Monday, August 1, 2011

THE BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy

The first book in Ellroy's already-classic LA Quartet (The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz are the others), The Black Dahlia is a very pleasant surprise. It is easily the equal of any noir mystery ever written, even the genre-defining works of Hammett, Chandler and Cain. The pacing is swift, the prose taut and sharp, the narrative voice almost completely convincing. The seeming ease with which Ellroy slips into the 1940s, recreating its atmosphere of deep and blatant racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, casual brutality (happy days are most definitely not here again in Ellroy's LA--or ours, for that matter) should cause all period novelists to turn at least slightly green. There is much to praise in this book, and much to criticize, but the aspect that most puzzled and intrigued me is the novel's false ending. As anyone who has read it knows, The Black Dahlia seems to come to a satisfying conclusion 100 pages before its end, with the title murder unsolved (as it officially remains in un-Ellroyed reality) and the hero married. I suspect that I'm not the only reader who arrived at page 258 and wondered what the remaining third of the book could possibly contain. To read these pages and find that they contain a rather typical (if finally surprising) solution to the crime was disappointing at first--as though Ellroy, having written a novel that departed from genre conventions, was compelled to bring his story back into line. But there is another, more interesting way to read the double ending of The Black Dahlia. Maybe the story does in fact end with Bucky and Kay's wedding, and the remainder of the novel is pure fantasy. The last 100 pages might be interpreted as Bucky Bleichert's fevered, obsessive, psychotic, noirish fantasy of solving the Dahlia murder. The final denouement is thus not so much Ellroy's genre-fulfillment as Bucky's wish-fulfillment. Unable to solve the case in novelistic 'reality', he solves it in writing, creating a compensatory narrative that relates to his own life much as the novel The Black Dahlia relates to Ellroy's life--a narrative compensation for the unsolved murder of his mother.

1 comment:

Shamus said...

Brian Oard,

I'm surprised that you lavish so much praise over Ellroy's Black Dahlia: you've mentioned Chandler, Hammett and Cain, but let me add the writer who was actually in Los Angeles and writing at the time of the 1950s: Ross MacDonald. When you contrast the genteel quality of MacDonald's novels with the Martian landscapes of Ellroy, you begin to have the most vertiginous study in contrast imaginable.

But Ellroy's excesses that makes me doubt his novels: it seems as though any writer who portrays life in the worst possible terms is given a free-pass to "realism". But they are as much fantasies (though of a very different kind) as Chandler and MacDonald, with their white knights riding down broken streets with their quaint and troubled look at prostitution and pornography (!).

For what's it's worth, I'd wager that Ian Rankin is (or was) a far better writer - and plotter - than Ellroy, though it probably doesn't count for much.

But for exuberant "literariness", Hammett is probably the greatest of all crime-writers.