Thirteen years ago, I read my first James Ellroy novel, American Tabloid, and it remains my favourite to this day. Most Ellroy fans were probably introduced to the author through a LA Quartet or Underworld USA novel. Indeed, if you read some of the critical appraisals of Ellroy’s work, it sometimes seems like his career started with The Black Dahlia in 1987. It’s easy to forget that Ellroy wrote six strong and distinctive novels before The Black Dahlia, so in this post I’m going to take a look at early, somewhat forgotten works:
Ellroy’s first novel is something of a Raymond Chandler pastiche. Repo-Man cum PI Fritz Brown is hired by the strange, potentially psychopathic golf caddy Freddy ‘Fat Dog’ Baker to keep an eye on his musician sister Jane. Brown obliges, falling for Jane along the way, and becomes embroiled in a case which involves Mexican Hitmen, Neo-Nazis and corrupt police. There are shades of Ellroy in Brown, which he copped to in an interview with the Paris Review: ’I started to plan a novel about a guy who gets involved with a bunch of country-club golf caddies, who does some process serving, who grew up at Beverly and Western, who was a tall, skinny, dark-haired guy with glasses, all of which is me.’ But what Ellroy doesn’t mention is that ‘Fat Dog’ was similar to the Demon Dog himself before he became an author. Fat Dog’s bigotry and homelessness (he sleeps on golf courses) has parallels with the harrowing early life of Lee Earle Ellroy. Brown’s Requiem is a solid, entertaining debut imbued with naive charm and Ellroy’s idiosyncratic quirkiness. The problem is a plausibility gap, not that crime novels have to be realistic, but authors need to convince you that the events could happen in the world they create. Brown’s Requiem never quite convinces or compels. Final thought, Ellroy’s preferred title for his first effort was the very non-genre sounding ‘Concerto for Orchestra’.
Ellroy’s second novel is meatier fare which features the first appearance of Dudley Smith here in a supporting role. The book is essentially split into two halves: narrator Freddy Underhill charts his rise and fall within the LAPD in the first section, and in the second section, Underhill is a self-appointed avenger determined to solve the murder of a woman with whom he had an ill-judged one night stand. There’s a lot of interesting themes at play here, such as ‘the Wonder’: Underhill’s appreciation for the awesome mystery of human existence. It was also Ellroy’s attempt to solve the murder of his mother in fictional terms: ’I wanted to get rid of the story. I wanted to prove myself impervious to my mother’s presence and to get on with it.’
Blood on the Moon (1984)
With this novel, Ellroy introduced his first series character Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins of the LAPD who would return for two more novels. It may have been a lucrative choice for Ellroy to start a series, but Blood on the Moon suffered a difficult gestation. It began life as ‘LA Death Trip’ which was turned down by over a dozen publishers. It finally found a home with Otto Penzler and the Mysterious Press but had to be extensively rewritten. The end result is a taut, competent thriller as Ellroy put it ‘contrapunctually structured’ between the viewpoints of detective and serial killer.
Ellroy’s second Hopkins novel was inspired by his reading of Thomas Harris’ Manhunter. Unfortunately, it’s not an influence that works well. Sinister psychiatrist Dr John De Havilland just seems like a pale Hannibal Lecter imitation, minus the cannibalism, and the plot is so convoluted and confusing that by the end I just didn’t care. On the plus side, Hopkins, an intellectually brilliant and impulsively violent sex maniac, is still an interesting lead character.
The final novel in the Hopkins series is the best. Hopkins is shifted to a relatively minor role, and the focus is on the tragic young criminal Duane Rice, who is motivated entirely by his love for a woman with a heart of stone. A sub-plot about growing Evangelical influence within the LAPD is also brilliantly done.
Killer on the Road (1986)
Probably Ellroy’s most bizarre novel. First published as Silent Terror before being reissued under Ellroy’s preferred title, the first person recollections of serial killer Martin Plunkett make for grim and gripping reading. As with Fat Dog Baker in Brown’s Requiem, Ellroy isn’t shy in imbuing an essentially despicable character with some autobiographical traits. Ellroy fans may recognise Plunkett’s voyeurism, alcoholic mother and semi-detached father as taken from the author’s life. There is a twist about halfway through the novel that will leave you reeling, although that’s partly down to it being completely implausible. Killer on the Road is an interesting novel to read over a quarter-century since it was first published as it shows Ellroy’s development and future direction as a writer with its multiple viewpoints and multiple sources of information. The diary entries of FBI agent Thomas Dusenberry and newspaper articles, which appear between chapters, both work well.
