The Black Dahlia
James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia is a fictionalized account of the real life murder of Elizabeth Short. Short’s body was found in an abandoned field near the famous Hollywood sign on January 15, 1947. Despite a long and public investigation, the murder remains unsolved to this day. It is one of the most famous unsolved cases in American history.
The novel follows Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, an officer known more for his prowess in the boxing ring than his ability to uphold the law. He becomes partners with Lee Blanchard, a well-known and respected officer who is rising quickly in the police department. Bucky learns quickly at the hands of the more experienced Lee. He also falls in love with Lee’s live-in girlfriend, Kay Lake, a woman Lee met when he arrested and testified against her ex-boyfriend.
While investigating another crime, Bucky and Lee are among the first officers to respond when the body of Elizabeth Short is found. She has been mutilated and cut in half. Also, her mouth has been slashed open from ear to ear. Bucky and Lee are transferred to the case, and Lee becomes obsessed with finding the killer. His sister was murdered when he was a child, and Bucky believes Lee’s unwavering focus on the case is a result. Bucky instantly wants to be off the case, but in compromise he promises Lee one week on the case.
The investigation uncovers many unsavory details about Elizabeth, who was known by many aliases. Elizabeth was a liar who used men for her own ends and was obsessed with becoming a Hollywood star despite her lack of talent. Betty, as she was more commonly known, also appeared in a pornographic movie. However, all evidence that painted Betty in a questionable light was swept under the rug by the Assistant District Attorney, who wanted to find the killer of the "innocent" Betty in order to further his future political career.
Bucky remains on the case for months, despite the disappearance of his partner. He becomes involved in the conspiracy to hide evidence when he engages in an affair with Madeleine Sprague, a Black Dahlia look alike, in exchange for making certain her name remains out of the investigation. Bucky and the other officers investigate thousands of leads; however, none lead to the capture of the murderer.
Bucky is eventually taken off the case, but his obsession with the murder victim permeates all aspects of his life, including his marriage. Bucky investigates the murder even when he is off duty. His marriage suffers and eventually dissolves as he becomes further and further enmeshed in the life and murder of Elizabeth Short.
Eventually, Bucky’s investigation leads him to a bungalow in Hollywood, where it appears the investigation comes to an end. However, the haunting image in a painting leads Bucky to uncover a larger conspiracy, one in which he serves as an unwitting participant. The real killer is someone Bucky never suspected, and the conspiracy to conceal the killer’s connection to Betty could cost Bucky his career.
The Black Dahlia Major Characters
Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert
- The narrator
- Police officer investigating the Black Dahlia case
- Partner of Lee Blanchard
- A former boxer
- Bucky’s partner, Kay’s boyfriend
- A boxer
- Addicted to Benzedrine
- Obsessed with the Dahlia case because of his sister’s murder
- Gets murdered in Mexico
- Former girlfriend of a convict arrested by boyfriend Lee
- Marries Bucky
- Assistant District Attorney with political ambitions
- Covers up evidence of Betty Short’s affairs
- The Black Dahlia, murder victim
- Known by many alias, led a questionable life
- Looks like Elizabeth Short and knew her in life
- Becomes involved with Bucky in exchange for him keeping her name out of the investigation
- Bucky and Lee’s supervisor, in charge of the Dahlia investigation
Bucky Bleichert, the narrator, meets his partner, Lee Blanchard, when they are boxing opponents. Blanchard has the reputation of a hero, and Bleichert has the reputation of a snitch.
Bleichert is sent to control a riot. He looks around at the fighting, and then runs down an empty residential street. An old man tells him he is the second police officer to run away. He runs into Blanchard, who is fighting off four men. One of the men is Tomas Dos Santos, who is the subject of an all points fugitive warrant. Blanchard cuffs Dos Santos to himself
Blanchard tells Bleichert he ran away from the riot because he knew there was nothing he could do. The three men spend the night in an empty house. They talk about each other’s reputations. Blanchard was an up and coming officer with friends in high places until he lost them. He also lives with the ex-girlfriend of a man he arrested, which is in violation of the police code. Still, Blanchard plans to be promoted quickly. Blanchard suggests he and Bleichert could be partners someday. In the morning, Blanchard brings Dos Santos in and Bleichert goes back to the station.
