Home > 1980, 20th Century, American Literature, Ellroy James, Noir, Polar > The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

January 21, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) French title: Le Dahlia noir. Translated by Frédéric Michalski.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is probably one of the oldest books of my TBR. The mention inside says my roommate gave it to me in 1995. Ahem. I was reluctant to read it, not sure I’d get along with Ellroy. I only started to read noir fiction after I went online with Book Around the Corner and discovered Guy’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy’s a crime fiction and noir afficionado.

And now I wonder: what was I waiting for?

The Black Dahlia is loosely based upon a real case, the murder of Elizabeth Short that the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She was born in 1924 in Boston and was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Her case became famous because her body was horribly mutilated and it’s still unsolved.

Ellroy uses the Black Dahlia case as a basis to write a complex story with a striking picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is our narrator. He’s a former boxer and LAPD agent. He met Lee Blanchard, another LPAD agent when they covered the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Both have a checkered past. Bucky is the son of a German immigrant who doesn’t hide his racist tendencies. Bucky’s patriotism was tested during WWII and he agreed to give his Japanese neighbors up to keep his job with the LAPD. He’s still reeling from it.

Lee Blanchard is famous for solving a hold-up case and shacking up with Kay, the criminal’s girlfriend after the trial. He still lives with her and this scandalous relationship cost him a promotion. His little sister was murdered when he was a teenager and he feels guilty of not protecting her enough.

As semi-famous former boxers, their bosses ask them to fight against each other to raise funds for the LAPD and promote a bill that would increase the wages of the LAPD agents. They get a transfer to the Warrants department. They agree to it. The fight is highly publicized, they are nicknamed Fire and Ice. Their bond is based upon camaraderie and respect but is also tainted by politics and tactics. The relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay is central to Ellroy’s book.

As you imagine Bucky and Lee are detached to the police force dedicated to solving Betty Short’s murder. They get swallowed in the case and the book moves to a classic investigation.

Ellroy follows the thread of a murder investigation and shows corruption and power fights in the LAPD. He takes his characters to the shadiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and takes pleasure in describing brothels, dives, underground gay and lesbian meeting points and seedy hotels. He also brings us to rich neighborhoods and uncovers the ugliness present behind closed doors and polished manners. Greed. Sex. Perversion. They invade every corner of the city and Ellroy exposes what’s behind the Hollywood dreamy facade.

He conveys the pulse of the city, its rapid growth and real estate moguls, the Hollywood hype and the sordid world of hopeless hope of aspiring actresses.

He takes us across the Mexican border to Tijuana in an even more violent and corrupted country. He describes perfectly the intricacies of office politics in the LAPD, the violence against suspects and police procedurals. Or lack thereof.

It’s well-oiled book that keeps the reader on edge. I wanted to know how Bucky would come out of it, if Ellroy would make his characters solve the murder while reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was curious about Bucky, Lee and Kay’s trio. I wondered if the big LAPD machine would run over Bucky or if he’d make it alright.

A brilliant book but I’m glad I waited to read it. There will be more Ellroy in my future.

For the record, I also have the graphic novel of this book by Miles Hyman Matz and David Fincher and it’s a good companion book.

  1. January 21, 2023 at 5:53 pm

    I wonder if having a real life murder as its basis makes it darker than it would otherwise have been.


    • January 22, 2023 at 6:35 am

      I don’t think so. Writers have a pretty good imagination.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. January 21, 2023 at 7:58 pm

    I don’t know if you remember that we saw James Ellroy at Quais du Polar (did we see him together?) and he said that Black Dahlia was a very personal story for him, because his own mother was raped and murdered when he was ten years old. (In an entirely separate case – but there too the murderer was never found)


    • January 22, 2023 at 1:53 am

      Ah, I was going to mention that his own mother was murdered and that he has reportedly said this is why he was so immersed/interested in the Black Dahlia case. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years so thanks for the prompt. I may see if my local library has this in stock.


      • January 22, 2023 at 6:40 am

        Track it down, it’s really excellent.
        I knew before reading the book that Ellroy’s mother had been killed too.

        Liked by 1 person

    • January 22, 2023 at 6:39 am

      I didn’t go to this conference at Quais du Polar.
      I watched his interview at La Grande Librairie and I knew about his past and his mother’s death. It is a very personal book for him.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 21, 2023 at 11:46 pm

    If you ever get a chance, I urge you to read MY DARK PLACES by Ellroy. You will never forget it. (you too Marina)

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 22, 2023 at 6:40 am

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look it up and put it on the wish list.