Of his first six novels, I would probably say Clandestine narrowly beats Suicide Hill as my favourite, and Because the Night is the least impressive. However, I’d be happy to hear from Ellroy fans who disagree. As always, your thoughts are welcome.
Anyone who has enjoyed the company of the talented Mr (Mike) Ripley will know that he is a devilishly funny chap. I discovered this myself surrounded by skulls and pathology equipment at St Bart’s back in January, and since then I resolved to find out if he’s as funny in his writing.
I recently finished reading Angels Unaware, the fifteenth outing of private eye Fitzroy Maclean Angel, who seems more at home in a pub quiz (especially if it has a round on ancient history) than in navigating the 21st century legal restrictions of being a private detective. Angel is no Mike Hammer– he’s not prone to throwing punches unless he has to (and even then, he’s usually hurling bike helmets or bottles of wine rather than engaging in hand-to-hand combat), and he’s surprisingly PC, defending a civil partnership from his rather old fashioned colleague. But Angel moans about the strictures of Health and Safety and about working as part of a female-dominated, modern detective agency. He also doesn’t seem capable of operating any technology without breaking it, including a mobile phone.
From the very beginning of the story, Angel is a man trying to escape: when old friend and city man Terrance Patterson comes to Angel asking him to find a missing scriptwriter in Manchester, Angel is all too happy to leave his new domestic restraints in Cambridge (his fashion-designer wife, their newborn and his ‘helpful’ mother who has uncomfortably installed herself in their home). However, Angel’s jaunt up north, and his pairing with the wonderfully audacious P.I. Ossie Osterlein, end up being more serious than the obligatory line dancing, fry up and borrowed Huddersfield socks would suggest. As the bodies pile up, Angel never loses his sense of humour:
All I had to do was find my client and ask him what the hell was going on, then I could go home with a clear conscience. I’d found a body, met a porn star, visited a red-light district, helped the police with their enquires, been shot at and forced to line-dance. Good God, I’d even had to go up north. Surely I deserved a few weeks’ holiday or at least compassionate leave.
I found Angel a strange mixture of types. Perhaps only by marrying him to a fashion designer could Ripley continually put the part pub-loving man-of-the-people part elitist Londoner and historian in his place. Yet his wife Amy May is herself a conundrum: a successful professional woman, whose designs are known by and appeal to a huge swathe of the population (including female cops?). I’m not sure if May could exist, (could you imagine Stella McCartney married to a PI?) and if she did, what she and Angel would see in each other besides the ability to trade pithy insults over the phone.
Although Angel might use his wife’s fame to make witnesses or police more amenable, Ossie’s ideas go further:
‘Well, I’ll ask [my client] if you call your friendly Greater Manchester police lady and chase up how the autopsy went.’
‘Why on earth would she tell me?’
‘She might, she seemed quite taken with you.’
‘She’s more a fan of Amy’s clothes than of me.’
‘Get the wife to send her some free samples then.’
‘Give me some legal advice, Ossie: would that be bribery or corruption?’
‘I think it depends on who complains,’ he said, seeming to give the matter some serious thought. ‘Anyway, you should always keep in touch with friendly coppers.’
Ripley is undoubtedly good at one-liners, and he does paint a lovingly quirky picture of London, Northerners and pub culture. I did enjoy this novel, not least of all for it’s hyperbolic northerner Ossie Osterlein.
The information released so far about James Ellroy’s forthcoming novel reveals that it is provisionally titled Perfidia and is the first book of a new LA Quartet, which precedes the original Quartet chronologically and will show Quartet characters at earlier points in their lives. Perfidia is the title of an Alberto Dominguez song, much covered since, which Ellroy fans may recognise as the song Lee Blanchard and Kay Lake dance to on New Year’s Eve, 1946, in The Black Dahlia (1987).
Titles are an important detail for an author to get right. A good title can make the difference between someone buying your book or not. Several of Ellroy’s novels have gone through title changes as part of the creative process. Although we should remember that Ellroy went through a significant name change himself, the alcoholic and drug addict Lee Earle Ellroy was very different from the bestselling author James Ellroy. Here are a few examples of title changes in Ellroy’s work which are fairly commonly known (I’ve put rejected titles in quotation marks and the published titles in italics):
Ellroy’s writing career had started promisingly, but it stalled with his third manuscript, which told the story of a violent, chaotic battle of wills between Detective Lloyd Hopkins and serial killer Theodore Verplanck. Ellroy titled it ‘LA Death Trip’, and it was turned down by a total of eighteen publishers. It was only after Ellroy’s fateful meeting with legendary crime fiction editor Otto Penzler in the Mysterious Bookshop, New York, that Ellroy’s luck changed and the novel was published by Penzler’s Mysterious Press, extensively rewritten and re-titled Blood on the Moon (1984). It was the first of three novels featuring Lloyd Hopkins.