Section One: Fire and Ice
Three years later, Blanchard is working in Warrants. His partner is leaving, and Bucky is up for the promotion. Working in the Warrants Department means working with the District Attorney’s office and investigating real crimes instead of handing out traffic tickets.
The District Attorney likes to hire officers who have good boxing records and wants to hire Vogel, the son of a friend in the Detective Bureau. Bucky knows that his promotion hinges on his next fight, and trains until he qualifies as a light heavyweight, a safer division.
Bucky is on the job when he is called to report to the Chief of Detectives. When he arrives at City Hall, the room is filled with officials. Lee Blanchard is also there.
He is instructed to read an editorial in the newspaper titled “Fire and Ice among LA’s Finest”. The article is about Bucky (Ice) and Lee (Fire), but is written in support of a bond to upgrade police equipment and provide an 8% pay raise.
The bond will fail this year, but could be successful next year if they can generate enough good publicity for the department. The officials want Bucky and Lee to box ten rounds. This will generate publicity. If Bucky wins the fight, he will get the promotion.
Bucky spots Lee outside City Hall talking to Kay Lake, Lee’s girlfriend. She is not in favor of the match because she is afraid Bucky will hurt Lee, but Lee promised to buy her a car with the money he is paid for the fight.
The fight sells out within 24 hours and publicity is high. A song about the match is written and played on the radio. Bucky and Lee are local celebrities.
Bucky trains hard for the match until he sees his father. Bucky’s father is not mentally well. He has had several strokes which have caused him to forget English. His father can only speak German and is associated with a pro- Nazi group. Bucky blames his father for his mother’s death.
Bucky liquidates his savings and has a friend bet on Lee to win the fight. He plans on using the winnings to put his father in a rest home.
Kay flirts with Bucky at the gym. He asks why she and Lee never married. She says they can’t, but does not go into details, except for telling Bucky that she doesn’t sleep with Lee.
Bucky does some research on Kay and Lee. He discovers Lee’s nine year old sister was killed when he was fourteen.
Bucky still intends to take the dive, but changes his mind during the match. Bucky fights to win the promotion, but loses in an eighth round KO.
Bucky gets ten days off duty to heal. He and his friend collect his winnings and places his father in a rest home.
Lee visits Bucky and offers him the job in Warrants. The bond issued passed, and the promotion is a reward.
Bucky arrives early on his first day. He is welcomed, both because of the fight and his work to get everyone the pay raise. Loew, the A.D.A., is not happy about Bucky getting the job over his friend’s son. He warns Bucky not to blow this opportunity.
Detective Vogel does not welcome Bucky. In fact, Vogel gets in trouble for working too closely with the District Attorney.
Lee tells Bucky he quit fighting when Benny Siegel, the gangster, started putting heat on him. Lee and Siegel became friends when Lee helped Siegel recover stolen money.
The men are looking to arrest Maynard, a child rapist. Bucky and Lee talk to Mrs. Albanese, the wife of a criminal who knows Maynard. She refuses to give up information, and Lee threatens to play Russian roulette with her dog. She tells them where her husband Bruno is working.
Bruno refuses to give out information until his face is smashed into a plate of food by Lee. He gives them Maynard’s address. Maynard is not home, but the officers now have the make, model, and license number of Maynard’s car.
Bucky arrests Maynard. Back at the station, Lee finds out Bobby De Witt, Kay’s criminal ex-boyfriend, will be paroled.
Bucky, Lee, and Kay quickly become friends, spending all their free time together in the fall of 1946. Bucky begins to fall in love with Kay.
As partners, Bucky and Lee work well together, especially in the interrogation room. Bucky notices Lee pops pills and tends to be overly aggressive. However, Bucky becomes a better cop because of what Lee teaches him.
On New Year’s Eve, Kay tells Bucky she loves him. Bucky does not have a chance to reply.
Bucky and Lee are called to the D.A.’s office to find and arrest Nash, a rapist. He also pistol-whipped an old lady during a robbery. The woman later died.
