never really be in to film noir, mainly because I hadn’t got around to watching it.  I’ve always loved the look of it, however.  This movie seemed promising, so I checked it out of the library for “guy’s night”.  It isn’t a bad movie, but it certainly suffers in the second half because it starts to get too convoluted and confusing.  Imagine my surprise when the novel is much more complicated, yet pulls things together more successfully.  In the film’s defense, I’ve read that an hour of footage was cut at the studio’s request.  This may account for the failure of the second half.  If they ever restore the footage, I will certainly watch it again.

As for the novel, it is based on The Black Dahlia murder in 1947.  The novel is narrated by Buck Bleichart, an ex-boxer turned cop.  The novel starts with his background and how he met Lee Blanchard and how both of them became golden boys in the warrants division.  Life was looking rather good for the two men until Elizabeth Short’s body was found, carefully posed, in an empty lot.  The Dahlia murder was gruesome, almost fitting serial-killing artistry, yet it seems to have been a one-off.  The murderer was never caught.  This novel takes many of the facts behind the investigation and weaves a coherent narrative and provides a solution to the case, albeit one that is entirely fictional.  You won’t read this novel and know what happened.  To the best of my knowledge, the killer in this novel didn’t exist in real-life.  Ellroy has woven fact and fiction quite brilliantly.

As wonderful and masterful as the mystery is plotted, the journey of the characters make this novel a fascinating read.  Elizabeth Short almost becomes a patron saint for Bleichart, she affects the lives of those investigating her death, and those involved with the investigators.  It is an interesting examination of how, despite being dead, someone can still hold a great pull over another person’s life.  Given that Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was a child, this theme is understandable and brilliantly explored.

I’m not sure I could recommend this novel to everyone.  Given the details of the real-life murder, the story must descend into some very dark territory.  It is gruesome, horrific, and chilling.  There is corruption on the police force as people seek to cover details of personal knowledge of Short’s missing days.  Many characters are very flawed individuals, brutal, racist, perverse.  Noir has never been noted for a light touch, and this being a novel rather than a movie from 1940 (which would be required to follow the code), it has the ability to portray whatever human depravity is necessary to speculate on the murder.  Yet, Ellroy somehow manages to end the novel with a ray of hope in the lives of Bleichart and his wife Kay.  If you are a fan of neo-noir, this book will be right up your alley.  If you love well-crafted mysteries and don’t have a problem with gruesome content, you’ll probably like this book.  Otherwise, you may want to avoid it.  It can be quite disturbing.

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