Friday, February 21, 2014

The Black Dahlia

I feel like I owe you all a warning: the next three reviews are going to be a tad gushy. I’ve loved what I’ve been reading lately, which I see as a good thing. I went through a stretch there where I just wasn’t excited about Project 84. I was bored with what I was reading, couldn’t convince myself to pick anything up, and that is definitely not the case with these next three books.

With that being said, Book 8 of Project 84 is:

Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy

When I started reading this book, it was right after I’d finished Get Shorty, so I was expecting a similar reading experience. Both books are pulpy, mystery novels (of sorts), both were written in the late 80s, both are in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die…so I don’t think the parallel is completely invalid. Needless to say, the idea of reading another Get Shorty didn’t quite fill me with excited anticipation.

Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong in my characterization of The Black Dahlia.

The book takes place in 1940s, and centers on the real-life unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed by the media as “The Black Dahlia”. Boxer turned cop, “Bucky” Bleichert, is assigned to the case along with his partner – Lee Blanchard. (I admit, how they come to be involved with the case is more complicated than a simple assignment, but it would take half an entry to explain. Read the book if you want more specifics ;) ) From there, Bleichert becomes entwined with a litany of fellow cops, suspects, family members, witnesses, and a couple of women that Bucky can’t get out of his head.
The Black Dahlia a mystery novel, so, like Sharp Objects, I fear it would take away from the book if I gave too much else away or brought too many more characters into the summary. The gist is that Bleichert and Blanchard become obsessed with the Black Dahlia case, and it slowly but surely becomes their entire world. The case leads to the demise of some, the obsession of others, and the fascination of the entire country. 

I. Loved. This. Book. 

It wasn’t perfect. The first 90 pages, for example, could have been lopped off entirely and I wouldn’t have missed anything. But after that, I became immersed.  

I found the whole concept of The Black Dahlia appealing. Swift took a real event, a real mystery, and wrote a fictional story to explain it. And because it was fictional – because Swift didn’t bog himself down with trying to prove a theory, or dispel others – the narrative was less cluttered. The approach also allowed Swift more freedom in orchestrating his narrative. He didn’t have to write inside a world that already existed. Swift was able to create his own, which led to a good, compelling mystery.

In addition to making me want to turn the page, the novel was full of twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming – which is uncommon for me in a novel. I don’t want to give away any of these twists, as the book would be decidedly less enjoyable if I had known what was coming, but trust me when I say that the turns this book takes are what keeps it compelling, and kept me engaged. 

In addition, the novel seemed to have its own mood, of sorts. I saw the phrase “neo-noir” thrown around in reference to the book’s genre, and it seems to fit. The characters are compelling, but flawed. The story is compelling, but flawed. The case becomes clunky, you’re not sure who to root for, and it all feeds in to the mood of the book. The only character whose side I knew I was on was our tragic heroine, the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short.

It’s a mystery, so, of course, the plot and mood are going to be a big part of what make the novel great, but the area of the book that I responded to most was, unquestionably, the emotional lives of the characters. I cared about what happened to Bucky. I felt for Blanchard and how the obsession was ruining his life. And, most surprisingly, I felt for Elizabeth (Betty) Short. A big part of the novel was centered on how Bucky and Blanchard humanize Betty. They become so obsessed with the case because they make her into a real person, and it spills over into how I as a reader related to the story.

The end of the book gave me the quote I clung to, and the one that most sums up what I found so appealing about The Black Dahlia:
"I walked to the car thinking of Betty alive, happy, in love with some guy who'd never cheat on her. Passing through the park, I looked up at Mount Lee. The sign now read just Hollywood; the band was playing, 'There's No Business Like Show Business.'"
I would recommend The Black Dahlia to anyone, but I will include a few warnings. Like I mentioned before, it takes about 100 pages to even get into the story, and about 150 until you’re invested in what’s going on. In addition, the book is graphic. It’s sexually graphic, it’s violent, the language is aggressive. For me, those things don’t matter. In fact, they add to the noir mood of the book. But I know those graphic details would make some people’s reading experience unpleasant, so I wanted to mention it. If you’re okay with those things – read the book. It’s a good one. 


I’ve decided to stop giving “expected posting dates” for upcoming entries. Since the first post, I have never once met an expected posting date, so I’m going to stop setting myself up for failure. However, this time the next two blog posts are already written and ready to go, so it’s not going to be long until books 9 and 10 make their way onto the web. My delay in posting is over, for the time being.

Happy reading!

Next Review: Splendora by Edward Swift

**All annotations refer to this version of The Black Dahlia, published by Mysterious Press in 1987**

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