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The Black Dahlia

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My interest in The Black Dahlia spawned simply from the fact that I loved the film L.A. Confidential and thought it would be more interesting to read something by the same author with whom I had no familiarity other than to read L.A. Confidential. I was not disappointed. Part of this is because The Black Dahlia is the beginning of James Ellroy’s famed L.A. Quartet, of which L.A. Confidential is the third installment.

Dahlia is a more personal story, though, based on the real-life unsolved mystery of the same name. The story focuses on an ad-hoc family formed by Bucky Bleichert, a pugilist cop teamed up with temperamental officer Lee Blanchard, who lives with the disaffected Kay Lake. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when the gruesomely mutilated body of would-be movie star Elizabeth Short is discovered. The rest of the book details the investigation, and the toll it takes on Bucky as his world begins to unravel. It’s a more-traditional noir, focusing more on Bucky than on two or three main characters as at least the film version of L.A. Confidential does.

For the longest time I got Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy confused. Now I realize that Elmore novels generally reside in modern-day Detroit and Ellroy novels in post-War L.A. But a more powerful distinction comes with the prose. Leonard is tough, like Ellroy, but terse, like he’s spitting this out at you while sitting next to you in a bar, knocking back shots. Ellroy’s in the bar, too, but he’s had a few more, so he’s much more lyrical, and instead of shots, he’s lobbing back a bottle of bourbon.

Dahlia covers dark, complicated emotional terrain and does it so well you almost forget that there’s a mystery to be solved (several, in fact); but Ellroy doesn’t disappoint there, either. There are more than enough plot twists to keep a noir enthusiast engaged through all the self-loathing and desperation.

Be warned, if this were a movie (and it will be), it would be NC-17. Graphic, grueling stuff at times, but definitely worth it.

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About David Dylan Thomas

  • I hated the movie L.A. Confidential, but loved this novel – maybe it was the change of focus you pointed out: focusing more on Bucky than two or three main characters…

  • HW Saxton

    I liked “L.A. Confidential”. Adapting an
    Ellroy novel to the big screen is really
    taking on an almost impossible quest.

    His books are so full of minor sub plots
    and characters that are so intrinsic to
    the all around plot that to leave them
    out will give the story major gaps. But,
    to try and include them all would be a
    task of biblical proportion.Considering,
    that L.A Confidential condensed many of
    these into a storyline that did not have
    to sacrifice a lot of color and story is
    a laudable accomplishment.

    The book is always more enjoyable to me
    but I think they did it pretty damn good
    with this film. The acting was top-notch
    and the way they captured 40’s/50’s L.A
    was really realistic.

    I like Ellroy overall and think he’s one
    of the best contemporary writers around
    in the “Roman Noir” field. My only gripe
    with his works are the “Shocking for the
    sake of being shocking” overly detailed
    accounts of gore in his books.He lingers
    too long IMO on the descriptions of the
    killings/rapes etc when he could’ve just
    streamlined into much briefer account
    with the same effect.

  • The Black Dahlia is currently in post-production. It’s directed by Brian De Palma and stars Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett.

    It was shot right here – in Bulgaria 🙂