Hollywood attracts hundreds of young women every year. In January 1947, one of them turned up dead in a field in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles -- a mere ten minutes away from Sunset and Vine. In life, Elizabeth Short picked up the nickname "The Black Dahlia" due to her penchant for dressing all in black. There was nothing special about the twenty-two-year-old aspiring actress except that whoever killed her also cut her body in half. That appalling detail plus her exotic nickname made her famous. Who killed her is still a mystery. That fact made her a legend.
Every few years, some one writes a book about the murder of Beth Short. I always buy them, so I was well-versed in Dahlia lore when I read Black Dahlia Avenger on the long train ride from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh. There wasnít much new information. Even the authorís assertion that his own father butchered Beth Short wasnít novel. At least one other writer identified HER father as the killer.
Steve Hodel is a retired LAPD Homicide Detective. After the death of his father George, Steve finds a photograph of a dark-haired woman in his fatherís possessions. For some reason, he believes that itís a picture Beth Short. I stared at the photo for a long time. I wanted to accept the premise that there was some connection between the images in the book and other known photos of Elizabeth Short. No matter how hard I squinted, I couldnít see any resemblance.
The ingťnue in George Hodelís belongings has an oval face. Her eyes are closed and she appears to be resting. The Dahlia has a triangular face -- wide at the cheek bones, narrow at the chin. The two women have different noses, different hairlines and different brows. I am not the only one to struggle with the authorís vast leap of logic -- but, regardless, Hodel is a true believer in his own fantasy.
However, despite my skepticism, I found this book an intriguing study in family dynamics. Clearly, George Hodel had a strained relationship with all of his children. Based on the revelations in this book, he was a self-absorbed son of a gun with a wandering eye and a cruel streak. He was intelligent, talented and troubled. That describes a lot of people. Some of them are murderers. Most arenít.
Steve Hodel seems driven to either prove or disprove his suspicions about his father. Drawing on his professional expertise, his intimate knowledge of LA police procedures and his access to family information, he builds a case based on his belief that his father knew Elizabeth Short.
The author starts by sifting through newspaper reports from the 1940s and concludes that the Dahlia murder was part of a series of killings. He thinks he recognizes his fatherís handwriting on notes sent to the newspapers by someone claiming to be the Black Dahlia murderer. He talks with detectives who have inherited the case file and learns that the police questioned his father about the case.
He explores his fatherís life through family sources, public records and his own memories. It was impossible to determine where anyone was on a given night a half century ago, but Steve Hodel tries. He hires handwriting analysts to confirm his belief that George Hodel wrote the Black Dahlia notes. He tracks his fatherís interest in the Marquis de Sade and concludes that sadism was involved in Beth Shortís body mutilations.
While it seemed pretty obvious to me that a sadist killed the Dahlia, linking the authorís father to the murder because of an interest in de Sade was a big stretch for me. Half the people on the Internet could be the Black Dahlia murder if that was the criterion.
Most amusing to me, however, was the authorís contention that George Hodelís friendship with famous painter Man Ray had something to do with the way that the killer posed Elizabeth Shortís body. I found myself twisting my head sideways trying to see what Steve Hodel says he sees in the reproductions of those paintings. It was like trying to interpret ink blots. ďDoes that look like a bull to you?Ē I asked my husband who shrugged and shook his head at my ghoulish approach to art appreciation.
There is no direct physical evidence to connect the Dahlia to anyone, let alone George Hodel. Its premise guarantees that it wonít be taken seriously by those well-versed in Dahlia lore. However, the book itself is fun to read simply because speculation is fun. They do it all the time on Court TV. The author is earnest and diligent in his investigation. He puts together a story that is possible -- but not very plausible. Steve Hodel comes across as a man too willing to stretch the facts of the case to fit the circumstances of his fatherís life. Who knows? Maybe heís another frustrated Charlie Babbit -- mad that all his father left him was a 1949 Buick Roadmaster, rose bushes and an idiot savant named Raymond.
In the end, I found the author likeable and genuine. He had a solid career that perhaps he misses now that heís retired. Perhaps he has an inquiring mind and too much time to think. Whatever the truth of the Dahlia case, Steve Hodelís odyssey is one that many of us with unhappy childhoods can appreciate -- were the adults in our lives protectors or monsters?