Book Review – The Black Dahlia by James Ellmore

First published, 1987

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

“The stench got to me, so I walked over and opened the window. Looking out, I saw a group of uniformed cops and men in civilian clothes standing on the sidewalk on Norton, about halfway down the block on 29th Street. All of them were staring at something in the weeds of a vacant lot; two black-and-whites and an unmarked cruiser were marked at the curb. I said, ‘Lee, come here.’
“Lee stuck his head out the window and squinted. ‘I think I see Millard and Sears. They were supposed to be catching squeals today, so maybe—’
“I ran out of the pad, down the steps and around the corner to Norton, Lee at my heels. Seeing a coroner’s wagon and a photo car screech to a halt, I sprinted. Harry Sears was knocking back a drink in full view of a half dozen officers; I glimpsed horror in his eyes. The photo men had moved into the lot and were fanning out, pointing their cameras at the ground. I elbowed my way past a pair of patrolmen and saw what it was all about.”
20% in, Chapter Seven, The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Based on the real-life grisly torture-murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, whose body was discovered, mutilated and dissected in the undergrowth of a mostly-deserted industrial estate in Los Angeles in 1947.

The story follows ex-boxers, now police officers, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, and the woman they both love, Kay Lake. As Bucky and Lee look into the murder of the Black Dahlia, their investigation leads Bucky to a grand mansion, a series of lesbian bars, and right across the country to Boston. Meanwhile Lee, keen to exact justice on a newly-released bank robber, heads to Mexico and a strange fortune. But will the team find the killer? Will Betty Short ever get justice? And when will Bucky stop seeing her face when he looks at his wife?

An awesome story, visceral and bloody, I had to look away from the page from time to time because the writing is thorough and unflinching. The characters were really well captured and frankly leapt off the page, and the author’s voice feels authentic to 1940s police-speak.

There were a fair few instances of extraneous apostrophes (for example: “DA’s” meaning multiple DAs, “straight A’s” – no apostrophe needed, “B&E’s” for “B&Es”, etc.) and a strange absence of the second E from the word ‘heroes’. Having not read Ellroy before, I have no idea if this is a stylistic choice of his (which I could respect) or something missed in editing (which I wouldn’t).

That said, it’s a powerful, shocking and atmospheric read and I’d give it a big old thumbs up.

Side note: the 2006 Brian De Palma film with Mia Kirshner, Josh Hartnett and my favourite, Fiona Shaw, is pretty dang faithful to the book. Look out for kd lang’s cameo as the tuxed-up lounge singer at the nightclub.

kd lang in The Black Dahlia (2006)