Thrift Shop Shelf: Rediscovering James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia

Black Dahlia

Thrift shops and used-book stores are amazing sources for true crime books. I don’t think I’ve ever been in one that didn’t have at least a few battered old paperbacks, screaming for attention on the shelf with their lurid, black-and-red covers. I also love digging through boxes of books at yard sales, flea markets, and church rummage sales. You never know what you’ll find — maybe the best part is finding older books, maybe even ones that are out of print. I love being reminded of cases that aren’t all over the internet, stories that made headlines years ago, but may have been buried or forgotten.

In this column, we celebrate our finds, some classic and some obscure, and encourage you to browse your local treasure troves!

Last week, I picked up this well-loved copy of James Ellroy’s 1987 pulpy classic The Black Dahlia. While inspired by the real-life story of the still unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947, Ellroy’s tale is a work of fiction. Rather than telling the backstory of Short, it concerns the lives and relationships between two Los Angeles cops, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Lee Blanchard. They are rivals, boxing opponents, partners, and friends who end up working the Black Dahlia murder case together. And of course there are women. Or “skirts,” or “twists” — Ellroy’s colorful slang is practically a character of its own in the book.

Because it’s Noir, and because it’s Ellroy, the plot gets way more complex than that and weaves in elements of politics, corruption, racial tension, and conspiracy. Ellroy breathes life into cop-shop back rooms, the grit and neon of downtown L.A., lesbian dive bars, aspiring starlets, Skid Row hookers, and zoot-suited gangsters in Tijuana. As Ellroy himself has said of the novel, The Black Dahlia “is largely the tale of love in conflict with sexual obsession. Short is never seen alive. I built her character entirely from postmortem reminiscence.” In his version, a killer is caught and the story is laid to rest. Ellroy wrote the book as a way to give himself some closure over the unsolved murder of his own mother.

Santa Barbara Police

Elizabeth Short’s mug shot. Photo: Santa Barbara Police.

Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia came out almost 30 years ago, and the real case is still unsolved. There are countless suspects, theories, and accusations, including more than one person implicating their own father. There is even speculation that the murder was inspired by surrealistic art. A big budget Hollywood film version directed by Brian De Palma and based on Ellroy’s book was released in 2006, but it was a critical and commercial flop.

As the years pass, it’s less and less likely that the truth of what really befell Elizabeth Short will ever come out. Her legend has taken on a life of its own, and the facts are swirled together with wild theories, fantasies, and fiction. At this point, Ellroy’s novel feels as true a story as anything else about the enigmatic Black Dahlia.

Read more:

The Guardian

ABC News

Photos: Christine Colby (book cover) // Santa Barbara Police Department (mugshot) // Pixabay (books)