In 1986, Avon published one of Ellroy’s most bizarre novels, written as a memoir of a serial killer. Ellroy’s preferred title was ‘Killer on the Road’, but Avon insisted on the title Silent Terror. In 1990, the novel was republished in the US as Killer on the Road, although it is still in print and being sold as Silent Terror in the UK.
Expectations were high for the second volume of Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, especially as the first volume American Tabloid (1995) had been Ellroy’s most extraordinarily complex and rewarding novel to date. Somehow word got out that the follow up novel was to be titled ‘Police Gazette’. It seems Ellroy did consider the title for a while, but it was quickly dropped, and any interviewer who mentioned it to the author, including yours truly, received an irritable response. The novel was eventually released as The Cold Six Thousand (2001).
There are a couple of other examples of title changes in Ellroy’s career that are less well known. I discovered them while I was doing research at the James Ellroy archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina and included the information in my book Conversations with James Ellroy.
Ellroy wanted to title his first novel ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, but it was at Avon’s insistence that it was published as Brown’s Requiem (1981). ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ barely sounds like a crime novel at all, but it reflects the lead character’s love of classical music, specifically the work of Beethoven and Anton Bruckner. The romantic interest is also a musician. In the denouement, the villain reveals he also admires the work of Bruckner, and the music generally reflects the themes and emotions of the story. ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ was used as the title of the fifth and final section of the novel instead.
Before The Black Dahlia elevated him to literary prominence, Ellroy was planning a fourth Lloyd Hopkins novel. The plot is revealed in an eighty-four page outline, which is available at his archive. Hopkins is investigating a series of murders of high-class hookers. Lynn Dietrich is a hooker working for New Age Enterprises, the legitimate front for a prostitution ring. Her dream in life is to save six thousand dollars and then emigrate to the town of Xuatapul, Mexico, as in Xuatapul, a person can buy a year of luxury living for the sum of six thousand dollars. Whenever she is close to reaching the required amount, she wastes too much of her savings, thus she is periodically sabotaging her own ambitions.
Oh, and the title of the fourth Hopkins novel? Ellroy planned on calling it ‘The Cold Six Thousand’. It was probably no loss to Ellroy that he never wrote the novel. He was destined for greater things. It is remarkable to think that he filed this title for about fifteen years and returned to it in his Underworld USA novel The Cold Six Thousand. The Underworld novels are nothing like the Hopkins novels. Ellroy’s style had now achieved dazzling levels of complexity and scope, but in The Cold Six Thousand the title refers to a sum of money the character Wayne Tedrow Junior is paid for a contract killing. He fails to carry out the killing at first, with disastrous results, and he spends much of the novel with his $6,000 obligation unfulfilled, which is very similar in theme to Lynn Dietrich’s ambitions in the unwritten Hopkins novel.
So, titles are important, and with his forthcoming novel Ellroy has picked a fairly interesting one in Perfidia — if he sticks to it.
John le Carré’s latest novel A Delicate Truth has just been published, and from the extracts I have read serialised in the Telegraph, it looks set to be one of his best works in years. Part of the criticism of le Carré’s recent novels is that they have been too preachy and angrily left-wing. There are not many writers producing work at the age of 81 who can produce as much buzz as le Carré, but with A Delicate Truth continuing his general leftward trend – the plot involves a cover-up of a disastrous counter-terrorism operation which left an innocent mother and child dead on that last outpost of Empire, Gibraltar - has le Carré made the right choice in giving his work a more partisan edge?
To a degree every narrative will be political. Some crime writers are well known for their political beliefs: Sara Paretsky and David Peace are broadly leftist, PD James and James Ellroy are conservatives. John le Carré is one of the most interesting writers to read through the prism of his politics. I like to think of him as a sceptical patriot.
His most famous creation is the aging spymaster George Smiley. In the trilogy of novels Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979), Smiley is jaded, understated, underestimated and often humiliated: his promiscuous wife cheats on him, and yet through the application of his intellect, intuition and dogged perseverance, he always triumphs, albeit at a heavy price. Part of Smiley’s appeal is his pragmatic patriotism. He knows the West has to win the Cold War because communism is an evil force, but yet he sees on his own side abuses of power which are (almost) as bad. By contrast, the traitor in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, codenamed ‘Gerald’, who was based on Kim Philby is much more brashly English. Yet behind the mask of his patriotism, Gerald is sending British agents to their death.
le Carré was in his late forties when he completed the Smiley vs Karla trilogy, and it is often presumed that people who start on the political left become gradually more conservative with age. Yet right at the age when you would expect le Carré’s values to start corresponding more closely with Smiley’s. the author suddenly turned against him:
My impatience with George Smiley is that I am no longer able to resolve his excuses. There is something specious to me now about his moral posture. The notion of Smiley’s was that he sacrificed his moral conscience so that decent, ignorant people could sleep at night. He goes through life saying, “I give up all moral judgments; I take upon myself the lash of my own guilt.” We Empire babies were brought up thinking that we messed with things so that others could have clean hands. But I believe that someone who delivers up the responsibility for his moral conscience is actually someone who hasn’t got one.
