She came to Los Angeles during World War II from nowhere special, a pretty girl with big hair and bad teeth who liked to go to bars and nightclubs. She believed in love and romance and lived on hot dogs and Coca-Cola, lavished hours on her makeup in dollar-a-night furnished rooms. A drifter, something of a cipher, she was a person people remembered vaguely but could never quite pull into focus. A good time gal who didn’t really seem to have a good time, demanded a little too much sympathy and hardly ever returned a favor. She sometimes spoke of a husband killed in the war, a baby who died, but these were figments of a waking dream that carried her through sleepless nights. If someone hadn’t cut her in half, the world would know precious little about Elizabeth Short.
She had been nicknamed the Black Dahlia, a name so movie-perfect for the era of noir that her murder became symbolic of everything weird and inexplicable festering under the city’s gleaming surfaces. Steve Hodel’s bestseller, “Black Dahlia Avenger,” is the latest in a long procession of novels and nonfiction books to treat the Dahlia case as Los Angeles’ emblematic homicide, a killing affixed to the city the way Jack the Ripper is to Victorian London and the Strangler is to Boston. The Dahlia killing engraved itself into urban mythology; it seemed to say something stark and ugly about the emptiness of glamour and the wages of sin. Short’s dead body became a movie star, a cautionary tale and a magnet for a large assortment of pathologies, many of them literary.
The symbolic message of Short’s corpse as the killer arranged it at 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park in early 1947 could not in itself be less mysterious or more readily aligned with notions of Hollywood as a sausage factory for the young and beautiful. Like the Manson killings, the Hillside Strangler slayings and the Night Stalker spree, the Black Dahlia murder was carried out with its effect on the public very much in mind. The perps in all these cases had something to tell the world, posing the bodies, writing things in blood, sending a garbled telegram about the incurable in human nature.
The classic account is John Gilmore’s “Severed,” which achieves the almost impossible feat of turning the very blankness of Elizabeth Short’s brief life into a thing of riveting oddity. According to Gilmore, Short had a rare vaginal deformity that made the image of a sexually easy creature of the night nothing more than an image; if we accept this premise, the Dahlia story becomes the dark tale of a hapless mimic whose grasp of adult relations extended only to what they looked like in the movies. There’s no reason not to credit Gilmore’s fastidious account, in which one drifter kills another, then dies in a flea-pit hotel fire: This cruddy, depressing solution to the mystery is utterly consistent with the pathos of the world the Black Dahlia traveled through on her way to the big nowhere.
For a certain mentality, however, prosaic justice demands that an unusually vicious, legendary murder turn out to have been committed by a truly unlikely, preferably famous individual or, failing that, someone connected to famous people. Hodel, a former homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, manages to implicate several famous personalities in Short’s murder. “Black Dahlia Avenger” has the added frisson of its author’s bizarre discovery, after two entire years of research, that Short’s killer was -- gasp! -- his own father.
Hodel is not the only person in recent years to discover exactly this skeleton in the family closet. In 1995, a book called “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer” revealed that its co-author, Janice Knowlton, a former lounge singer, had discovered through recovered memory that her father murdered Short after Short left an aborted fetus in her father’s garage. Horrifically, Knowlton was forced to witness much of the torture and mutilation inflicted on Short and to help him dispose of the remains.
Knowlton’s is the kind of book it doesn’t do to argue with: Its author seems to have channeled a rich vein of snuff pornography while gazing at healing crystals in some quack’s office. Hodel, having been a homicide cop, would seem a more rigorously fact-driven investigator. And yet Hodel’s father, like Knowlton’s, was named George. What Hodel considers proof is strangely tangled with nebulous memories. Could Steve Hodel be an “alternative personality” of Janice Knowlton?
Let’s call this personality Steve and see what he has to say. After an obligatory shock-horror opening that whisks us back to Leimert Park on that dreadful morning in 1947, Steve recounts his own bittersweet and strained relations with his father, Dr. George Hodel, up until his death in 1999. There would be no funeral, as per his will, but Steve flies to San Francisco to console Dad’s widow, June. She gives him a small photo album that belonged to his father, unwittingly opening Pandora’s Box.
Among the pictures, Dad -- at one time a professional photographer, among many other things, and an intimate of Man Ray -- has kept throughout the years are two of a woman with her eyes closed. Something tries to bubble up from memory. The face is familiar yet unknown. At last it hits him: It’s the face of Elizabeth Short.
There are also pictures of Hodel Jr.'s first wife, Kayo, whom we now learn had been, unknown to Steve, one of Dad’s mistresses before Steve married her. We later find out that she cheated on Steve and lied about her age (that is to say, lied about her age extremely). Steve now realizes that the love between Kayo and his father was a deep and tumultuous one, rather than a silly fling, and concludes that Kayo married him to wreak revenge on Dad.
To get to Short, Steve seems to have taken a cherished bromide of American prosecutors a bit too much to heart -- that is, circumstantial evidence is often more valuable than eyewitness testimony.
