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Book review: <i>The Black Dahlia</i> by James Ellroy

The Black Dahlia and the last book I reviewed, Eureka, have some interesting superficial similarities. Firstly, they are both set, for at least part of the time, in the mid 1940s. They are both set in Los Angeles during that time. The protaganist in both is a police officer (both are written mainly in the first person) and the plot line in both focuses on the death of a woman which the protaganist gets a bit obsessive about and is willing to go above and beyond to solve the mystery. However, for all the similarities, Eureka and The Black Dahlia couldn't be more different when it comes to the crunch. Why? Because that would be like comparing a dry cracker to a three course meal.

The content

Bucky Bleichert is an ex-boxer now cop who wrangled his way into Warrants, where all the best cops go, by fighting his Warrants partner to be Lee Blanchard. The two of them are some team; fighters who know how far to push the rules, with the same sense of justice and both of them in love with Lee's girl Kay. Then the body of the girl who will become known as the Black Dahlia is found in a vacant lot. Blanchard immediately becomes obsessed with the death, eager to solve it at all costs. Bucky gets involved against his will, and it leads him to other girls, confusing evidence, and a dark downward spiral. Then Lee goes missing, and Bucky has two obsessions that lead him further and further into self destruction.

I think James Ellroy is an indesputably excellent author. The 1940's backdrop to the story has a stunningly authentic feeling to it, from the town of L.A. itself, to Mexico, to the characters, to the dialouge. The story doesn't have that sense of nostalgia that so many others aspire to, Ellroy manages to contextualise the story firmly in the time period while managing to make the whole thing seem timeless as well. Furthermore, the characters are strong, with almost more than three dimensions to them, and a desperate and beleivable madness and humanity. There is depravity, and excess, and darkness, and gentleness permeating all of the pages of The Black Dahlia, and the force of the novel is so strong that I lay awake in bed the night I finished it thinking about the whole thing. So it would be fair to say it had an impact. Read The Black Dahlia carefully; some of the phrases and expressions used are utterly foriegn to me, and Ellroy doesn't spoonfeed anything to you. In fact, I think one of the reasons I admire him so much as a writer is that he doesn't seem to be writing for anyone but himself. He doesn't care about what the reader thinks, he's writing with integrity for himself. And it shows.

Who is this book for?

This book is for readers of discerning taste, who want a quality crime fiction novel and aren't going to be satisfied with any of those pulpy best sellers. I would recommend this book to anyone, with the footnote that it is quite dark and affecting and maybe shouldn't be read right before bed if you are in a creaky old house alone. Other than that, go nuts.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Obviously not your run of the mill books. I do recommend My Dark Places also by James Ellroy which is about the murder of his mother and is one of the most honest autobiographic pieces I have ever read. His other novels have the same dark rapid-fire brilliance of The Black Dahlia, so I recommend any of those. Also, within the genre, you can't go past Walter Mosley for quality detective fiction. Be aware, however. Their styles are quite different. Reading Mosley is like sipping a long black, and Ellroy is like downing an espresso after espresso.

In short

Title: The Black Dahlia
Author: James Ellroy
Publisher: Warner Books
ISBN: 0446618128
Year published: 1987
Pages: 358
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Crime fiction
Review Type: