The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So much praise has been heaped upon James Ellroy's "The Black Dahlia" - the book being hailed as a "neo-noir masterpiece" - that I was really curious whether I will share the enthusiasm. Well, yes and no. It is an ambitious and accomplished literary work of art, yet to me it comes quite short of a masterpiece.
Although the novel is closely based on the famous torture and murder 1947 case of Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia, as the press dubbed the woman), it is a work of fiction rather than a true crime story. Many main characters are fictitious, but they are skillfully woven into the framework of actual events of the case. Mr. Ellroy's novel is as much about the case that has captivated the attention of millions of people as it is about an unusual love triangle of Lee, Kay, and Bucky (a quadrangle, rather, with the addition of Madeleine).
The book is very brutal. Most cops portrayed in the book are thugs - some are thugs because they were born that way and they do not know any other way but the way of the violence. Some, like Lee Blanchard, behave like thugs because of their traumatic experiences in the past. Kay Lake summarizes it neatly telling Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert "You are just frightened of anything that doesn't involve fighting and cops and guns and all that." The scene where four confessors to the crime are tortured by a bent detective is one of the most horrific I have ever read. The interrogation scene of Joseph Dulange, even if not violent, is so genuinely painful to read that one has to give Mr. Ellroy credit for his literary talent. From a detective novel point of view, the slow process of reconstruction of Elizabeth Short's last days and hours is fascinating.
For me, the absolutely best thing about the book is the language. The novel was written in 1986 or 1987 yet the language is that of 1947. Raymond Chandler's prose comes to mind; it is perhaps a bit more literary than Ellroy's, but the idioms, the phrasing, and the intangible "mood" are the same. Without a dictionary, I wouldn't know what "goose egg", "roundheels" or "ixnay" mean. Perhaps even more interesting is the use of words such as "Japs", "lezzies". "Dagos", "spics", etc. as completely proper words that describe what they meant to describe in 1947. Since that time, on the wave of massive cultural change, these words morphed from proper to derogatory to virtually illegal to use today. The mechanisms of people behaviors, their motives and weaknesses have not changed of course, but their expression in 1947 is free of all the cultural corrections and filtering that have happened since then.
So what's wrong with "The Black Dahlia"? Why isn't it a masterpiece? First of all, I find the denouement quite disappointing - it feels contrived, artificial, cheap, suitable for a second-rate thriller. A deeper problem lies with the mass fascination with the Black Dahlia case, which is the backdrop of the novel. Mr. Ellroy does not explain the roots of this hysteria; he tries but fails to convincingly show why Lee and Bucky are so obsessed with Elizabeth Short.
Finally (and that's my personal pet peeve), why do we need an Afterword in which Mr. Ellroy explains the reasons for writing the book? A literary work of art should stand on its own, without the need for an author to explain it.
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