The Black Dahlia


James Ellroy


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

December 16, 2006

he Black Dahlia is a noir mystery. Here is how American Heritage defines noir:

noir  (nwär) adj. 


1. Of or relating to a genre of crime literature featuring tough, cynical characters and bleak settings.

2. Suggestive of danger or violence.

Bleak settings? Tough cynical characters? Yes, that is the Black Dahlia. The scene is post World War 2. The protoganist is Bucky Bleichert – he is a boxer and cop on the LA police force. The LAPD stage a fight between Bucky and Lee Blanchard, who is another cop on the force. The publicity from the fight results in a lot of positive press for the police and a bond measure gets passed, allowing all the cops to get raises. Bucky is promoted, and ends working with Lee. They are a team when the body of Elizabeth Short is found – she is a young woman with loose morals (a real “roundheels”, in the words of the era) who has been found cut in half and dumped in a vacant lot. The resulting outcry galvanizes the city, the entire police force works on solving the crime.

One thing I like about this novel is how well Ellroy conjures up LA in the late 1940s. It seems entirely authentic. But it wears me down as I read the book, because the world he describes is relentlessly corrupt, incredibly violent. There is nothing uplifting in this book. Every single character is corrupt! Every one! Racism is rampant. Sex is all about whores and violence. Police interrogations are brutal. The descriptions of torture – well, thank goodness I didn’t see the movie, because some of what is described in this book would be too much to take on the big screen. When I finished reading this, I was exhausted. There is only so much treachery and violence a reader can take. I think I would have given this book a higher rating if it had ended a hundred pages sooner.

In real life, the crime of the Black Dahlia was never solved. Ellroy has created his own ending to the story. It seems over the top, but then the crime itself is outrageous – sawing a woman in half?

I think I will skip further books by Ellroy. Sure, he can write. But the picture he draws is so low, his view of humanity so tarnished, that I don’t want to spend any more time wallowing in his lightless universe.