He tells us first about his father’s extremely rangy life. Dr. Hodel had been, at various times, a concert pianist, a crime reporter, a radio announcer, an artist, finally a surgeon and psychiatrist. In 1947, he and the family were living in the posh Lloyd Wright’s Sowden house at Franklin and Normandie avenues, in Steve’s account a brooding Gothic pile full of secret rooms straight out of “Vathek.” Dr. Hodel operated a venereal disease clinic downtown, presumably another accursed lair of dark secrets. Among his friends were Henry Miller and John Huston.
The picture Steve paints of his father unavoidably calls to mind those sinister doctors in novels by Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, usually found at a starlet’s bedside at 3 in the morning brandishing a syringe. There were, at the spooky Lloyd Wright house, orgies. There was, among Dr. Hodel and his famous friends, an interest in the Marquis de Sade. One of Steve Hodel’s older brothers recalls seeing Dr. Hodel write something on a woman’s breast in lipstick at a typical get-together. Shortly after the Dahlia slaying, another unsolved homicide became known as “the Lipstick Murder.”
At various moments in the book, after depositing such tidbits, Steve announces that he has “proven” something, perhaps meaning something in the realm of the occult. Dr. Hodel, we are told, admired Man Ray, who did a famous portrait of the Marquis de Sade and was a surrealist. The surrealist group once made photo-booth portraits of themselves with their eyes closed to emphasize the belief that dreams and reality are the same.
In the pictures of Short that Steve found in his father’s album, her eyes are also closed. Moreover, the way the dismembered Dahlia was posed bears a close resemblance, qua Steve, to the figure in Man Ray’s photograph “Minotaur.” The Marquis de Sade left instructions that he did not want any funeral obsequies or memorial, virtually the same stipulation found in Dr. Hodel’s last will and testament.
There is more, much more. Dr. Hodel was -- or so Steve claims -- the “prime suspect” in the Dahlia police file, though which file, discovered in what year, in whose department and by whom are questions so muddied by Steve’s account that any methodical reader would be skeptical. Steve’s revelations occur to him by way of “thoughtprints”: products of free association. An accomplice of Dr. Hodel’s named Frank Sexton is remembered by a witness; photographs and “thoughtprints” summon him as a “swarthy” man. Steve is later made aware of the presence of a swarthy man in some 15 murders, including that of James Ellroy’s mother.
The Dahlia body site is only a few miles from the Sowden house. So are a million other things in Los Angeles, but this kind of pataphysical eureka defines this entire book’s methodology: The mere physical proximity of one thing to another suggests a relationship -- Dr. Hodel lived in Los Angeles, so did Elizabeth Short; an interest in the Marquis de Sade (an interest shared by Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Klossowski, Maurice Blanchot and many other literary figures) becomes solid proof that Man Ray, Huston and Dr. Hodel were “sadists” and that Dr. Hodel, at least, along with swarthy Frank, had no inhibitions about perpetrating the tortures and mutilations of De Sade’s novels in real life; a man claiming to be the Dahlia killer who called a reporter spoke in a refined, sibilant voice; Dr. Hodel had once been a radio announcer and also had such a voice; and so on.
Perhaps aware that his portrait of a libertine, murderous coven in his childhood home is only marginally more plausible than Janice Knowlton’s acrobatic feats of memory, Steve eventually rolls his sister, Tamar, onto the proscenium. Tamar, once a freewheeling buddy of Michelle Phillips, is now an older and wiser mom of two daughters, named Fauna 1 and Fauna 2.
As a teen, Tamar told police who picked her up as a runaway that her father had molested her. This resulted in an indictment, a trial, a scandal. After being acquitted, Dr. Hodel fled the country, staying away for most of the following 40 years, leaving Steve in the clutches of his mother, a drunk. Man Ray went back to Paris around the same time.
Like Steve, Tamar is willing to say anything about anybody as long as they are dead. John Huston, Tamar asseverates, tried to rape her when she was 11: He was, she says, exactly like his character in “Chinatown.” According to Steve, Dr. Hodel had such powerful goods on the high and mighty because of his VD clinic that Tamar’s accusations would never have resulted in formal charges, except for a bureaucratic screw up. Man Ray, he implies, somewhat contradictorily, might also have been snared by the webs of justice had he, too, not been “powerful,” but he fled the country just in case. The notion of Man Ray as a person with awesome power over the Los Angeles police and district attorney’s office is itself rather ponderous.
What we have here is a wacky parody of a police procedural, with a rich and fascinating subtext of delusion. There is also something plangent and, in an underdog way, tragic about somebody so wounded by a lousy childhood that his father becomes a veritable Minotaur in his adult imagination, a scourge to all women, faceted and diabolical as Fu Manchu. Remember that Oedipus, too, was a kind of detective.
All the same, it isn’t nice to drag a lot of famous dead people into your family muck, unless you have witnesses a little more reliable than someone who differentiates her children by numbering them.
It is, finally, and not at all sympathetically, appalling that a homicide detective would sell out his professional integrity to produce this piece of meretricious, revolting twaddle, which amounts to evidence manufacturing, litigation-proof slander and chicanery on a fabulous scale and does absolutely nothing to answer the question: Who killed Elizabeth Short?