Book #11 – The Black Dahlia (James Ellroy)

Perhaps I am simply too sheltered to enjoy this book, but I honestly thought it was dreadful. I quite enjoy crime novels and would actually rate ‘Crime’ as my all time favourite genre, whether for reading or watching television, and when I heard this was a fiction novel based on a true crime, I was very keen. In fact, I voted for this to be our next Book Club book (ah yes, in other news, I’ve joined a Book Club, at long last!)

I am now regretting this decision (the book choice, not the Book Club!), especially since my sister is in my book club and has an even more sensitive disposition than I do – all I could think while reading was “Beth is going to hate this!”

The first 20% of the book was no worries, other than being ridiculously boring and full of bad language, which I can block out fairly easily and get through many books scattered with it. I can even appreciate that the language brings a deeper level of reality to the story.

This first portion of the novel was just plain confusing. It was based almost entirely on the background of the main character, Dwight Bleichert or “Bucky” – an ex-boxer turned cop who lives like he boxes: cautious, not standing out, and never becoming great because he refuses to take any risks that might hurt him. Lee Blanchard, also an ex-boxer, is Bucky’s opposite: confident, risk taking and knows what he wants and how to get it. Blanchard’s girlfriend, Kay Lake, takes an interesting liking to Bucky, and in order to increase publicity for the police force and secure a budget increase (and thus bigger pay packets for the members of the force) Bucky and Blanchard finally meet one another in the boxing ring, something Bucky had deliberately avoided during his boxing career. The result of the fight (which, true to nature, Bucky had planned to throw due to his cowardly nature and even bet against himself) secures Bucky a position in the Warrants team, partnered with Blanchard – a big step up for him, and one that could see his policing career finally move towards something bigger than beat cop.

Initially, their partnership is going really well – Bucky is learning a lot from the more daring and experienced Blanchard, and their fame from securing the police pay rise is still surrounding them. Together with Kay, the three of them are enjoying a strange friendship/playing house experience which somehow works well for them, until one day the body of a young woman is found, badly mutilated and obviously tortured before she was killed. Both the men take it hard, but Blanchard is particularly affected by it as his sister, Laurie, disappeared when he was a teenager and the fresh murder scene reminds him of what might have happened to her. The young woman is Elizabeth Short, or ‘The Black Dahlia’ named so for her penchant for dressing in alluring black clothing and picking up men.

The murder was the first really confronting thing in the book. Up until then it was kind of boring, with a bit of a creepy vibe in the Bucky-Kay-Blanchard friendship, but from here it got significantly worse. Several members of our Book Club just stopped reading at this point. If it wasn’t for Mrs Gwynn’s Laws on Devouring Books, I would have stopped reading too!

Mrs Gwynn’s Laws on Devouring Books: Law #2 – If a book is begun, it must be finished – no matter how painful, badly written or just plain boring it is.

While Blanchard becomes obsessed with solving the Black Dahlia case in a way that suggests he may be becoming personally involved and making it about his little sister, Bucky just becomes obsessed with the Black Dahlia herself. He is drawn to her, attracted to her, and even dates her look-alike, Madeleine Sprague. Bucky finds out that Madeleine slept with the Black Dahlia, but she promises him sex in exchange for covering up her relationship with the dead girl. Somehow, Bucky doesn’t see a problem with this arrangement, and happily agrees. He starts a relationship with Madeleine in which he imagines she is the Black Dahlia while they are having sex. Again, I wonder if I am too sheltered to appreciate whatever made this novel into a best seller, but seriously. Police corruption, fantasising about a dead girl… that’s pretty creepy…

Madeliene’s family is completely messed up – her father, Emmett, has made his fortune building shoddy houses many of which have since fallen and killed their occupants. Ramona Sprague, Madeleine’s mother, is addicted to drugs and seems to never be sober. Madeleine’s ugly sister is Martha, brilliant, but not gifted with Madeleine’s beauty, and thus ignored by her father. Emmett also has an old war friend who he has employed as a gardener, who it turns out is Madeleine’s father. Bucky thinks nothing of covering up Madeleine’s relationship with the Black Dahlia; as far as he can see there is nothing at all connecting the family with her murder. That is, until they find out that she was murdered in one of Emmett’s poorly built cottages.

While Bucky is covering up his girlfriend’s link to the murdered girl, Blanchard is slowly going crazy, doing drugs to help him stay awake and work the case. But when they find a pornographic movie starring the Black Dahlia, Blanchard completely loses it. He heads to Tijuana in search of the killer, but doesn’t come back.

Bucky marries Kay after he discovers what happened to Blanchard, but he can’t stay away from the Dahlia case. He loses his marriage and his career chasing it, just to discover that he cannot turn in the murderer without admitting his own corruption and the fact that he covered up Madeleine’s connection with the Black Dahlia.

I won’t ruin the ending, but the last portion of the book was the only part where I actually started to relax and enjoy it as it actually becomes about detective work and crime solving instead of lusting after a dead woman and finding prostitutes who will dress up as her.

I’m so glad to be finished this book.

I know that this book put Ellroy “on the map” and perhaps it is some kind of great book-reading sin to give it a dreadful rating – but I honestly hated this book. I can see some small amount of decent writing skill in it, so I will give it one star for that alone. I think that’s pretty generous!

★☆☆☆☆☆

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