The Pitfalls of the True Crime Genre
David Peace gave a recent interview on the US publishing website Galleycat in which he argued that crime fiction writers should focus on real life cases in their novels:
There’s so much that happens in real life that we don’t understand and we can’t even fathom. I don’t really see the point of making up crimes. The crime genre is the perfect tool to understand why crimes happen.
There is much to admire in Peace’s argument. After all real life crimes have formed the basis for his successful Red Riding Quartet novels and his current Tokyo trilogy. Peace has claimed his biggest literary influence is the novels of James Ellroy, and again there is a strong historical foundation to Ellroy’s LA Quartet and Underworld USA novels. If I were to add one caveat to Peace’s argument it would be that crime novelists should avoid meddling in what is commonly called the ‘true crime’ genre.
After the phenomenal success of his novel based on the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia (1987), Ellroy became much sought after for his opinion on theories as to who killed Elizabeth Short. A Los Angeles Times journalist named Larry Harnisch developed a theory in which he named a Dr Walter Bayley as a plausible suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Short. Ellroy endorsed Harnisch’s theory despite the evidence being entirely circumstantial and suppositional. Dr Bayley was suffering from a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease at the time of Miss Short’s murder and died shortly thereafter. Harnisch claims that Bayley’s condition was capable of inducing homicidal urges which may have triggered the murder. Most Dahlia commentators including the crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, believe Bayley’s condition would have rendered him unable to commit such a physically and psychologically challenging act.
In 2003, a retired LAPD Homicide Detective named Steve Hodel was to publish his own theory in the book Black Dahlia Avenger. Steve Hodel’s hypothesis bears striking resemblance to the fictional solution Ellroy posited in his novel fifteen years earlier. Hodel’s father, Dr George Hodel was a physician who was based in LA for many years. Upon his father’s death, Hodel found two photographs in his belongings which he believed to be of Elizabeth Short. This led Hodel to begin an investigation into the connection between his father and the Black Dahlia. Ultimately Hodel came to the conclusion that his father was the murderer of Elizabeth Short, and his mutilation of the body was inspired by the work of the Surrealist artist Emmanuel Radnitsky, better known as Man Ray. Dr Hodel was good friends with Man Ray, and Detective Hodel claims he was inspired by Man Ray’s painting Les Amoureux (the Lovers) (1933) and his photograph Minotaur (1934) in how he tortured and posed the body of Miss Short at the site she was found, an abandoned lot at 39th and Norton, Los Angeles. Aside from the unusual parallels with his own fictionalisation of the murder being inspired by the Comprachios in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (1869) , Ellroy was at first reluctant to accept Hodel’s theory. By now Ellroy was a sager judge of the many pitfalls of true crime writing, and he could see flaws in Hodel’s theory that he had not originally spotted in the work of Harnisch. There is contention as to whether the photographs Hodel discovered amongst his father’s belongings are actually Elizabeth Short, or even the same woman in either photograph. However, between the publication of the hardcover edition of Black Dahlia Avenger and the paperback one year later, documents were released which showed Dr Hodel was the LAPD’s prime suspect for the murder during the original investigation. This was enough to convince Ellroy to give a measured endorsement for Hodel’s theory in the introduction to the paperback edition. But the controversy surrounding Black Dahlia Avenger would not end there. Ellroy was angered that Hodel hypothesised that his father’s friend and associate Fred Sexton is a plausible suspect in the murder of Ellroy’s mother. The murders of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy and Elizabeth Short have always been symbiotically and elliptically linked in Ellroy’s work so for a True Crime writer to make the link literal seems both implausible and opportunistic.
Bizarrely, Hodel is not the first writer to theorise a similar connection. In 1992, Janice Knowlton published a much ridiculed book titled Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer. In it she claimed that she witnessed her father murder Elizabeth Short when she was a child, and the memory had only recently resurfaced after years of being psychologically repressed. Upon discovering Ellroy was writing a factual book on his mother’s murder, My Dark Places (1996), Knowlton contacted Ellroy claiming her father also killed Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. Thus, Ellroy the novelist has inadvertently inspired a true crime sub-genre in which two writers have theorised that the murderer of Elizabeth Short is the same man or a man who was connected to the murderer of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. Both Hodel and Knowlton claimed their father was the guilty man.
The parallels between Hodel’s theory and Ellroy’s original fictional solution in The Black Dahlia may just be odd coincidence. On the other hand, it does highlight the flaws of the true crime genre as a whole. Crime novelists write stories as part of a narrative structure in which, more often than not, the mystery is resolved in the denouement. True crime writers often attempt to do the same thing, but real life is more complex and often does not produce such neat resolutions. Thus, true crime writers often twist the facts to suit their narrative.
Below is a video of Steve Hodel describing the compelling evidence that strongly suggests that his father was the Black Dahlia killer. He also describes his more contentious theories that his father is a plausible suspect in the Zodiac killings and several other notorious murders:
Read my follow-up post, A Message from Steve Hodel on the Black Dahlia Case.