Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987): If You Want Blood You've Got It

My introduction to the disturbing real-life horror story that is the death of Elizabeth Short came in the form of James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia. I've been thinking about Ellroy since he's got this new TV series starting up on the history of Los Angeles murders and scandals, as well as my recent musings about the intersection of crime and horror fiction. The two genres delve into human depravity but approach it in different manners: crime is generally matter-of-fact in its dealings with violence; horror wants to reduce you to whimpers and overwhelm you. It's all in the intent.

The genres seem to split fans too: how many people deny The Silence of the Lambs is horror? And yet it's about a serial killer and a cannibal. But because it's concerned with the procedural aspects of tracking down criminals, and not solely trying to freak you out, it gets a pass on the horror label. Horror, to paraphrase Poe and Lovecraft, is about that singular frisson of terror itself. But The Black Dahlia thrives in both arenas.

I read The Black Dahlia for the first time in early 1991. Why did I choose to read it? I'd never read a crime novel before. In those days I was, like many young men, pretty much obsessed with Sherilyn Fenn and her character Audrey Horne on David Lynch's 1990/91 TV show, "Twin Peaks." Her noir-tastic photo from the previous summer's Rolling Stone magazine was one I couldn't shake.

Then when I saw the artist's (Stephen Peringer) rendering of Short on the cover of the Mysterious Press paperback of The Black Dahlia awhile later, I was struck by its similarity to Fenn. I had to read the book; it was that simple. And it turned out to be one of the most horrifying novels I'd ever read.

The following is a review I wrote of the book nearly 10 years ago for some long-gone website or another, and I think it's wholly appropriate for Too Much Horror Fiction...

The woman is severed, the two halves of her pale, bloodless body placed as carefully in a Los Angeles lot as one would hang a painting in an art gallery. Her face bears a split-open camprachico smile, battered sunken eyes, a pulped nose. Cigarette burns stubble her breasts, one of which is still attached by only a gristle of meat. Beneath the rib cage, nothing; she is disassembled. Her second half begins above her pubic bone, her legs spread in a necrophiliac's wet dream pose, an open gash like an arrow pointing towards her vagina. Her knees are broken and a triangle of flesh is missing from her left thigh. We can easily read the secrets she will never tell: days of unspeakable torture, and, in her portrait photos, of dreams deformed into horror. She will come to be known as the Black Dahlia, a young woman named Elizabeth Short, and her murderer will never be found.

Los Angeles, 1947. Two young pugilistic cops burning with ambition and haunted pasts, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, become obsessed with the alluring murder victim. Glamor photos of her in tight black dresses with her pale blue eyes - as well as the gruesome images of the famous corpse she would come to be - become talismanic. Each finds his life in disarray because of it. Now all of the LAPD is on the case as the largest manhunt in the state's history gathers to find the murderer, but in the end only one man will be strong enough to handle (or, indeed, care) about the truth.

Ellroy rubs our noses in the grit and the dirt of investigating the murder of a beautiful girl on the skids; as Bucky and Lee roust lowlifes in LA's warzones you can smell the cheap liquor, the stench of bum urine, feel the California heat as it shimmers on the blacktop, your bourbon hangover gripping your skull like a vice as you try to slice through interdepartmental bullshit, the politics and the lies, to find out who killed a worthless two-bit beautiful piece of cheap Hollywood cooze (as Ellroy himself might put it).

The atmosphere is heavy with neon, rain-slicked streets at night and reeking bachelor pads, dive bars, cheap smut-movie sets, with sunlight filtering through venetian blinds, men and women frozen in a time we can only imagine as film noir. The dialogue is realistic, staccato, and filled with tough-guy slang of bebop jazz and cop-shop talk liberally peppered with the racist and sexist epithets of the period. The labyrinthine plot twists and turns, with a long jaunt to a filthy Mexico graveyard, where Bucky literally digs up his past; to the early Hollywood machinations of (real-life) Keystone Kops director Mack Sennett and mobster Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. Lee Blanchard disappears, leaving Bucky to fend off three women: Kay Lake, who loved Lee; Madeleine Sprague, a Dahlia-lookalike; and the Black Dahlia herself, who even in death casts a spell over men.

Elizabeth Short's final hours are revealed in gut-wrenching detail that is true horror (She bit on the gag and blood from where I took the Joe DiMaggio to her teeth came out due to her biting so hard. I stuck the knife down to a little bone I felt, then I twisted it). The breathless climax is drawn out over the final 30 pages in a jagged wave of secrets uncovered and killers come forth. Ellroy completes the novel with the killer caught and in his wish-fulfilling conclusion, one of the saddest of all unsolved murder mystery cases is finally laid to rest.

This is a relentlessly intense pulpy crime novel, bursting at the seams with violence, perversion, macho aggression (and weakness), and the gutter-glimmer of a Hollywood buried beneath over 60 years of history. Ellroy gives you your money's worth, that's for sure, and The Black Dahlia a must-read for a horror-fiction fan. It is so dark it's virtually a horror novel anyway; horror not in the sense of Stephen King but in the direst sense of the word: awe at the depths to which humanity can sink and how it stains all our lives. It is only the first book in his LA Quartet, which comprises some of the bleakest, most ambitious, and most violent crime novels ever penned. Ellroy calls Black Dahlia his "Valediction in Blood" and it's easy to see why: as a boy, his own mother was killed by an unknown man, and here he has solved one murder for another. RIP.


