The ‘Black Dahlia’ was the name given to Elizabeth Short, a young woman killed in Los Angeles in early 1947, and has since been made famous by authors like James Ellroy (who wrote a fictional book with that title) and by countless people still trying to solve the crime. The murder became a cause celebre for a number of reasons: Short was attractive, the murder was brutal (the body was cut in two, and a red rose tattoo cut off it), and because of the name (the Black Dahlia) which is thought to have been inspired by a film around the same time, The Blue Dahlia.
Piu Eatwell is an Anglo-Indian writer with a legal background, and she returns in earnest to the evidence – going (it would appear) diligently through the paperwork that is still available: there is plenty that has disappeared or been destroyed, but a surprising amount to still go through. And she tells the tale very well, almost in the manner of a hard-boiled crime novel, with the cast of characters feeling like they’ve stepped straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel: the corrupt police chief; the eccentric profiler; the glamorous femme fatale; the shady impresario….and so on. As a result, it’s incredibly easy to dive into, like switching on a black and white film on a Sunday afternoon.
The other thing that is compelling about the book is Eatwell’s explanation of what happened and who-actually-dunnit. Of course, you can and will find a hundred different explanations online of who killed the Black Dahlia – from the faintly plausible through to the utterly ridiculous – but I certainly ended up convinced by what Eatwell has pieced together about Leslie Dillon, Mark Hansen and the bloodied room at the Aster Motel. She marshals her evidence well, and reveals it mostly at the right pace to suit the story (although very occasionally, I felt it could have moved a bit quicker) – right up to the new information that comes forward after the book has been published.
Of course, if you don’t like true crime, then this isn’t for you; but if you’re a sucker for a murder story, for a detective-cum-history tale, and for a story that grips as tight as any fiction, then you could do a lot worse than this. Recommended.