  4. January 22, 2023 at 12:17 am

    I saw The Black Dahlia but have never read any of his books. I looked him up on Wikipedia. If you are interested in his life I suggest you read the article. Amazing!!!


    • January 22, 2023 at 6:44 am

      I’ve seen the Wikipedia entry but I’ve heard him in interviews too. And yes, he’s got quite a life.
      Only American writers have pasts like this and become published authors. Here lots of them seem to be academics or teachers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David
        January 24, 2023 at 2:22 pm

        Oh, I don’t know – what about your own jean Genet, for example? You should have a look at ‘The Thief’s Journal’ – in the original of course.


  5. January 22, 2023 at 1:42 am

    I think I saw the film too… but I really don’t like reading True Crime, or novels loosely based on a real crime.
    This one is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, did you know?


    • January 22, 2023 at 1:54 am

      Ah, that is good to know, Lisa!

      Liked by 1 person

    • January 22, 2023 at 6:46 am

      I remember you telling that when I wrote about In Cold Blood.
      Here, Ellroy wrote his book forty years after the murder. It’s much longer after the facts for the people involved.

      But when it’s closer to the facts, I’m ill-at-ease too.

      Lots of books are based upon true stories, even Madame Bovary!


      • January 22, 2023 at 8:40 am

        Oh yes, agreed, but it’s not basing a story on true events that bothers me, it’s the preoccupation with crime. We hear stories of people being afraid to go out of their houses because they are bombarded with books and media about crime and they think it is much more widespread than it really is. All those Nordic serial killers! There are people in our local Facebook group who are so jumpy about every little thing, they have CCTV installed and then they share posts about ‘suspicious’ people. There was one the day before yesterday where a woman had looked over the fence at the boot of her car, and she was all hot and bothered about it, when it was probably someone looking for a lost cat!


    • January 22, 2023 at 6:48 am

      PS : I didn’t remember it was on the 1001 list but I’m not surprised. It’s excellent from the literary stand point and it’s a vivid picture of LA in the 1940s.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. January 22, 2023 at 3:49 am

    Great review. I have not read it, but I know a bit about it, through one of Lemaitre’s amazing thriller. With a brilliant plot that you will now appreciate (I can’t tell you more, but you really need to try it): Irène – NB: the official synopsis reveals way too much!
    Just dive into it blindly, trust me, this is BRILLIANT


    • January 22, 2023 at 6:48 am

      I haven’t read Lemaitre yet. He’s really a writer I should explore. Thanks for the recommendation and the warning about the blurb.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David
        February 14, 2023 at 2:10 pm

        If you ever read Lemaitre, I’d be interested in your view. I tried one, and hated it – sorry for the spoiler, but it featured a young woman hired as a nanny who was suspected of murdering the baby she was looking after. Later, she is seduced by a mysterious psycho who (the reader guesses) actually did the deed, as well as a few other murders. This is supposed to create suspense, but all I felt was nausea – it was really distasteful (in translation). It also not just stretched credulity, but broke it. Now, maybe it reads better in French, but in English I could not stomach it, and didn’t finish – the title in English is ‘Blood Wedding’. My French wife read another one a while later and liked it! So, I’m a bit baffled.


        • February 14, 2023 at 2:51 pm

          Oh wow, I just rewatched my enthusiastic vlog about it (I actually read this one in English). I thought the structure of the book was very interesting as well as all the elements I highlighted in my short video: https://youtu.be/IGomjp6ZKAo

          But the best is definitely Irene. Brilliant plot idea. And the best is to dive directly into it, skip the synopsis that takes away a fascinating part of the surpise effect!


          • David
            February 14, 2023 at 4:26 pm

            Interesting… it seemed entirely plot-driven. I could not believe in, still less engage with any of the ‘characters’, which seemed two dimensional – no, one-dimensional is more accurate. I am not a ‘literature’ graduate and ‘structure’ without protagonists who engage me at one level or another simply doesn’t work for me.

            The fact that Irene depends on a plot twist rather than convincing characters tends to confirm my impression that Lemaitre is definitely not for me!


            • February 14, 2023 at 4:35 pm

              I would not say that it’s a plot twist in Irene. But I found it a fascinating idea of plot, when you realize what connects all the crimes. But I’m French, maybe that’s why it worked for me, lol


              • David
                February 15, 2023 at 4:37 pm

                Don’t think it’s a national characteristic, FWIW… If the characters don’t come alive for me, then it doesn’t matter how clever the plot is – I’m not interested. The most extreme example was the highly rated (by some) “The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” – not only did it not have believable characters, it had no context either geographical or time period. I bailed pretty quickly. If I want a puzzle and nothing else, I’ll stick to crosswords or the sudoku.