Bucky and Lee get into a gun fight while searching hoodlums. Lee kills two men during the fight.
Bucky and Lee are questioned about the incident, but since all the deceased are known drug dealers, no further investigations are pursued.
Lee has a rough time dealing with what happened. He takes off on his motorcycle, leaving Bucky with Kay. Kay says Lee is scared because Bobby said he would kill Lee when he gets out of prison.
Bucky sees Kay in the shower. She has knife scars criss-crossing her back.
Section Two: 39th and Norton
Lee calls Bucky and wakes him with a tip about Nash. Bucky meets Lee an apartment building where Nash is renting a place. Nash hasn’t been there in a week. They enter the apartment and find nothing. Bucky sees a group of police officers staring at something in the weeds outside.
Bucky runs outside and sees the coroner and the photo car and knows this is a serious crime scene.
Bucky sees the nude, mutilated body of a young woman. She has been cut in half at the waist. The lower half of her body lay several feet away, legs wide open. Flaps of skin have been cut from her body and her organs have been removed. Her entire body has been slashed, her nose smashed into the facial cavity, and her mouth has been cut from ear to ear.
The police decide to limit the information released about the crime and are sworn to secrecy. Reporters are not allowed near the body or near the crime scene. There is no visible blood at the crime scene. After the coroner takes the body, police canvass the area, talking to everyone they see.
Lee is insistent on investigating the crime, even though they are not Homicide. Bucky believes this is because of Lee’s sister. Lee is determined to get the murderer.
Bucky walks into the station, which is in chaos. Reporters are in Loew’s office for a press conference. He tells the reporters that Lee and Bucky have been put on the case. Bucky discovers Lee got them transferred on the case after arranging surveillance on Nash. Lee asks Bucky for one week.
The newspaper calls the murderer a werewolf, which puts pressure on the D.A. and police to find the killer. They have no leads. The girl was placed in the field after being killed somewhere else. They also do not know the victim’s identity.
Bucky and Lee witness the victim’s autopsy. During the procedure, they receive word the victim has been identified. She is Elizabeth Ann Short.
Loew is outside the hospital giving another press conference. The police have received eighteen confessions, all from crazy people attracted to the sensational nature of the crime.
Bucky and Lee go to question Elizabeth’s father, who is not distressed or emotional about his daughter’s death. He offers an alibi. He and “Betty” were not close and had not spoken for years. He says his daughter was man-crazy and wore all black.
Lee asks Bucky to check on Kay. Kay tells Bucky she has had a crush on him since the first time she saw him fight. She asks if there is a future for the two of them. Bucky tells Kay that Lee has done a lot for him.
The morning newspaper gives Elizabeth the name “The Black Dahlia” and portrays her as a man hungry tramp.
Reporters swarm the station. Bucky demands to be taken off the case, but Loew refuses.
Bucky reviews the file compiled by Russ Millard. Elizabeth had no alcohol or drugs in her system when she died. She has a history of lying and dating servicemen. The last known boyfriend is a man named Red. Police are trying to locate and interview him.
Bucky goes with Bill Koenig to talk to the victim’s neighbors. Lee is passed out on a bench because his pills have worn off.
They talk to the landlady first who says “Beth” was an awful tenant because she was late with the rent. Her apartment has private steps, so she didn’t have to come through the front door. She didn’t see men with her, but heard noises at all hours of the night.
They talk to a girl named Sheryl, who tells them Betty had too many boyfriends and was a liar. Betty lied so much she had trouble keeping her lies straight. She would tell people her father was dead, then the next day, talk about her father. One time, Betty claimed to have worked on a movie. Sheryl did not know the name of the movie, but saw that Betty had an expensive viewfinder she was showing the other girls.
Bucky and Koenig drive to another house. Koenig takes Hal and Don, two men who dated Betty. Bucky interviews Marjorie who says Betty used people and borrowed money. She did anything to be liked and took on the mannerisms of those around her. Betty was in a movie and showed the viewfinder to get attention. She told one person the movie was for Paramount, and told another person the movie was for Fox. Marjorie also says Betty may have been a lesbian involved with an older woman and had a girlfriend named Linda Martin, who lives there as well.
