James Ellroy

His The Black Dahlia has been adapted to film.

James Ellroy amassed a lot of research before writing The Black Dahlia (see review, p. 77), which began his "L.A. quartet" of crime novels, as he explained during a recent visit to Seattle. But, he adds, "Beyond a certain point, you just make it up." Why was he so drawn to the Los Angeles of the '40s and '50s, a period he remembered only dimly from childhood? (He was born in 1948.) "The case itself," he answers, meaning the infamous 1947 murder and dismemberment of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, nicknamed "the Black Dahlia" in the press. "And of course you know the story: My mother was murdered in '58. I got Jack Webb's book The Badge on the occasion of my 11th birthday; it contained a haunting 10-page summary of the Black Dahlia murder case. It's also that basic human urge to understand the time immediately before our birth. So as I lived as a child in L.A. in the '50s and the early '60s, my mind was subsumed with the lore of L.A. in the 1940s. It was imbued in my consciousness. So it's only natural, given my proclivities, given my early literacy, given my personal story, that I would seize upon this murder. "The murder itself has never been forgotten. There are reasons for this. It was the first media-manufactured murder. Nothing was happening in America of note, much less L.A. of note, in January 1947. You have a young woman chopped in half, naked, dumped in a vacant lot. And there were five daily newspapers. It was on the front page for weeks. Underlying all this is the fact that there was no substantial dialogue on sexual psychopathy at the time. The hideous facts of Elizabeth Short's death, as they became known, entranced people, shocked and mortified them. There was little discussion as to what it all meant. There was very little contextualizing. It was, 'Who was this girl?'" All this was at a time when the L.A. Police Department was fairly corrupt, Ellroy explains. And long before DNA analysis and the forensic methods we see every night—or what seems like every night—on CSI. The case remains open, of course, unlike the fictional solution provided in the novel and movie. "I like going back and rewriting history to my own specifications," says Ellroy. "I like reliving memory. I get a sense of a historical period many years after that period has passed. My basic process is interpretation." And how does he look back on his hometown now? "L.A. was a lodestone for psychically maimed misfits running from World War II. And, who knows, maybe one of them killed Elizabeth Short." Brian Miller bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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