                However, the focus doesn’t have to be on the characters – Simenon’s wonderful books depend more on atmosphere, none better than those set in real towns. We divine the protagonists’ characters from their words and actions – nothing is spelled out – but it’s there nevertheless.

                There are many modern crime authors I like, but some of the most character-driven ones are Gianrico Carofiglio (Guido Guerrieri series) and Petros Markaris (Costas Haritos series). There’s a lot of good stuff out there.

                Liked by 1 person

            • February 16, 2023 at 2:03 am

              Thanks, Carofiglio will be perfect for me to go on with reading in Italian.
              I have been reading Simenon’s novels with one of my French student. Yes, the atmosphere is fabulous!


            • February 18, 2023 at 9:51 am

              I’ve enjoyed yours and Emma’s conversation. One of the best part of blogging: when reading start chatting as if they were in a literary salon.
              I second the Markaris recommendation (several posts on my blog) and I’ll have a look at the Gianrico Carofiglio.

              Liked by 1 person

  7. January 23, 2023 at 10:59 am

    I read too much crime already, too much violence, too many murders, the libraries are full of it. I’d rather read C19th classics but not enough of them have been made into audiobooks. Still, I find the noir style entertaining to read, so may get to this one one day.


    • January 25, 2023 at 9:29 pm

      It’s worth reading (or listening, really. It must be an excellent audio book)
      I need to read a 19thc novel, it’s been too long since the last one.


  8. January 23, 2023 at 12:23 pm

    I definitely want to read this, it sounds so well written. I also have books that have been on my TBR for decades Emma – I still plan to read them one day…


    • January 25, 2023 at 9:30 pm

      It’s a great read, a fascinating picture of LA and a great plot.
      I’m glad I’m not the only one who has books on the TBR for several years or decade. I knew I’d be ready to read this one one day…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. David
    January 24, 2023 at 2:18 pm

    FYI – early – or rather middle period – Ellroy is excellent and well worth reading. ‘The Black Dahlia’ is the first of his ‘LA Quartet’ series, which is as good as he ver got, apart maybe from ‘American Tabloid’ – the first part of the Underworld USA trilogy. After that, his writing becomes more and more difficult to like – the most recent novels read like a self-parody. Almost unreadable (I have read them, but wondered if it was really worth the effort).

    So – read the LA quartet and American Tabloid; if you don’t mind simpler fare, also read his earlier books – good but less demanding. He lost his mojo (for me) with the dull ‘The Cold Six Thousand’ and has been hard going ever since.

    (If you don’t mind real-life crime and books about his mother’s murder, then ‘My Dark Places’ is also interesting.)


    • January 25, 2023 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks for the tips. I have Because the Night on the shelf, have you read it?
      I’m interested in reading the LA Quartet. The translation is a bit dated and I hope it’ll get translated again. Or I’ll read him in the original.


      • David
        January 27, 2023 at 12:47 pm

        Yes – Because the Night is the middle one of the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy – I have read them all, and enjoyed them though TBH I don’t remember them that well.
        What I would say about Ellroy is this: his writing goes in three periods (IMO) – early, pulpish stuff which is still good fun; a mature and brilliant period where his style and range develops (LA quartet being the best, plus ‘American Tabloid’), and the later books where his style becomes so pared down that it reads almost like self-parody, and is quite hard to read – and to like. I have not yet entirely given up on Ellroy, but I’m close…

        Liked by 1 person

  10. January 28, 2023 at 11:02 pm

    A great review. I once read much about the real case, but never had the intention of picking up the book. I may one of these days. I think though that I would prefer the graphic novel you mention, especially with David Fincher onboard.


    • January 29, 2023 at 6:37 am

      The book is worth reading. Maybe it’s best to read it without knowing too much about the real case. You know how it is: your mind keeps noticing discrepencies, gets annoyed with it and you end up missing out the actual good things of the book you’re reading. (same with watching a film version of a book)

      That said, I only knew the key facts of the case and I really enjoyed the characters that Ellroy created. They really come to life, are complex enough and engaging.

      The graphic novel is gorgeous.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Richard
    February 9, 2023 at 11:45 pm

    Loved this book and a few other Ellroy novels back in the day, but I have a suspicion/recollection he became a bit of a self-caricature later on (trying to be the hardest of all the post-hardboiled novelists in the field). Would like to read another one by him sometime this year, but we’ll see how that goes. À bientôt !


    • February 12, 2023 at 7:36 am

      That’s exactly what David said in the comments above. I’ll stick with his earlier work.


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