The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (2006)

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I solemnly read the last line of the book I am holding, then close it and put it on the desk next to my bed.

It is 1:30 am and I have finally added James Ellroy’s ‘The Black Dahlia’ to my list of books I no longer have to beat myself up over not having read. Struck with faint memories of the movie adaptation many years before, I knew to expect a seedy unfolding of lust and gruesomeness. It played out perfectly so, and I was prepared for any sexual explicitness or violent bludgeoning the book had in store for me. The twists and turns, and the quick pace of a budding detective/ boxer cop Bucky Bleichert as he becomes entangled in murder and mayhem, at first seemed incongruous to me (who has never dabbled in cop or boxing novels before). But as I progressed from chapter to chapter I became sucked into a world that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from. The book centers around the horrific murder of Elisabeth Short, a whore and aspiring actress, who comes to be known posthumously as The Black Dahlia. A girl with no talent (except in the bedroom) who spins tales of lost war lovers and non-existent  babies…a lost, fragile flower getting by with the only thing she has, her body. I could go into typical book review mode right about now, but I hate spilling the plot; each person should have their own journey into the story of a text. What I do want to talk about though is The Black Dahlia herself, because instead of going to bed, I find myself thinking about her, I find myself obsessing over this poor girl’s pathetic story like the cop duo Bucky and his partner Lee did. It ends up possessing them and turning them to the very corners of themselves, to the corners of self-destruction and emotional corrosion. Her ghostly hooks are already in me.

A book is just a book, right? So imagine my surprise when I hop onto the old faithful google and Wikipedia informs me that the novel is based on historical fact: The Black Dahlia was a real woman who suffered a real death. For those of you who don’t know, she was found in two halves, drained of blood, internal body parts missing, disemboweled, legs broken and wide apart, teeth gnashed into face, mouth slit into a smile from ear to ear…I think you get the picture. In reality the case remains unsolved till this day, with Ellroy’s novel being a fictional speculation. But one thing that is not speculation is that this is a story that sparks many conjectures about the treatment of the female body in society. It can’t be normal, that as I sit and type this out, the Dahlia is seated mutely in a chair at the corner of my room with an expression vividly reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s German Expressionist painting ‘The Scream’. I don’t think she was the seductress that the world made her out to be. It’s so typical of society to label women ‘whores’, who don’t fit into their image of the sinless, perfect, angelic woman. She made mistakes, but she also probably made decisions based on the only choices she had in life. The pieces of her biography offers us a sad life…a confused and vulnerable girl whose fate was brutality.

I enjoyed James Ellroy’s novel, but the picture painted of Elisabeth Short in his pages leaves me unsatisfied. I find myself wishing I could meet her, talk her through life, give her options to a better life…a brighter future beyond the vacant plot she ended up in. So here’s where my contemplations come in. Whether you’re a man or a woman, life sometimes hands you a raw deal. It’s easy for people to say, well you should do this or that…sometimes you don’t have the financial or mental means for such things. Sometimes you find yourself having to work through your demons face to face and do things you’re not particularly fond of (like the Dahlia) I think the only way to win in this life, is to keep your own personal integrity; whatever that may be to you. If your life is going down a dismal path…if your steps are edging closer and closer to nothingness…take a moment to breath and reconfigure. Now the Black Dahlia has become a symbol of something completely different to me. She becomes a sort of talisman against life getting the better of me. She becomes an honest, exposed and beautiful example of strength clothed in black and dipped in red. Weird…how a simple character in a book could bring a dead woman to life and in the process awaken another.


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Kamalini Govender

I'm that girl that looks badass in her black boots reading Gothic Psychoanalytic Lit but really just wants to pew pew pew with someone.

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