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Literature / The Black Dahlia

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A 1987 novel by James Ellroy and the first installment in the LA Quartet.

Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert is a former middleweight boxer who got out of the fight game in order to join the L.A.P.D. What starts out as a friendly rivalry with fellow officer and also ex-fighter Lee Blanchard develops into a solid partnership. Things seem to be going well for the pair and a strong bond forms between both themselves and Blanchard's live in 'girlfriend' Kay Lake. The happy tripartite is broken apart by the horrific murder of a woman named Elizabeth Short in 1947. The victim, quickly labeled 'The Black Dahlia' by the press, begins to serve as an obsession for the detectives. Things quickly go From Bad to Worse.

Has been adapted into a 2006 film. Has nothing to do with a 1998 game of the same name. The 1946 Film Noir The Blue Dahlia is name-dropped in the novel (the murder victim is compared to that film's character, and so 'The Black Dahlia' moniker is born), but is otherwise unrelated.


This novel provides examples of:

  • All for Nothing: All of the hours and obsessive devotion to detective work Blanchard and Bleichert put into solving the Black Dahlia case proves to be completely pointless. Bleichert discovers the Black Dahlia's murder site because they're tearing down one of Sprague's houses as part of an unrelated real estate scandal. Subverted in that breaking all the other relationships down requires some actual detecting by Bleichert.
  • Anyone Can Die: Several major characters die over the course of the book, most notably Lee Blanchard.
  • Artistic License – History: A murder that was never solved in real life is given a full conclusion. James Ellroy's Afterword also states that a large part of Elizabeth Short's characterization in the novel ranging from being promiscuous as well as starring in a pornographic movie were also inventions of the novel.
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  • Bank Robbery: Blanchard originally gained a leg-up on the force due to the fact he was able to solve one. He himself was the mastermind behind the heist.
  • Big Good: Russ Millard, the veteran detective who tries to sway Bucky away from his more corrupt colleagues and toward honest police work.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Sprague family is one of the wealthiest in Los Angeles but is composed of a Nazi-sympathizing patriarch, a alcoholic Old Money matron who hates the poor, and two daughters with very strange behaviors. That's before getting into their relationship to the Black Dahlia murder.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The killer of the Black Dahlia is revealed to Ramona Sprague, who killed her with the help of Georgie Tilden out of jealousy for her sleeping with the latter. Ramona gets away with her crime but is dying of lupus and has already lost Georgie to Bleichert's hands. Lee Blanchard is also revealed to have been killed by Madeline Sprague but she ends up institutionalized at a mental hospital for ten years. Unfortunately, Bleichert is fired from the LAPD and the Black Dahlia murder is still unofficially unsolved. Bleichert does reconcile with Kay, however.
  • Body Horror: The torture inflicted upon the Dahlia. With her face carved side-by-side to her ears in a Erie clown smile and her torso dissected with the organs removed. Tragically, Truth in Television. Also the state of Blanchard's body when it is dug up.
  • Boom, Headshot!:
    • Koenig is shot in the face with a shotgun.
    • This is how Georgie Tilden dies.
  • The Boxing Episode: Both the protagonist and his partner are former boxers with good records. Early on, it's a boxing match featuring the pair that sees Bleichert promoted to Central Warrants duty.
  • Broken Pedestal:
    • Blanchard to Bleichert, after it's discovered that the former was responsible for the Boulevard Citizens Bank Heist and thus had Bleichert unknowingly help him eliminate witnesses by forcing a shooting of suspects the pair try to arrest at one point.
    • Compounded later when it's revealed that Blanchard knew the entire time about Georgie Tilden's part in Elizabeth Short's murder and kept silent in return for a massive bribe.
  • The Butler Did It: Subverted in that Georgie Tilden the groundskeeper is just a scapegoat.
  • Contrived Coincidence: How Bleichert and Blanchard become involved in the Black Dahlia murder. They're investigating another murderer's home in the immediate area when they see the police gathered around a nearby field.