With his follow-up novel The Little Drummer Girl (1983), le Carré found what he regarded as a radical cause, to portray the Palestinian people sympathetically in a work about the Middle East. In the novel, a radically left-wing English actress ‘Charlie’ is used by Israeli Intelligence in an elaborate scheme to penetrate a breakaway Palestinian terrorist group. le Carré conducted a huge amount of research for the novel, interviewing members of Mossad and meeting then PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut. In writing the book le Carré, in his own words, ‘fell in love with the Palestinians’:
(I) became astonished really with one very simple perception that seems to me to have made no headway in the West at all: that one can, indeed as I am, be greatly in favour of the state of Israel and wish for its survival but that in the making of Israel a great crime was committed, not numerically commensurate with the crime that was committed against the Jews, but appalling all the same. Millions of people displaced, others subjugated with total alien types of rules, turned into second-class citizens. The image of the Palestinians, largely invented, as crazies carrying guns and so on was so far removed from the reality of the majority of the Palestinian people that it needed saying, it needed demonstrating – and not by some maverick Trotskyist, or something, but somebody like myself who has written extensively, with great passion I like to think, about Jews in the past but found in this situation an injustice which needs reporting.
I’m not sure that portraying the Palestinians sympathetically would be seen as radical today. It seems to be the broad view of people in the arts, but perhaps in 1983 the issue was perceived differently. The irony is that le Carré said he didn’t want the novel to be the work of ‘some maverick Trotskyist’, but Charlie in the novel is on the Far Left. Charlie was partly based on le Carré’s sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, and partly, it is believed, on the well known left-wing firebrand,Vanessa Redgrave.
le Carré would then turn to a radical examination of his own life story. His most autobiographical novel, and for many his greatest, A Perfect Spy (1986), is not particularly political (in examining the nature of betrayal here le Carré seems uninterested in ideology). The end of the Cold War was to prove challenging for many spy writers, but le Carré was ahead of his contemporaries with The Russia House (1987), an examination of how glasnost and perestroika was changing the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the USSR, le Carré has examined a wide array of espionage subjects, with mixed results. The 9/11 attacks and the resulting War on Terrorism seemed to fire his passion again as a writer. Absolute Friends (2003) was a scathing critique of the ‘Special Relationship’. le Carré, like Smiley, had previously held the view that Britain needed to be the junior partner of the US after the war in order to defeat communism, but now the Coalition angered him. Reviewing the novel in the Telegraph, George Walden wrote ‘a once entertaining writer is subsiding into ranting moralism [...] All it says is that the Americans are making a cock-up of everything, and that they, not the terrorists, are the greatest danger to civilisation.’ Highly critical of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, le Carré wrote an article for the Times titled simply ‘The United States of America Gone Mad’.
Ultimately, like Walden, I have reservations about crime writers using novels to preach their political views, even if they are distinguished as le Carré. The danger is that they will alienate the readers who will disagree with them and bore the readers who don’t. Of course, they could convert a reader or alert them to issues which are not widely discussed elsewhere, that is, however, a formidable task.
Should crime novels be more political? Probably not.
Here’s the trailer for A Delicate Truth:
The two interviews quoted in this article are ‘The Little Drummer Girl: An Interview with John le Carre’ by Melvyn Bragg from The Quest for le Carre (London: Vision Press, 1988) and ‘John le Carre on Perfect Spies and Other Characters’ by Thom Schwartz from Writer’s Digest, 67 (February 1987), pp.20-21
From May 4th to May 6th there will be a marathon reading of Moby Dick at Merseyside Maritime Museum. The event has been organised by fellow VV founder Chris Routledge as part of his continuing research into the connection Herman Melville had with Liverpool. My wife and I will both be reading chapters alongside many other readers. You can volunteer to read here if you are interested. This promises to be a wonderful, epic event. Do come along if you can. More details here.
I’m delighted to be giving another talk at Waterstones Liverpool One as part of the Lunchtime Classics series. The series was started by Glyn Morgan last year and consists of readings and discussions of classic stories and authors by ‘literary experts’ (or me depending on which talk you attend). Last year I spoke on James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, this year I’m discussing John Le Carre and the George Smiley novels. The full list of speakers confirmed so far is pasted below, and the speaker booked for the week after me is rather fetching I can tell you.
