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The Pitfalls of the True Crime Genre

March 22, 2010

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 12:09 am

    Crime fiction doesn’t try to emulate real life so much as it attempts to develop a fantasy for the reader, a small snapshot of life designed to entertain rather than inform. Whilst true crime dramas are always going to be unpredictable and shocking the dramatized form of the real history is in itself bordering on fictional as all of the facts can never be known and there is always going to be the need to create scenes and to pad out the genuine history with some level of invention. Crime fiction and True Crime fiction are two completely seperate genres, both with equal validity and interest but with differing motivations.

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      March 23, 2010 1:00 pm

      Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking comment. Although I wouldn’t agree that crime fiction and true crime are two completely separate genres. You said yourself that crime fiction develops fantasy out of real life. Non-fiction novels such as ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘The Onion Field’ are good examples of how the writing style and format can overlap. Also, crime sub-genres such as the police procedural or the private eye novel frequently overlap in terms of style and structure. I also think that the true crime genre, although it has produced many great books, is open to charlatanism and sometimes too closely emulates crime novels. Some of the books on the Black Dahlia case such as ‘Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer’ and ‘Childhood Shadows’ are frankly ludicrous.

  2. March 23, 2010 2:38 pm

    First of all, I have never claimed to have solved the Black Dahlia case. Never.

    Second, James Ellroy’s various endorsements (he has since discounted Steve Hodel’s “solution”) have more to do with Ellroy’s well-established hunger for publicity rather than genuine support of any particular theory. Ellroy isn’t a historian, nor does he pretend to be one. Like many authors, he treats the facts as a malleable first draft, discarding much of the truth but keeping a few vivid details as he sees fit to give the flavor of authenticity. “L.A. Confidential,” for example, is not a textbook, nor is it meant to be one.

    Dr. George Hodel was indeed a suspect in the Black Dahlia case — for about three weeks. But so were many other individuals. In fact, the case was so complicated that the original investigators treated anyone who ever knew Elizabeth Short as a potential killer who had to be eliminated. Detective Finis Brown, one of the lead detectives in the case, said that they interviewed thousands of people.

    The scenario recounted in Steve Hodel’s “Black Dahlia Avenger” and turned into a serial killer franchise with “Most Evil” is based on a foundation of speculation and distortion, embellished with layer upon layer of supposition, wishful thinking and vigorous suppression of anything that doesn’t fit. Indeed, “Avenger” is a classic example of reverse engineering that starts with the preselected killer and works backward through a torturous, convoluted route to the victim.

    In fact:

    The photographs Hodel found in his father’s belongs — which he claimed to be Elizabeth Short — are now firmly established as being other women, according to Short’s family and a woman who recognized herself in one of the photographs. This contradiction, which should be lethal for any serious researcher, is always casually explained away with the claim that the photos merely served to draw the author’s interest in the case.

    In the same way, Dr. Hodel was never a surgeon, despite ardent attempts, based on wishful thinking, to prove otherwise. Finally, there is nothing to show that Dr. Hodel and Short ever met. Again, everything is speculation, distortion and suppression of conflicting facts.

    And it should be noted that “Avenger’s” claim of a massive police cover-up and conspiracy has been dismissed as utterly false by former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and many other retired officers who without exception say that investigators and officials involved in the case were among the department’s most forthright, honest men.

    In other words, for anyone who knows the actual story, “Avenger” is a poorly researched and amateurish book, and a shooting gallery of misinformation for a thorough, conscientious and impartial researcher.

    We may never know whether Elizabeth Short and Walter Bayley met. But we have physical proof — in photos and official documents — showing that the families knew one another (Bayley’s daughter was friends with Short’s oldest sister), that the Bayley family lived within a block of the crime scene and that Dr. Bayley was a distinguished surgeon whose mind was unraveling. No one else has ever come close to that.

    –Larry Harnisch

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      March 23, 2010 6:48 pm

      Dear Larry,

      My apologies for saying you claimed to have solved the case. I should have said that you identified Walter Bayley as a highly plausible suspect. I’ve amended the post on that point. I do not regard Ellroy as a historian either. But I do think his novels of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy have helped change people’s perceptions of post-war America. He has used his fiction to probe beneath the surface of a society that presented itself as utopian and righteous, but was not anything of the sort. Thus, his novels do have historical value. The parallels between Hodel’s theory and Ellroy’s fictional solution in ‘The Black Dahlia’ are striking, and if nothing else, they show what a great novel Ellroy wrote on the case. As for his endorsements of Black Dahlia theories, I wouldn’t dismiss that merely as a hunger for publicity. His introduction to ‘Black Dahlia Avenger’ is much more measured and cautious than his endorsement of your own theory on the documentary ‘Feast of Death’. Of course Ellroy has never endorsed Hodel’s more outlandish claims, and he was angry at Hodel’s far-fetched claim that his father’s associate could be the killer of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy.

      You give a very good critique of Steve Hodel’s theory. I don’t know whether George Hodel murdered Elizabeth Short, but I’m pretty sure that he was not the Zodiac killer! Despite the many inaccuraccies in Steve Hodel’s research we cannot rule out George Hodel as a suspect. An interesting comparison would be the Jack the Ripper case. ‘The Diary of Jack the Ripper’ is widely regarded as a forgery but that does not rule out James Maybrick as a strong suspect.


