James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia

Rex Stout’s Black Orchids (see my last post) and James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia use the motif of black flowers to highlight life’s ephemeral nature. And although both novels are set during the 1940s in large urban centres (New York and Los Angeles), the similarities end there. Black Orchids depicts an orderly, reassuring world; The Black Dahlia, a violent, uncontrollable one. The Times calls Ellroy “the most experimental and literary of US crime writers,” an assessment many critics would agree with (Berlins 2008). The Black Dahlia (1987) is the first book of Ellroy’s impressive L. A. Quartet; it is followed by The Big Nowhere (1988), L. A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992).

The Black Dahlia was based on an actual unsolved murder case. In 1947, the horribly mutated body of prostitute Elizabeth Short – dubbed the “Black Dahlia” by the press – was discovered in Los Angeles. Ellroy adds fictional characters and events to this nucleus of facts. The novel is narrated by LAPD detective and former professional boxer, Bucky Bleichert. The story is sensational, graphic, and violent. Although it is action-filled from the beginning, it is a narrative that gradually builds momentum, then shocks the reader with a series of startling revelations.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, James Ellroy led a brutally hard life. At the age of 4 his parents divorced; at 10 his mother was murdered; at 16 his father died. Not surprisingly, he became a failure at school, a petty thief, and an alcoholic. Ellroy was arrested 30 times and spent 8 months in jail. It was not until he nearly died from double pneumonia that he turned his life around and became a writer.

The central shaping influence of his life and the event that underlies the writing of The Black Dahlia was the murder of his mother. Dedicating the novel to her – “ Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood” – he said that he wept when he finished writing the book. The raw power and intensity of the narrative can be traced to Ellroy’s personal connection to the story.

Like so many contemporary crime novels, there are no easily distinguishable good and evil individuals in The Black Dahlia. Characters are complex, nuanced, and convincing. The world they inhabit is a futile, entrapping one; their lives are shaped by the war experience.

Ellroy’s greatest achievement in the novel is his penetrating critique of American post-war society. The Black Dahlia is a seamy noir world filled with brutality and corruption. Stephen Knight calls it “a major text, amplifying and modernizing crime fiction and shaping violence as a central force and medium of meaning” (2004, 201).

The terse, bleak prose of this hard-boiled narrative reflects the post-war mood that dominates the novel. As Symons claims, Ellroy presents murder “not just as a serious offence against middle-class morality but an element built into the American social fabric” (1992, 308-309).

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.
Ellroy, James. The Black Dahlia. 1987. New York: Mysterious Press, 2006.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.