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.