All readings are 1-2pm in the Illy Café at Waterstones Liverpool One.
Wednesday 24th April: Glyn Morgan (Ph.D Researcher, University of Liverpool) on H.G. Wells’ The
War of the Worlds.
Wednesday 1st May: Michelle Yost (Ph.D Researcher, University of Liverpool) on E.M. Forster’s
‘The Machine Stops’.
Tuesday 7th May: Dr Deaglàn Ó Donghaile (John Moore’s University) on Joseph Conrad’s The
Wednesday 15th May: Dr Greg Lynall (University of Liverpool) on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s
Tuesday 21st May: Lee Rooney (University of Liverpool) on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Wednesday 29th May: Dr Danny O’Connor (University of Liverpool) on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Thursday 6th June: Dr Ben Brabon (Edge Hill University) on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Tuesday 11th June: Maria Shmygol (University of Liverpool) on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life
of Ivan Denisovich.
Wednesday 19th June: Dr Matthew Bradley (University of Liverpool) on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture
of Dorian Gray.
Wednesday 26th June: Dr Chris Pak (University of Liverpool) on Stanislaw Lem.
Wednesday 3rd July: Steve Powell (University of Liverpool) on John Le Carre’s Smiley Trilogy.
Wednesday 10th July: Dr Diana Powell (University of Liverpool) on Walter Scott’s The Bride of
Tuesday 16th July: Andy Sawyer (University of Liverpool) on the work of Saki (H.H. Monroe).
Monday 22nd July: Dr David Hering (University of Liverpool) on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale
Waterstones Liverpool One, 12 College Lane, L1 3DL. Tel: (0151) 7099820
And speaking of Waterstones Liverpool One, Harlan Coben will be in the store on April 25th at 12:30 PM signing copies of his new novel Six Years, which is already in development to be adapted into a film starring Hugh Jackman. I’m disappointed that work commitments means I can’t attend this one, but do go if you can.
Finally, on the topic of crime fiction superstars visiting North-West England, did Richard Roundtree a.k.a Shaft visit my home city of Chester back in 2000? These photographs seem to suggest that he did. Lovely to see he went walking on our famous Roman Walls.
Back in January I gave a talk at St Barts Pathology Museum on the sixty-sixth anniversary of the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s corpse on 39th and Norton, an abandoned lot in the Leimert Park residential neighbourhood in Los Angeles, by local resident Betty Bersinger. Bersinger’s discovery was the beginning of the Black Dahlia murder case, one of the most enduring mysteries in LA history.
The lecture was filmed, and I had planned to embed the video on this site, but I was recently informed that there was a problem with the recording. I have therefore decided to publish an edited version of the transcript here. For the sake of brevity, I have cut out information about Miss Short’s life and the murder investigation and references to true-crime books which attempt to solve the case, so that I could focus solely on the cultural depictions of the Black Dahlia that followed. You might enjoy this essay more if you already know a fair bit about the Dahlia case, if you don’t know much about it, there is a huge amount of material online, see here, here and here.
I had a wonderful time at St Barts and met some lovely people. I hope you enjoy this version of the lecture:
I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been – a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her an anonymous end, relegated her to a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field. The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known. And since I owe her a great deal, and am the only one who does know the entire story, I have undertaken the writing of this memoir.
James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia begins with this first-person narration by Bucky Bleichert. Bleichert’s view of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia murder victim, broadly conforms to how cultural depictions of the case have reflected the prejudices and obsessions of their creators. Elizabeth Short’s brief life and violent death have been much scrutinised, and in cultural terms she has become a blank canvas to which authors and their characters create an identity which fits their own obsessions.