  3. Drew Weaver permalink
    May 12, 2010 9:36 pm

    Larry H. is the soberest, least sensational observer/historian on the Balck Dahlia case — Hodel’s and Ellroy’s vested interests compromise whatever theories they espouse…Bayley’s profession and address are asounding coincidences that would have excited any detective in 1947….

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      May 13, 2010 11:30 am

      Dear Drew,

      I’ve no idea as to who is the better Black Dahlia researcher. Although I think True Crime writers are often compromised in their need to resolve a mystery narrative, which often leads to them twisting facts and making wild assertions. I don’t think Ellroy endorsed Hodel’s theory out of ‘vested interests’. He came to the conclusion that Hodel’s theory was correct through his knowledge of the case, and he added some important caveats.

      Best, Steve

  4. Hooday permalink
    January 28, 2011 7:16 am

    Steve Hodel’s case against his father, Dr. George Hodel is more than a little compelling. Its absolutely grounded in many facts – both contemporaneous as well as historical.

    Let’s start with the boldest of evidence – the handwriting examples, specifically on the Black Dahlia case, but also with the Chicago and San Francisco murder cases.

    George Hodel has very specific handwriting characteristics that have shown up in his writings covering a range of more than 40 years. The way he forms his uppercase B, D, S, lowercase d, and even the way he dots his lowercase i are all specific and intrinsic to his handwriting style. Amazingly, these same handwriting traits are found on writings from all three murder cases – to such an extent that it may very plainly be stated, whoever the killer was in these three cases shares strong handwriting characteristic with Dr. George Hodel!

    Steve presents many of these similarities on his website,

    In the Dahlia case, the killer called the local newspaper and promised to send items from the killing. A few days later, several of Elizabeth Short’s personal effects were mailed to the newspaper – thereby confirming the phone caller’s identity as being the killer. The editor described the voice as “soft and sly,” which also matches George Hodel’s trained radio speaking voice. Whoever the killer was, he had to have a voice like George Hodel.

    George Hodel did not practice as a surgeon, but he did have surgical training in medical school, and is listed as a surgeon in several documents.

    Many ranking police officials “in the know” fingered a “doctor living on Franklin Street in Hollywood” as the culprit. Steve’s conjecture about why a police department coverup occurred is quite plausible and highly likely. His evidence of a widespread police corruption is hardly novel or unsupported. LOTS of people have documented the corruption of the LAPD, and as a self-styled “historian” of LA’s past, its really weird Mr. Harnisch would deny this.

    Finally, Steve Hodel is a expert professional homicide investigator. Many people tend to overlook this due to his intimate connection to the case, but the fact remains: Steve’s investigation proceeds on very reputable grounds solely on this fact alone. I doubt Mr. Harnisch’s credentials are quite so qualified. He may make all the assertions he likes, but they come across as cat-calling and school-yard put downs. He has a lot of attitude and not much else. I have yet to see him or anyone else put forth a single piece of evidence that utterly discredits George Hodel as the killer of Elizabeth Short.

    Mr. Harnisch says there is no evidence Hodel and Short ever met, much less knew each other. Yet there are several witnesses who saw them together.

    If someone doesn’t see George Hodel at the end of the evidence presented against him, I really have no problem with that. (After all, look how many people voted for Obama!) What I take a tremendous amount of issue with is some, like Mr. Harnisch, who tosses off Steve’s investigation as being “ridiculous” and not having a shred of real evidence. This is just so much blather, (and I like to believe most people see right through it.)

    Steven has finally had developed a full profile of his father’s DNA. It is only a matter of time and inclination to get either LAPD or SFPD to test it against DNA from the physical evidence they (supposedly) have on file. (If it hasn’t all disappeared, as Mr. Harnisch’s close friend, Det. Carr (the presiding detective over the Dahlia case,) stated the last time he went to look for it. Although it had been available for Mr. Harnisch to view just a few months earlier, when Mr. Harnisch copied Elizabeth Short’s address book and a few other of her belongings.)

    I would say if anyone has discredited himself as a viable investigator on the Black Dahlia killing, it would be Mr. Harnisch; according to all his ongoing diatribe and self-styled vitriol against anyone who has a different theory than he. Its an amazing site to see.

    He will be laying quite low when the DNA evidence shows George Hill Hodel as the murder of Elizabeth Short, NOT Mr. Harnisch’s pet theory of Dr. Bayley.

    • Steve Powell permalink*
      January 28, 2011 10:25 am


      Thanks for commenting. My post was primarily about the flaws in a literary genre. When writers, especially novelists, get too involved in criminal cases it can lead to some pretty murky, but always interesting results. I’m thinking of Truman Capote’s dealings with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, Patricia Cornwell’s lamentable attempt to solve the Jack the Ripper case and Ann Rule’s relationship with Ted Bundy.

      But I think Steve Hodel wrote a compelling book and has solved the case. Then again, I have no training or experience in criminal investigations so don’t take my word for it.


    • Jonathan permalink
      April 6, 2013 2:44 am


      Could you explain how Harnisch ‘has discredited himself as a viable investigator’?

      His website, which is presently the only thing to go on with regards to his investigation, includes a great deal of official documentation – press reports, wedding certificates – much of which can be verified with the relevant authorities if anybody chooses to do so. He even uses some of these documents to foil other authors’ claims.

      It’s clear you’re a big support of Hodel’s theories, but don’t let that blind you to other possibilities.


  1. A Message from Steve Hodel on the Black Dahlia Case « The Venetian Vase

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