  • Cowboy Cop: Played with. Both Bleichert and Blanchard are willing to shake down informants with threats, tamper with evidence, and wave their gun around at anyone who won't cooperate. They even threaten a woman's dog with Russian Roulete (the gun was unloaded). However, all of these tactics are tacitly endorsed by the LAPD who don't care about what the protagonists do as long as they get results. When they accidentally end up killing four individuals they weren't even arresting, the LAPD uses the fact they were pot users as justification for their deaths.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Elizabeth Short was tortured for two days before she was disembowled and cut in half. This, of course, is Truth in Television.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • The LAPD in 1947 is shown to be a horrifically bigoted organization with a hatred of blacks, Mexicans, queer Americans, and a dubious grasp of the law. Bleichert and Blanchard are actually rising stars because of their former boxing careers but specifically because both of them are handsome white men that the department promotes as racial icons.
    • Blanchard has suffered some career issues for living with Kay Lake. Not because she's a former CI of his but because living with a woman that isn't his wife is a against department policy and could get him fired.
    • Reefer is considered a dangerous street drug and possession of it is enough to justify lethal force after the fact.
    • Much of the difficulty the police run into regarding Elizabeth Short's murder comes from the fact their interviewees almost all engage in Slut-Shaming. The fact she casually dates many men is treated as something that brought her fate onto her, even from other young women.
  • Dirty Cop: Par for the course for an Ellroy novel. Fritz Vogel, his son John Vogel, Bill Koenig, and Lee Blanchard are all as corrupt as they come.
  • Famed In-Story: Bleichert and Blanchard known as "Fire and Ice" due to the oddity of two well-liked former professional boxers serving in the same precinct. An exhibitionist boxing match between them also wins them a lot more fame as well as results in them being named partners.
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: One of the reason the Black Dahlia case becomes a media circus is a beautiful woman horrifically murdered sells a lot of papers. The police notably foresees this but fails miserably in containing the story.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Bleichert agrees not to mention Madeline Sprague in his reports in exchange for sex. Comes back to bite him in the ass big-time when the entire Sprague clan is revealed to have had a hand in the murder of the Dahlia, among other depravities. In the end, he doesn't even arrest Ramona Sprague, who actually murdered Elizabeth Short, because she's Secretly Dying.
  • Meaningful Background Event: At the start of Chapter Nine, during the First Summary Report on the Short investigation Item 6 refers to a woman complaining of "weird sounding gibberish" in the Hollywood Hills, and after a follow-up the incident is put down to drunken revelers and disregarded. Predictably, that's the actual murder scene that Bleichert finds twenty-three chapters later. Wouldn't want to end things too soon, would we?
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: A central theme of the novel and the real-life unsolved murder case on which it is partly based. In-universe, it is why the Black Dahlia murder becomes so infamous. The graphic nature of the crime combined with the fact it was a beautiful (white) woman is stated to be the reason the newspapers are all over the death. It is also why the department is giving it top priority as they wish to justify a recent budget increase.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Emmett Sprague and his daughter Madeline have an intimate and quasi-sexual relationship due to the fact they're not biologically related. Madeline corrects that she's not had sex with her father, though.
  • Pædo Hunt: Bleichert and Blanchard love going after sex offenders because it is good publicity as well as morally complicated in their Crapsack World. Unfortunately, after successfully collaring one, they end up killing four (mostly innocent) bystanders while searching for a second one.
  • Police Are Useless: The novel presents a zigzagged trope. The police are shown to be corrupt, possessed of Skewed Priorities, largely bigoted, often incompetant, and prone to Police Brutality. However, the police are shown to be necessary when dealing with real criminals like pedophiles and murderers like Nash.
  • Police Brutality: A attempt to shake down some pot smoking black men and their white friend for information on a local child molester ends up with killing all four of the suspects. It also traumatizes both Blechert and Blanchard. They're cleared of all charges, however, due to the fact their victims were pot users.
  • Politically Correct History: The LA of The Black Dahlia begins with the Zoot Suit Riots between American Servicemen and Mexicans among other minorities. Our protagonists belong to the LAPD that is depicted as racist, homophobic, Antisemitic, and deeply committed to promoting white cops like our protagonists. The language of the book is also sprinkled with slurs throughout.