One of the first films to even loosely approach the Black Dahlia murder as a subject was the 1953 film noir The Blue Gardenia. Directed by Fritz Lang from a story by crime writer Vera Caspary, The Blue Gardenia concerns a young switchboard operator (played by Anne Baxter) who is engaged to a serviceman stationed in Japan. On the night of her birthday, she sets two places at the dinner table, one for her and one for the photo of her fiancee. She then sits down to read a letter from him, which she has saved for the occasion, only to discover that he has fallen in love with a nurse and has written to say goodbye. Depressed, she decides to throw caution to the wind and go on a date with the caddish Harry Prebble, a man who hangs around her office trying to pick up vulnerable women. He takes her to the nightclub The Blue Gardenia where she starts to drink too much and is quickly intoxicated. She finds herself back at his apartment, but when he comes on to her too strong, she defends herself from his unwelcome advances with a poker before falling into a drunken unconsciousness. She awakes the next day in her apartment only to discover in the newspaper that Prebble is dead and the police are looking for the woman he was seen with in the nightclub, who is now the prime suspect. An ambitious journalist labels the missing woman as ‘The Blue Gardenia’ and the case quickly becomes a press sensation. Unfortunately, The Blue Gardenia is one of the more routine film noir’s of the period. Some critics believe that the influence of the Dahlia case does not extend beyond the title. Although the Dahlia influence may be only minor and allusive, it is interesting nonetheless: there is the near-fantasy relationship with a serviceman, a possible sex crime which escalates into a murder and an intense public interest in the case which develops after a journalist gives the murderess an intriguing nickname. As the story is told mostly from Baxter’s point of view and portrays her sympathetically, the viewer sees the ‘Gardenia’ woman as both victim and murderess, although the final twist deconstructs this merging of identities (but I won’t reveal it to you as I don’t want to give the game away).
The next chapter in the cultural history of the Dahlia case comes from Jack Webb, creator, producer and star of the hit television police show Dragnet. Webb starred as Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet. The show was a phenomenal success when it first aired from 1951 to 1959 and was considered ground-breaking in its realistic depiction of police work. According to Webb’s opening narration, many of the episodes were based on actual LAPD cases making the show an early example of the police procedural sub-genre. Although much of this realism would seem horribly contrived to a modern audience (as the show was partly conceived to be LAPD propaganda). A point further made by the fact that LAPD Chief William H. Parker was credited as a consultant to the original radio show. Joe Friday is less a man than a machine: he speaks almost entirely in monotone and carries a black and white moral system, black being any infringement of the law. The Black Dahlia case was too graphic for television, which at the time was under heavy censorship. Publishing was more liberal and so as a companion piece to Dragnet, Jack Webb authored The Badge. First published in 1958, The Badge featured ‘True and terrifying crime stories that could not be presented on TV’. In the opening chapter, there is a ten page synopsis of the Black Dahlia murder. It differs in tone from the rest of the book in that it freely admits the LAPD were never close to cracking the case, and it even expresses a cynical dark humour in mocking the frustrations of Detective Finis Brown’s inability to make any progress in the investigation:
But with the monster who slowly, delectably tortured The Black Dahlia to death, they have never felt that they were anywhere near close. They have never known the motive, nor whether the slayer was man or woman, nor where the agony was perpetrated.
Was the killer The Dahlia’s lover or husband who felt he had been betrayed? But what betrayal, even unfaithfulness or a mocking laugh, merited revenge like this?
Was it perhaps a woman who had taken The Dahlia as wife in Lesbian marriage? Was that why the body had to be bisected, so that she could carry out the parts to her car?
Was the killer, man or woman, a sadist with a blood fetish who slashed for no comprehensible reason at all?
All LAPD can say is that its detectives have exonerated every man and woman whom they’ve talked to, including the scores who insist to this day that they are guilty.
Beyond that, you are free to speculate. But do him a favour – don’t press your deductions on Finis Brown.
Jack Webb had relatively few roles outside of Dragnet, although he did have a small and memorable role in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In one scene he jokingly introduces William Holden’s character at a party with the line ‘Fans, you all know Joe Gillis, the well-known screenwriter, uranium smuggler, and Black Dahlia suspect’. I wonder if he ad-libbed the line.
The Badge was a treasured birthday gift for the eleven-year-old James Ellroy, or as he was known at the time Lee Earle Ellroy. Ellroy’s mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, had been murdered the year before. She had been seen on a date with an unidentified man near their home in El Monte and was found strangled to death the next morning outside of the nearby Arroyo High School. The case had gone unsolved, and the young Ellroy, who had been at odds with his mother for some time, went to live with his father without seemingly any emotional trauma. After reading The Badge, however, Ellroy would link the Dahlia case with his mother’s murder in his mind and sow the seeds of one of his greatest works as a novelist some twenty-eight years later. Ellroy was to describe the discovery in his autobiography:
Betty Short became my obsession.
And my symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy.
Betty was running and hiding. My mother ran to El Monte and forged a secret weekend life there. Betty and my mother were body-dump victims. Jack Webb said Betty was a loose girl. My father said my mother was a drunk and a whore.
My Dahlia obsession was explicitly pornographic. My imagination supplied the details that Jack Webb omitted. The murder was an epigram on transient lives and impacted sex as death. The unsolved status was a wall I tried to break down with a child’s curiosity.
I applied my mind to the task. My explication efforts were entirely unconscious. I simply told myself mental stories.
