James Ellroy – The Black Dahlia (1987)

Following my discovery of James Ellroy with my reading of the astonishing Blood’s A Rover (see http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com/review.html?id=8285 ) I have decided to start working through his canon. I have not initially gone right back to the beginning but instead have started with the L.A. Quartet, the first book in which is The Black Dahlia.

The Black Dahlia is based around a particularly gruesome Hollywood murder in 1947. And even just read as a basic murder investigation it would be a splendid book given Ellroy’s brilliance with plot. It is though, of course, far more than that. It is the story of the central character, Bucky Bleichert, and his relationship to his partner, to women, to his fellow policemen, to his father, to the society, the time and the place in which he finds himself; and of course to Elizabeth Short, the young woman who after her death becomes known as the Black Dahlia. Now it is true that The Black Dahlia does not possess the historical reach, the political insight, the sheer grandeur and magnificence of Blood’s A Rover. The prose itself is at an earlier stage of evolution and is less individual, still more conventional, shackled, earth-bound. But there is still more than enough to make it very good indeed.

To start with the plotting. Ellroy’s plotting here is labyrinthine, almost baroque. At the conclusion twist follows upon twist, revelation upon revelation. The extraordinary thing is that when analysed and reduced to its basic components the plot is actually pretty simple; yet such is Ellroy’s ability to weave in sub-plots and pile deception upon deception that it appears anything but this. Every incident, small nuances, are incorporated in the plot. Ellroy’s ability with plot seems to me to be – typically given how little value is attached to this by many who write about mysteries and should therefore know much better – the most underestimated aspect of his writing.  It is on these plot foundations that the book’s excellence is based.

In terms of theme everything which Bucky believes is systematically torn away from him and he is reduced to his lowest possible ebb. Yet somehow he manages to achieve a redemption – that motif in Ellroy – albeit one which is strongly personal. And of course linked to love and sex. Ellroy’s writing about love and sex – from admittedly, as must invariably be true, a gendered perspective – is so good, so strong that it makes most other writers, let alone other mystery writers, seem anaemic and inadequate.

Now it is true to say that The Black Dahlia is much more anchored in the PI noir tradition than Blood’s A Rover. In part this is due to the use of the first-person narrative. While this never becomes ponderous, dull or clichéd in Ellroy’s hands and Bucky remains a fascinating character, this approach still has limitations. It prevents the kind of sweep and grandeur which can be achieved by third-person or multiple viewpoint narratives. Because I am so new to Ellroy I do not know how or when he started to switch narrative viewpoints (this is something to be discovered).

Writing about Ellroy, as about Reginald Hill (who fortunately works in a wholly different mystery tradition), presents that peculiar problem of comparisons. Do you compare the book with the rest of the canon or with the generality of mystery writing? If the latter then The Black Dahlia is brilliant and streets ahead of the vast majority of its contemporaries. If the former then in comparison with Blood’s A Rover it lacks something in terms of language, variety of characterisation, historical sweep, emotional depth and breadth of vision. But it is still a terrific mystery with an undeniable A rating.