Luis said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I own a copy of The Black Dahlia but haven't read it since it has been on my to-read pile for a long time. I am biased towards the horror genre over crime novels but your review has convinced me that there's plenty here to satisfy any horror reader.

Jose Cruz said...

Great piece, Will. I've been intrigued by Ellroy's fiction ever since you mentioned it in the interview. God knows I love my noir, and this (and the other L.A. books) seems like it's right up my shadowy, trash-filled, corpse-strewn alley. Again, fantastic write-up. Your words have inspired me to want to scribble something myself now!

Kevin said...

One of the major strengths of the L.A. Quartet for me is that there's all the twisted psychology and grand guignol violence of splatterpunk fiction of the time, but it's played against the counterpoint of the extremely detailed 1950s America that was idealized during the Reagan era, and it's that tension for me between the two that hunted me for days after I read each one.

Any thoughts on the novel he just before this one: KILLER ON THE ROAD a.k.a. SILENT TERROR? Although the L.A. Quartet are better, this one always seemed to me to be his attempt at doing a horror novel at the time....

Anonymous said...

Another great choice Will.
THE BLACK DAHLIA is among my top ten favorite novels. And the case has intrigued me ever since I was in my local Walden Books as a young teen & decided to page through a book on the shelves called HOLLYWOOD BABYLON in the hopes of seeing some photos of famous acresses in stages of undress.
Well, I got nudity all right, but definitely NOT the kind that I'd hoped for.
When I came across the photos of Elizabeth Short's bisected corpe in that vacant lot I was absolutely shocked. I may have even slammed the book short in disgust.
But then, I was compelled to look again & I can still remember the horror I felt at looking at what had been done to her. because they were in B&W I could stand to look at them ( barely ) as they distanced me enough to be able to tolerate them. And, in some dark way, become facinated by them.
Not in a leering way. I didn't enjoy looking at them, I was repulsed. But, seeing them allowed me realize the atrocities that man is capable of visiting upon man for the first time in a way I hadn't grasped before.
After that day in the bookstore I went to the library & did some reading up on the case ( there wasn't much available at the time ) & continued to be strangely intrigued by it right up until this day.
And, of course, when I read the novel in the early '90s it only exacerbated that awful curiosity about the case.

Oddly enough, though I've read more of his work since then, I'm not a huge fan of Ellroy's. I don't know why.
Well, actually, I do. It's his charactors. I have a difficult time identifying or caring for them other than the protagonists of THE BLACK DAHLIA.

Brian DePalma's film?
Wow, what a travesty. The script was convoluted, Every one of the main characters were horribly miscast IMO, ESPECIALLY the two leads.
It's almost as if DePalma went out of his way to fuck it up.
And yet, in it's own seedy, crap-tastic way it's strangely watchable. Love/hate is WAY too strong of a description for my reaction to the movie. Maybe like/hate is more accurate.
Confused? Don't worry, it makes no sense to me either...


Will Errickson said...

Now that I think about it, yes, I had the exact same experience with Anger's HOLLYWOOD BABYLON! Damn, you're right. The centerfold from hell...

DePalma's movie is indeed a travesty.

Anonymous said...

"The centerfold from hell..."
I like that. Indeed it was. Indeed it was...

Speaking of which, did you ever see Ellroy's special on HBO about his own obsession with the crime & how he related it to his own mother's murder?
If not, I highly recommend tracking it down & watching it. It's probably available online somewhere.
It's pretty harrowing stuff with images & descriptions, information that I was unaware of before watching it. HIGHLY disturbing stuff that's a must see for anyone intrigued by the case, but the sort of thing that is good for one viewing in a lifetime & that's all.
You'll probably want a long hot shower after seeing it & it'll take a few days before it's images will fade from your retinas.

Will Errickson said...

Kevin, you're exactly right about "twisted psychology and grand guignol violence of splatterpunk fiction of the time" in Ellroy's books. I think I just read a couple chapters of SILENT TERROR back in the day but it didn't captivate the way this one did.

I really need to see that Ellroy documentary! The TV show the other night was pretty cool, indeed. He is just nuts, which makes him a perfect TV host.

Guys, let me know what you think after reading BLACK DAHLIA!

Anonymous said...

The docu is called JAMES ELLROY'S FEAST OF DEATH & I believe this link is the bulk of it petaining to the DAHLIA case.


Sarah Norman said...

I just read this book, and while I admired it, I also felt that there was a weird sort of enjoyment, in the book, of the torture aspects; as if there was something appealing about that kind of pain being inflicted on someone (especially a woman?) I don't know if I'm just having a stereotypically, PC, sort of reaction, but it made me quite uncomfortable!

Will Errickson said...

Sarah, yeah, I get your discomfort. Honestly I think Ellroy wants to force us to wallow in the filth. He's got his demons, and maybe likes us along for the ride...

highwayknees said...

I've never read any Ellroy, but I have entertained the notion. I guess it's because I like y horror fictional-although I have read quite a bit of true crime "novels"-for some reason I see Ellroy's fiction as a bit beyond the pale.It's the "wallow" you mentioned that I can't take.