There would be many turbulent years ahead for Ellroy before he would reinvent himself as a novelist, yet before his version of the case, there would be two major Dahlia depictions in popular culture. The first would come from a woman who was one of the most promising novelists of her generation. Her contribution to Dahlia mythology was her ninth novel, The Other Girl. The novel was published in 1962. When Theodora Keogh died in 2008, the Daily Telegraph was the only major newspaper to run an obituary. I, like many other readers, was for the first time given insight into the life of an extraordinary woman who in her later years spurned the public eye for a life of obscurity. Theodora Keogh was born Theodora Roosevelt in New York in 1919, granddaughter to President Theodore Roosevelt, and was educated at the Chapin School in Manhattan, and later in Munich by the pro-Nazi Countess Montgelas. She formed a ballet company with Alexander Iolas and joined a musical revue at the Copacabana in Rio. She was known to dance in the street, wear boyish clothes and carry a knife for protection. After the war she worked in costume design on several Hollywood films before she began writing novels. Keogh’s novels were popular and acclaimed: the composer Ned Rorem described her as ‘our best American writer, certainly our best female writer’. Broadly categorised as lesbian pulp fiction, alongside such novelists as Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker, Theodora Keogh’s novels are sinister, darkly sexual tales. The Other Girl is no exception. The novel’s main focus is on Marge Vulawski, the daughter of immigrant workers who has grown up on a farm just outside of L.A. Marge came to the City of Angels with high hopes but has become bitter and cynical, as her practical know-how with farm machinery and her broad build have led her to an unexciting job as a garage mechanic. Around Marge, Keogh creates an eccentric collection of oddball characters including a woman named Zoe who refers to herself simply as ‘the Duchess’ and the sleazy Hollywood agent Herman Lee. Then, of course, there is the girl, Betty, whom the reader will recognise as Elizabeth Short. Betty is an aspiring actress who becomes the focus of Marge’s sexual desire, a desire merged with an increasing anger. During an orgy with some French sailors, Betty and Marge have their first sexual contact:
But her [Betty’s] breasts themselves were surprisingly small; fresh and round and shiny like a peeled twig with dark, insulting nipples. The fresh, tender lower curves of these breasts entered into Marge’s memory for ever. They merged with childhood dreams, with infancy. They became the salty, threaded stuff of her generation.
Was what followed called an orgy? The French sailors hadn’t treated it as such. To them it appeared natural, neither odd nor perverse.
The novel ends with Betty’s murder, and it would be the end of Theodora Keogh’s literary career. According to an expert on Keogh, Robert Nedelkoff, she wrote one more novel, ‘The Love Life of Sometime Malone’ which was rejected by her publisher and practically disappeared from public life. Nedelkoff also speculates that The Badge may have reminded Keogh of the Dahlia case, as she had been working in LA as a costume designer at the time of the murder. She ended her days living on a farm in North Carolina, although since her death there has been a renewed scholarly interest in her work.
In 1975 came the television film Who is the Black Dahlia? The film jumps between the investigation of her murder and flashbacks of key moments of her life. The film broadly follows the facts of the case, although there are a few jarring changes, for instance Elizabeth’s hometown is said to be Portland, Maine, and she is raised by her grandmother when in reality she was raised by her mother in Medford, Massachusetts. The film is not particularly distinctive, hampered by a low budget and confusion as to what it wants to achieve; however, it does feature a moving portrayal of Elizabeth Short by Arnaz and is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.
Then, in 1977 came one of the key Dahlia works. John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions tells the story of two brothers working in post-war Los Angeles: Tom and Des Spellacy. Tom is a detective and Des is a priest. Both are cynical and corrupt in their own way. Des is in line for a bishopric but is increasingly uncomfortable with the archdiocese’s links to the crooked businessman Jack Amsterdam. The Black Dahlia case is a loose but important influence on the novel. Tom Spellacy is investigating the murder of a woman found naked, chopped in half and dumped on an abandoned lot. Here Elizabeth Short is renamed Lois Fazenda, and the tone is more than a little misogynistic. When Spellacy and his partner Frank Crotty are trying to fend off an eager journalist by coining a nickname for the victim, they come up with ‘the Magic Pussy Murder’, ‘the Sliced-up Slit Case’, and ‘the Missing Clit Caper’ before finally settling on ‘the Virgin Tramp’. Tramp in American slang, more so than in the UK at least, refers to promiscuity which makes the sobriquet oddly contradictory, like the flower that cannot be black, it cancels itself out while exuding a mysterious aura. It may also be a reference to Dunne’s lapsed Catholicism. Dunne’s family originated in the Irish immigrant communities of Frog Hollow, Hartford, Connecticut. Dunne transposes the deeply Irish areas of New England, particularly Hartford and Boston, onto post-war LA, a city which was not as ethnically Irish as his portrayal. The novel is laced with raucous black humour and heavy cynicism in its depiction of the inner politics of police work and the Catholic church: priests have heart attacks in bed with young hookers and an ambitious policeman chokes to death on his steak dinner on the day he becomes chief. Despite this, there is a degree of humorous affection in the portrayal of the Church. Also, the Virgin Tramp evokes the Virgin Mary, or, on another level, the severed body of Christ, as although the resolution of the murder mystery is somewhat banal, anyone who had any contact with the Virgin Tramp finds their careers destroyed by the scandal. But through his unhappy association with the victim, Des Spellacy returns to a humble parish church with a renewed faith, her blood having paid for his sins.
