Saturday, July 18, 2009

148. The Black Dahlia – James Elroy

September 2008
History: Published in 1987, The Black Dahlia is the first book in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, a cycle of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood, which is portrayed as a hotbed of corruption and depravity. The Quartet continues with The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.
Plot: Set during the inter-war and post World War II years in Los Angeles, Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert is a former boxer and a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. The prologue segment begins during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 where Bleichert comes to the rescue of Officer Lee Blanchard, who is caught up in the middle of the rampage between American servicemen and Mexican zoot suit gangs. They apprehend a wanted criminal and take refuge in an abandoned home while waiting out the riot. Here they size each other up as boxers and cops. Afterwards Bleichert reflects on how Blanchard is eventually promoted to Sergeant while he continues his mundane job as a radio car patrolman in the Bunker Hill section of L.A.
In November 1946 Bucky is offered a promotion if he agrees to an inter-departmental boxing match against Lee in hopes it will help raise support for a political bond issue increasing pay for the LAPD but with a slight tax increase. After realizing that his fathers' health is failing and in need of constant care he decides to take up the offer. Bucky also meets Kay Lake, a former artist who lives with Lee, and the two form a relationship. After the fight he is transferred to Warrants Officer as a reward and partnered with Lee Blanchard. Although Bucky shows interest in Kay he doesn't proceed further due to his friendship with Lee.
While Bucky and Lee are on a stakeout they see a commotion on the corner lot of 39th street and South Norton Avenue. There they witness the discovery of the mutilated body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short. Dubbed "The Black Dahlia" by the press the case shocks the public and overwhelms the LAPD, hitting Lee especially hard. Meanwhile, Bucky feels that the large number of detectives and policemen on the case are adequate, and requests reassignment back to Warrants but the request is denied by Ellis Lowe, Deputy Los Angeles D.A.
Acting on a hunch while canvassing for clues he meets the mysterious and alluring Madeleine Sprague, a wealthy and promiscuous socialite who resembles the Dahlia. Bucky soon makes a proposition to Madeleine who agrees to a relationship and in return Bucky suppresses a potential connection to the Dahlia. While the case rolls on, Lee, becoming more and more detached, begins to act erratically, and eventually disappears after a confrontation with their superiors and with Bucky.
While simultaneously juggling a relationship with Kay, Madeleine, and looking for Lee, Bucky works closely with Russell Millard, an immediate superior and an honest cop with a genuine heart to find the killer of Beth Short. Under pressure from Ellis Loew, Bucky is temporarily paired with veteran detective Fritz Vogel, a brutal and self-serving cop also on the case. However, Bucky intentionally blows his assignment with Vogel and is retaliated against by Loew. In an act of revenge Bucky uncovers a scandal involving Fritz and some evidence he was suppressing. This results in him being sent back to the grind of foot patrolman in a dangerous section of South Central L.A. He then breaks up with Madeleine.
After the incident with Vogel, Bucky sets out for Tijuana searching for Lee. Upon his return he only then marries Kay.
Two years pass, and with Bucky's detective career destroyed he transfers to S.I.D and becomes a lab technician. While working on the QT with Russ Millard he begins dwelling on the murder of Elizabeth Short after uncovering some overlooked clues and people associated with her. However, his marriage ends up in jeopardy after a suicide investigation of a wealthy businessman piques his curiosity about the Sprague family. He quickly reignites his relationship with Madeleine Sprague. He also develops a deeper obsession with Beth Short and her murder.
With his marriage to Kay in ruins, and the uncovering of more clues Bucky finally discovers who is responsible for the murder of Elizabeth Short, however this is not revealed to the reader, because in real life the murderer was never found. The novel ends with possible hope for Bucky's future with Kay.
Review: The mysteries of James Ellroy.. in which the evil has started to ooze out into public view, where the cops have been so desensitized by their contact with that evil that they are often as brutal as the criminals, and where crimes are not necessarily ever solved. Bucky's fascination with the murder is contagious, and as a reader I found myself wanting to know more about the true Elizabeth Short and the fictional version of her in the book. I had to read on to find out what would happen, but after I had finished the book, I was disappointed in the ending, as well as in the true life version. I had a difficult time coming back to the book, the story itself about Bucky didn’t interest me. Black Dahlia is a particularly personal work, with the famous unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947 standing in for the tragic murder of Ellroy's own mother in 1958. Similarly, the cop, Bucky Bleichert, who is consumed by the case and descends into madness, eerily parallels Ellroy himself (who has written about his own tortured fascination with his mother's slaying in My Dark Places). Where we tend to read mysteries because we like to solve puzzles ands want the reassurance that good triumphs over evil, Ellroy offers us instead unsolvable crime and the unsettling sensation that evil may well triumph and that the good guys may be as dangerous as the bad guys.
Opening Line: “I never knew her in her life.”
Closing Line: “I put Lee Blanchard’s house on the market and caught a flight to Boston.”
Quotes: “It was the nude, mutilated body of a young woman, cut in half at the waist. The bottom half lay in the weeds a few feet away from the top, legs wide open.”
Rating: Mediocre.

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