Good Reads Review: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia (L.A. Quartet, #1)The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first word to the last, The Black Dahlia grabs you, drags you down into the murky underbelly of police corruption and old money grudges, and won’t let you go until you’re covered in filth and feel at least partially responsible for the death of Elizabeth Short.

In case I wasn’t being clear, that’s a good thing. The Dahlia murder is one of the great mysteries of our time, frequently taking a sideline to Jack the Ripper’s work but just as intriguing; Ellroy’s fictional trip through the investigation and fascinating truth (at least so far as the novel is concerned) brings a loving detail and amazing atmosphere to the mystery, and in a way that very few books have managed to do, makes me feel like an active witness to the events told in the novel.

Among the high points include the detail that most note about Ellroy’s LA Quartet; there are no angels. Even the “good” guys are dirty, and the “bad” guys occasionally have legitimate grievances that were not addressed properly or perform what might be construed as decent acts because their personalities drive them to it and not out of some attempt to maintain cover. Bucky, our narrator, is no exception; he’s almost as disgusting as some of the folks more intimately involved in the chain of events that led to Ms. Short’s demise… though at least he does what he can to make things right.

The second thing to note is the language used. The words Ellroy picks to craft his vision are important, more than you might think, even given the written medium. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Dahlia case, or are unaware of the timeframe the book occurs in, the words that Ellroy uses, whether they’re coming from the mouths of his characters or just the descriptions provided via Bucky’s viewfinder of the world, set the stage perfectly in a blend of film noir and post-war false optimism, and ground the reader readily into the right mindset and era. They also serve quite admirably in forging a connection between Bucky and the reader, bringing you a sense of triumph or discovery when he does right… and rubbing your nose in the revulsion he feels – most especially towards himself – when he does wrong, or digs up someone else’s dirty laundry. The conflict he feels as regards the book’s leading ladies – at least the living ones – Madeline and Kay is well done, and even without any helpful thought bubbles, going only off the descriptions of the conversations Bucky has with them, you can get a clear picture of them and their opinions of each other… again, merely by the words chosen.

All in all, an excellent read, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in crime, noir, or the Dahlia case in general – though the last camp would likely be offended by the way the book “solves” the crime. It is obviously a labor of love that cost Ellroy a great deal personally – and if you have the edition that came out shortly after the film, with his extended Afterword, that is made even more clear. Give it a shot.

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