Tuesday, November 13, 2007

James Ellroy, "The Black Dahlia" (1987).

Although I've watched scores of films that can be characterized as Film Noir, I haven't read very much Noir literature. The names of the most famous authors of the genre's heyday are becoming increasingly familiar- Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and James M. Cain. These hardboiled fiction writers launched the characters and plots that Film Noir was built upon. Since the classic era, several American authors have been directly influenced by this tradition. Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford and James Ellroy are among the most famous of this group. Of these literary figures I have only read books by the first and the last. In fact my introduction to Ellroy was The Black Dahlia, which I completed yesterday.

Ellroy was born in the midst of the period (1948) that Film Noir first reached popular consciousness. His upbringing (although tragic) set the tone for the type of fatalistic crime story he would become famous for. He was the product of a broken home, and his mother was murdered when he was only ten years old. That crime would never be solved, and would help touch off Ellroy's lifelong obsession with the darker side of life. He would later transfer his unresolved feelings toward his mother on to another famous unsolved murder victim- Elizabeth Short, who was killed about a year before his birth. This 22-year old woman (also known as "The Black Dahlia") met her gruesome end in Los Angeles, and was the source of much mystery and speculation for decades afterward. The extreme mutilation of her body resonated with fanatics of true crime. There were a host of suspects investigated by police investigators, and it is rumored that the lengthy list featured such prominent figures as "Bugsy" Siegel, Orson Welles, and Woody Guthrie.

Almost 40 years after the demise of Elizabeth Short, Ellroy attempted to bring together the loose ends of the case with his novel The Black Dahlia (1987). This work has been credited with bringing serious critical attention to the writer, who had previously been confined to the ignoble ghetto of "detective fiction". He would later follow up with a cycle of three more books that completed what came to be known as his L.A. Quartet. In 1997, L.A Confidential was adapted into film by Curtis Hanson, and Brian DePalma brought The Black Dahlia to the big screen in 2005. The success brought about by increasing media attention was hard earned for Ellroy. For much of his early life he had been an alcoholic, a vagrant, and a petty criminal. After achieving notoriety for his writing, he established a reputation as a slavish defender of the LAPD, a brash political conservative, and a necessary teetotaler. He has since sought to distance himself from the label of "genre writer", and now seeks to create mainstream fiction.

Certainly The Black Dahlia meets several of the requirements for becoming popular art. It has at its center a crime so heinous that it astonished a nation. There is perverse sexuality, violence, gore, and psychological trauma at its core. When constructing the plot of his novel, Ellroy obviously didn't feel constrained by the cold, hard facts regarding the historical Elizabeth Short. He introduces many characters into the story that never existed. The protagonist is an ex-middleweight boxing champion-turned-cop. "Bucky" Bleichert is a hard-bitten warrants officer with a soft center that stymies his ascension to the top ranks of the police department. He is brought into the "Dahlia" case against his best instincts, and gradually becomes infatuated with the dead girl. As he becomes progressively embroiled in the complex world of the case, he latches on to a "Black Dahlia proxy"- a dangerous and manipulative beauty from the ranks of the nouveau riche aristocracy of Hollywood. This association threatens to imperil his life and career.

I couldn't help but be impressed at the exhaustive attention Ellroy pays to the police procedural aspects of his novel. The professional jargon of law enforcement, the crime scene protocol, and the intricacies of investigative technique come off as extraordinarily convincing in the eyes of this (admittedly) shallowly-informed reader. There is also a wealth of period detail that presents a captivating and seedy urban setting for the events that enfold. These elements help to flesh out the often convoluted and twisty contrivances of the plot. Ellroy's evocative skills work to distract his audience from the unreality of his story. In the end, The Black Dahlia bears little resemblance to the historical facts it is based upon. According to the author's own admission, it is a colorfully-imagined attempt at reconciliation that allows Ellroy to come to terms with his own troubled past. It's also a genuinely diverting and memorable read.

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