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The people I talked to were mostly barflies, day-time juicers eager to suck up to authority or gab with someone other than the usual boon acquaintances they found in gin mills.Pressing for facts, I got sincere fantasy – virtually every person had Betty Short giving them a long spiel taken from the papers and radio when she was really down in Dago with Red Manley or somewhere getting tortured to death. The longer I listened the more they talked about themselves, interweaving their sad tales with the story of the Black Dahlia, who they actually believed to be a glamorous siren headed for Hollywood stardom. It was as if they would have traded their own lives for a juicy front-page death.
I have never been happier to finish something and walk away. Consider this review an exculpation of self-disgust for not throwing this book out of a train window when I had the chance. Problem is it’s a library book. And librarians frown on such conduct…
Ellroy introduces us to two former boxers, Lee Blanchardt and Bucky Bleichert, both rising through the ranks of LA’s police force after the Second World War. Eager to win the public relations war, a corrupt wannabe DA arranges a boxing match pitting the officers against each other. The fight bonds the two men in a firm friendship and wins them a ticket out of uniform duty to work as plain clothes police in Warrants. Deputy District Attorney Ellis Loew has two star officers the papers love and his ascendancy is assured.
On 15 January 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in Leimart Park near 39th Street and Norton Avenue, Los Angeles. This is not fiction. The newsies gave her the nickname, the Black Dahlia, riffing on a popular movie at the time starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (the actress who inspired the character of Lynn Bracken in Ellroy’s LA Confidential). From here on in, the author continues to blur the lines between fact and fiction by having Blanchardt and Bleichert investigate Elizabeth Short’s murder.
Both men become obsessed with the gruesome details of the young woman’s death, trying to fill in the details of her missing week of drunken flings with offshore navy servicemen and bent cops that preceded it. An acquaintance of the victim is found with a can of film that reveals Short involved in a stag picture. Her own father gleefully sells childhood photos of her to the press to make a quick buck. Loew’s efforts to pin the murder on a convenient stooge repeatedly fail and eventually he is unable to prevent the media from turning his carefully managed spin of a young innocent girl murdered in her prime, into a grotty tragedy, the inevitable fate for a down-at-luck call girl in Hollywood, who cruised lesbian bars for free drinks and lied to everyone she met.
As the story progresses Blanchardt and Bleichert seem less and less like partners on a murder case and more like split personalities sharing the same obsession. The papers call them Fire and Ice, in remembrance of their boxing days, and the two see-saw in their respective morbid fascination with the Black Dahlia. Bleichert is our narrator and initially he only wants to get back to his career in Warrants. He is disgusted by the grandstanding of the Assistant DA and hasn’t the stomach for homicide cases. We take his word that his partner Lee is the one obsessed with the case. Then he meets a doppelgänger for Elizabeth Short, an heiress who frequents lesbian bars. Slowly the narration takes on Blanchardt’s obsessiveness, just as he mysteriously drops out of the book.
This is an ugly story, about people committing ugly acts. It purports to realism by featuring actual persons involved in the case – the newsman Bevo Means and the primary suspect for a time ‘Red’ Manley – but this is a world painted black, with not a glimmer of hope, nor a spark of humour. It is a turgid dirge that apes moralism but offers no narrative conclusion for any of its events. Had I spent today’s train journey just staring out the window at the houses and towns as they passed in a blur, it would have been time better spent than on this sledgehammer subtle tale of corruption, misery and a lost dead girl from 1947.