Writing the Last Word on a Mystery?
“You know,” James Ellroy said over the phone, “I’m the son of a murder victim.”
So I heard. If you know anything about Ellroy, you know that’s who he is.
Ellroy’s mother was killed in El Monte on June 22, 1958. The unsolved case drove the lad inward, and some would say Ellroy -- the brilliant author and chronicler of death -- has never crawled free of the darkest corners of his soul. Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” among his other explorations of human weakness, reveled in their own inspired depravity.
But I hadn’t called Ellroy to ask about his own books. I had called to ask how he ended up writing the foreword to the newly released paperback version of another book on Elizabeth Short. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia, her nude, bisected body was found posed in a Leimert Park lot in 1947.
The way I heard it, Ellroy, a careful student of the case, didn’t buy the theory laid out in Steve Hodel’s “Black Dahlia Avenger,” first published a year ago. Hodel, a former LAPD homicide cop, had dropped a bombshell of an accusation in that book:
His very own father, he claimed, was the killer.
Hodel also claimed that in 1958, Fred Sexton, his father’s occasional partner in crime, might have killed a woman named Geneva Ellroy, the mother of a 10-year-old boy named James.
“I don’t think Sexton had anything to do with it,” Ellroy told me of his mother’s murder. “I think that was a date rape that went bad.”
Ellroy, who met Steve Hodel at a police gathering last year and “connected in a shared world of Oedipus Rex,” told me I was correct about his initial skepticism on the claim that Dr. George Hodel killed the Black Dahlia. Ellroy liked his new friend Steve Hodel’s book as a work of art, but he didn’t think detective Hodel cracked the case.
So what happened to make the hard-boiled psychic son of Raymond Chandler change his mind?
I’ll get to that later.
By Steve Hodel’s account, Dr. George Hodel, politically connected and incurably avaricious, was a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. His pals included John Huston and Man Ray, who joined him for wild orgies at the Hodel home on Franklin near Normandie.
If you’ll recall from my columns of a year ago, I enjoyed the “Avenger” as a journey to the intersection of “Chinatown” and “Hollywood Babylon,” but I remained skeptical about Hodel’s theory on his father. Dr. Hodel might well have killed the Black Dahlia, but I didn’t think his detective son had ever put the two of them together, let alone prove a murder.
Besides, Steve Hodel had plenty of reasons -- consciously or subconsciously -- to want to destroy his father’s name, even though the old man was already sleeping with worms. The lecherous doctor had been accused of raping Steve’s sister, and he had abandoned his family. And Steve Hodel’s first wife, he discovered after marrying her, had been his father’s lover.
I ceded some, but not all, of my skepticism after a fateful trip to the D.A.'s office last year. L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley let me dig into a file that hadn’t been opened for over half a century, and what I found -- along with gruesome photos of the victim -- was evidence that Hodel’s father was indeed a suspect in the 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short.
Back now to Ellroy, and the role that evidence played in turning him around on Steve Hodel’s theory.
“I was impressed with the scholarship but not entirely convinced,” he said of his first reading of Hodel’s book. “Then of course I read the revised version, which had the file you yourself turned up at the D.A.'s office.”
Those files, which are the subject of an addendum in the paperback version of “Avenger,” included bugging transcripts. D.A. investigators had concealed a microphone in Dr. Hodel’s Los Feliz house, and here’s the line that jumped off the page when I first saw it a year ago:
“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia,” the doctor says. “They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”
As I see it with a journalist’s eye, that line proves only that Dr. Hodel knew he was a suspect. I even thought he might have known he was being bugged, so he was toying with investigators.
As for the secretary, Steve Hodel thinks his father killed her because she knew too much, and made it look like a suicide.
And how did he get away with all this savagery if both the LAPD and the district attorney were onto him? Because he ran an abortion clinic and had the goods on all the L.A. cops and power brokers who counted on him to hide their sins, Steve Hodel believes.
Ellroy doesn’t buy the conspiracy theory, and he disagrees with Hodel on another critical point, as well.
Hodel first thought of his father as a suspect while going through the doctor’s belongings after he had died. It was then that Hodel found what he believed to be photos of Betty Short.
But Ellroy doesn’t buy it. That’s not Betty in the photos, he says.
And yet on the basis of circumstantial evidence, George Hodel’s “sexual psychopathy” and the D.A. file, among other things, James Ellroy, one of the greatest crime writers of our time, thinks Steve Hodel has solved the L.A. crime of the 20th century.
“Are there other interpretations?” Ellroy asked. “Yes, and you’re right to be skeptical. But on balance, I think he did it.”
I asked Ellroy if, because of his own past, he has some need to believe that an unsolved case has been closed.
“If I have any kind of agenda, it’s to see these cases remain unsolved,” he said. “I like the haunting quality.... Given that I’m the son of a murdered mother who’ll never be avenged, it allows me a greater level of communion with these women.”
In his foreword, Ellroy calls Betty Short a “postwar Mona Lisa” and “an L.A. quintessential.” He says that Steve Hodel’s book costs the ex-cop a father and gains him a daughter.
“There’s Betty,” he writes. “She’s young. She’s vibrant. She lives.”
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.