06 December 2010

Review: Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Black Dahlia by James Ellroy book coverThe Black Dahlia is a book that is referred to often as the American crime novel to top all crime novels, so of course I just had to read it for myself.

Set in the 1940s, the Black Dahlia is the name given to murder victim Elizabeth Short, who is brutally murdered and her corpse dumped in an abandoned lot. Two policeman (and ex-boxers) Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are amongst many on the taskforce who investigate this heinous crime.

Bucky and Lee become close friends in the book and together with Lee's close friend Kay, become an inseparable three-some. (In fact, this reminded me of the relationship in the film Sophie's Choice, between Sophie, Nathan and Stingo).

Bucky tries to prevent Lee from becoming obsessed with the investigation; and he and Kay are shocked when Lee goes missing. Bucky continues to investigate the murder and Lee's disappearance, and eventually unearths secrets from every corner. Without giving the plot away, I was surprised to learn of the details at the end of the book, and enjoyed unravelling the trail set by Ellroy. Ellroy's style does take getting a little used to; he uses a lot of slang, including slang of the times and cop and street slang, which sometimes is hard to keep up with.

Admittedly, I did find it frustrating when either Bucky or Lee had to run to a phone box to phone in their findings or for a vehicle registration check, and hold on the line for 30 mins for information. It did give me a new appreciation for police investigations in the times before computers and databases, but it was frustrating because I wanted the story to keep pounding along.

Before beginning to read this book, I did know that the author James Ellroy, had once been homeless and a petty criminal, and I was very interested to know how he went from that state of living to becoming a successful author. At the end of the book, Ellroy comments on his own Mother's unsolved murder and his feelings about her and the Black Dahlia. He discloses intimate information about himself and states unequivocally that he doesn't intend of speaking of this ever again.

Ellroy is reputed to have said:
"I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music."
Do I agree? Sadly, no. Do I believe The Black Dahlia lived up to its reputation? Well, not for me unfortunately. He's clearly a very successful author though and this book went on to form the 'LA Quartet' which included his later novel LA Confidential, (hated the film though).

If you love crime fiction, you should read this at some stage. The character development goes much deeper than most crime fiction of today, which is the most rewarding aspect of this novel for me.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

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