The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

The Black Dahlia (L.A. Quartet #1) - James Ellroy

In theory, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a true-to-form noir that follows the recollections of a cop through his off-color criminal investigations and backroom police politics, punctuated by the one of the worst unsolved murders in American history.

In practice, it’s a sex fantasy that occasionally remembers it’s supposed to be a detective novel.

Whether or not the reader likes the book depends entirely on how much they connect with the main character, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, and his partner Lee Blanchard. Most of the book is devoted to how their rising star status in the LAPD and personal friendship is decimated by the Black Dahlia investigation. The case itself frequently takes a backseat to their disagreements, to the point where any generic murder victim could fill her role in the story. She’s a tool to showcase the effects of bringing personal baggage into a murder investigation, nothing else.

The hardboiled elements are the weakest parts of the book, as it tries too hard to harken back to the glitz and grime of classic noir. Between the aggressive nonstop slang, the dozens of noir archetypes played entirely straight, and the numerous crimes encountered by the lead characters, it felt like Ellroy wanted to shove every aspect of 50+ years of tradition into a single book. Many of the book’s set pieces never quite feel real despite their gritty portrayal, and it often requires the reader to have some working knowledge of 1940s Los Angeles to make sense. The hazy veneer of the narrative also works to the book’s disadvantage, as the pacing often feel meandering and disjointed.

Meanwhile, the objectification of the Dahlia herself is uncomfortable. Ellroy has always been forthcoming about his dark lust for Elizabeth Short, and he holds nothing back here. Even so, it’s one thing for a fictional noir character, such as Carmen Sternwood in THE BIG SLEEP, to be a promiscuous mentally ill girl, but it’s another to turn a real-life murder victim into a ravenous kinky sexpot. The “they didn’t publish all the facts in papers!” excuse only holds up so far, and it’s hard not to eye roll at scenes that are supposed to be taken seriously. Combined with the fact that the Dahlia murder isn’t even the central mystery of the book, and it comes off as shameless.

To THE BLACK DAHLIA’s credit, the writing between the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s body and the introduction of the femme fatale is fantastic, and shows how fifty years of hindsight benefit the noir format. The true crime aspect of the book likewise adds a layer of unpredictability: the question isn’t just a matter of whodunit, but why weren’t they ever apprehended? The plot twists, despite relying too much on hardboiled detective clichés, are well-thought out and rarely come off as contrived despite their nature. The quality of the writing shines through the book’s preceding flaws.

It might not be a good book about the Black Dahlia murder, but it’s a decent neo-noir at the end of the day.