True Confessions was an immediate bestseller when it was released and lead to a faithful film adaptation in 1981 with Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro in the roles of Tom and Des Spellacy. Despite this, the novel seems to have disappeared from popular consciousness in recent years, overshadowed perhaps by the definitive cultural depiction of the Dahlia case.
James Ellroy was recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction when True Confessions was released, and the book had a profound effect on him. The success of True Confessions deterred him from making the Black Dahlia case the subject of his first novel, despite having a burning ambition to write about it. Ellroy briefly touched upon the Dahlia case as back story to his second novel Clandestine. Clandestine was a fictional retelling of his mother’s murder and the case is solved in the book.
The novel contains a scene where the Irish-American cop Dudley Smith, who would later become one of Ellroy’s most notable characters in his LA Quartet novels, describes rounding up a series of psychopaths who are natural suspects in the Dahlia murder. Smith encourages them to disfigure the corpse of an Elizabeth Short lookalike in an attempt to identify the killer. Ellroy would return to this voyeuristic reenactment scene in his Dahlia novel. Knowing that Dunne had only adhered to the facts of the case in regards to some of the torture details, Ellroy’s ambition was to replicate the details of the case as much as possible into a narrative and then create a fictional solution. Ellroy began his formal research into the case by taking three, triple-reinforced pillow cases filled with quarters into a New York City library and ordering through inter-library loan the original LA newspaper articles covering the Dahlia case.
It is in the fictional aspects of the story that Ellroy recreates the emotional relationship he formed between himself and the Dahlia and his mother. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the emergence of unstable trinities. At the centre you have the two police officers Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard. The relationship is complicated by Blanchard’s girlfriend Kay Lake, whom Bucky is deeply attracted to, complicating matters for all three of them. As the narrative evolves, the trinity reinvents itself. Bucky and Blanchard become obsessed with the Dahlia, Blanchard to the extent that his relationship with Kay crumbles and he disappears. Bucky then starts a relationship with Kay, but he too is obsessed with Elizabeth Short and starts seeing living women as proxies for his emotional love for a dead woman. This is further complicated when Bucky has a fling with Madeleine Sprague, a femme fatale who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Elizabeth Short. The dedication to the novel reads:
‘To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958 Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood’
And in his memoir My Dark Places Ellroy goes into some depth as to how his mother’s murder fuelled the narrative:
I was burning a lifelong torch with three flames […] My mother. The Dahlia. The woman I knew God would give me. […] I locked myself up for a year and wrote The Black Dahlia.
The year flew by. I lived with one dead woman and a dozen bad men. Betty Short ruled me. I built her character from diverse strains of male desire and tried to portray the male world that sanctioned her death. I wrote the last page and wept. I dedicated the book to my mother. I knew I could link Jean and Betty and strike 24-karat gold. I financed my own book tour. I took the link public. I made The Black Dahlia a national bestseller.
I told the Jean Ellroy – Dahlia story ten dozen times. I reduced it to sound bites and vulgarized it in the name of accessibility. I went at it with precise dispassion. I portrayed myself as a man formed by two murdered women and a man who now lived on a plane above such matters. My media performances were commanding at first glance and glib upon reappraisal. They exploited my mother’s desecration and allowed me to cut her memory down to manageable proportions.
A film adaptation of The Black Dahlia appeared in 2006 directed by Brian De Palma. The film divided critical opinion. Some people hate it. I take a more charitable view of the film. In fact, I like it. One aspect which the critics seemed to agree upon was Mia Kirshner’s hauntingly beautiful performance as Elizabeth Short. Here’s a clip:
The examples I have given her are what I consider to be the main fictional works on the Black Dahlia, although it has been referenced or alluded to in many other works. The case has proved fertile ground for each author’s creative vision. Public fascination with the Black Dahlia case is likely to grow in the years to come, and we can probably expect to see many more cultural depictions of one of the most gruesome and fascinating murder cases in American history.