  • Questionable Consent: Bleichert accepts the offer of sex in exchange for suppressing evidence linking Madeline Sprague to the Elizabeth Short case. Before their first liaison, she starts acting like they've entered in a real relationship because her father likes him.
  • Racist Grandpa:
    • Bleichert's father is a former member of the American Nazi Party. This causes Blechert a great deal of problems during WW2 and prevents him from becoming a police officer until he has to rat out two of his Japanese friends.
    • Madeline's father Emmett is an open Nazi sympathizer and wished the Allies had helped them fight against the Soviets.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Blanchard acts as the more impulsive, emotionally compromised red. Bleichert manages to keep his emotions under check much more successfully, to the point of being accused of outright coldness. The pair are even branded as 'Fire and Ice' during the build up to their boxing match.
  • The Savage South: Tijuana is depicted as a barbaric place full of sex shows, prostitution, cops that make the LAPD look nice, and casual violence. Doubles as a Wretched Hive.
  • Skewed Priorities: The LAPD puts 100 cops on the Black Dahlia case, including Bleichert and Blanchard due to their recent good publicity. This causes their other cases to grind to a halt and doesn't help matters as there's nothing more police will find out than a smaller number of trained specialists.
  • Sliding Scale of Law Enforcement: Largely negative, although surprisingly not as much as in later L.A. Quartet works. Most of the L.A.P.D. genuinely wants to solve the Dahlia case. To the point that certain elements are willing to indulge in brutal questioning of subjects up to and including kidnapping convicted sex offenders, hanging them from meat-hooks and subjecting them to beatings while having each man mutilate a corpse from the morgue to 'prove' that they are the Dahlia killer.
  • Slut-Shaming: Elizabeth Short casually dated a large number of men and this is constantly brought up by her father, roommates, and landlady as a sign of her awful character. Attempts by the police to track down any of her boyfriends in hopes of finding the killer are stymied by witnesses just saying there were too many to count.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: Elizabeth Short's roommates, father, land lady, and most of her boyfriends have very little good to say about her. Indeed, they often insult her promiscuity, lack of talent with money, and habit of making up white lies about how well her attempts at becoming an actress were going.
  • Springtime for Hitler: A zigzagged trope for the boxing match. Bleichert has a plan to take a dive in the boxing match against Blanchard in order to gain enough money that he can pay to put his dementia-suffering Nazi father into a home for two or three years. He realizes he can beat Blanchard and plans to win the fight clean before losing cleanly to a the exact round he was supposed to take a dive.
  • South of the Border: Part of the latter half of the book involves an extended trip to Tijuana in order to investigate Lee Blanchard's disappearance.
  • Sunshine Noir: Like the rest of LA Quartet, it is set in a sleazy, dark, and corrupt version of Los Angeles in the 1940s with much of the violence taking place in broad daylight.
  • Stock Unsolved Mysteries: Elizabeth Short's murder AKA The Black Dahlia case is the basis for the novel.
  • Taken Off the Case: Blanchard and Bleichert both get removed from the Black Dahlia case at various points. Blanchard for his increasingly over the top antics and reaction to a pornographic film starring Elizabeth Short while Bleichert gets removed for beating a teenage kid who confessed.
  • They Do: Kay and Bleichert marry after Lee's death. Their marriage is rocky until he solves Elizabeth Short's murder.
  • Turn in Your Badge: Blanchard's obsession with the Black Dahlia combined with his drug addiction as well as insubordination results in him getting kicked off the force. Bleichert is also eviscerated by the defense lawyer of the arrestee, forcing him out of the force.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Bleichert and Blanchard quickly become best friends while Kay Lake tags along. It is complicated because Bleichert is deeply attracted to Kay, possibly in love, and vice versa but she is (officially) with Blanchard. Bleichert actually avoids starting an affair as much to keep his friendship with Kay as well as not offending Blanchard.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Both Blanchard and Bleichert are disgusted by the media depicting their killing of four suspects as a heroic gunfight against evildoers. The reality being it was a spur of the moment escalation of force by both parties going horribly wrong.