Human corruption is so pervasive in James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (The Mysterious Press, 1987) that one thinks of abject darkness when one thinks of the novel at all. It projects a convincing world, but in its underlying ambiance of doom and pessimism it ultimately generates its own inner logic, so that as one plot twist after another throws the reader off kilter, the element of shock and surprise dissipates.
Here we have a character, police detective Bucky Bleichart, whose interest in a horrific crime becomes increasingly entangled with his own inner sense of shame and failure, his pathological fascination with a promiscuous young woman who had been savagely murdered and cut in half before he ever knew of her existence. His erotic obsession with her, his sense of loyalty to friends and his partner, betrays him.
Ellroy has no faith in human character and institutions. The police are corrupt and venal, the prosecuting attorney is a political opportunist, the whole institution of law enforcement devotes itself to solving a crime because of the media’s obsessive fascination.
It seems to me that late in the novel, Mr. Ellroy grows tired of his own games, and he rather easily and simplistically dispenses with key elements of the mystery that he had taken hundreds of pages to introduce. A key bit of information, heretofore hidden from our narrator, is casually revealed by a secondary character, and suddenly an entire dimension of what this novel is about stands resolved, in a matter of a paragraph or two—this happens not through the machinations of the protagonist, but rather through the arbitrary sharing of information.
Bleichart writes in his prologue, “I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backwards, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been—a tag that might equally apply to me.”