Bucky enters Linda’s apartment. Linda is gone. Bucky finds her identification, stating her name is Lorna Martilkova and is fifteen years old.
Bucky issues an all-points juvenile warrant on Linda. He calls the Screen Actor’s Guild and learns that Elizabeth has not been in any legitimate movie. He also interviews women at lesbian bars, but doesn’t find any leads.
Robert “Red” Manley is brought in for questioning by Millard. He admits to dating Betty, but she led him on. He drove her to LA six days before her death.
Bucky goes out on his own because he can’t find Lee. After getting no leads, he drives to the house and finds Kay dumping LAPD documents about the murder on the front lawn. Lee took copies home against orders.
Bucky follows up with Madeleine Sprague, a woman he met at a lesbian bar. She says she met Betty and Linda last fall. Bucky makes a date with her for the following night.
Bucky picks up Madeleine at her father’s mansion. Her father is a Hollywood tycoon. They have dinner with her family.
After dinner, he and Madeleine drive to a motel and have sex. She says she did not tell Bucky the whole truth before. She tells him she hunted Betty down because she heard Betty looked just like her.
Millard sends Bucky and Lee to Encino to look for Linda, but Bucky can’t find Lee. He goes with Fritzie and Johnny Vogel and brings her into the station for questioning. Millard and Bucky question Linda about Betty. She tells them to call her Lorna, her real name. She tells the she and Betty made a dirty movie together. This is where Betty got the viewfinder. Lorna is held in a private cell.
The movie is screened and Lee loses his temper, shocking everyone. He runs out of the room. Bucky chases Lee across town. Loew takes Lee off the case, but Bucky is ordered to stay on.
Lee does not report in the next day as expected.
Bucky checks the file to make sure Madeleine is not named. He calls her and they have sex again. She confesses she had sex with Betty once and he leaves her.
Bucky and Lee get into a fight at the station. Bucky wins.
Bucky goes to the house to talk with Lee. Kay says Lee left yesterday and her ex is out of jail. Kay tells Bucky not to come back tonight unless he plans on sleeping with her. He tells her that is not possible. She tells him he is scared.
The Chief of Detectives asks Bucky to explain Lee’s actions. Lee is suspended. Bucky discovers Bobby, Kay’s ex, has not checked in with his parole officer. He bought a ticket to Tijuana.
Lee is also in Tijuana, supposedly investigating the man who made the dirty movie. Earlier, Lorna told the truth- the man who made the movie lives in LA. Bucky decides to go to Tijuana to straighten things out.
Loew, Vogel, and Koenig are also in Tijuana. Bobby is in a Mexican prison. Bucky is slammed into the bars by Bobby and knocked out. When Bucky wakes up, Bobby is dead. He wonders if he did it, but is told he is innocent.
Lee is still missing and the police are looking for him. Bucky is questioned, but does not tell about Lee’s drug usage. They ask if he thinks Lee killed Bobby and why Lee is running.
Bucky goes to the hotel room Lee is using to store the documents on the Black Dahlia. It is a shrine to her. Bucky places personal ads in the papers, asking Lee to meet him at the hotel.
Bucky types a formal request for a transfer back to Warrants.
A letter constructed of letters clipped from newspapers arrives at the station. It contains Betty’s address book, social security card, and photos. Pages are ripped out of the book and soaked in gasoline, making further testing impossible.
Bucky knows his request will be denied and tears it up.
No leads come from the letter. Bucky partners with Fritzie Vogel and the two men work well together.
Kay gets a teaching job but continues to give Bucky the cold shoulder. He sees Madeleine more often. Madeleine lets him pretend she is Betty.
Bucky believes Lee is still in Mexico. Lee will be fired if he does not show up soon,
Another letter arrives at the station containing a picture of a short man in a suit. His face has been scratched out.
Millard and Bucky travel to Fort Dix to question Joseph Dulange, an officer who claims he killed Betty when he was in LA. He rambles quite a bit, but does give some details about the murder. He tells the he killed her in a room at the Havana Hotel. The hotel room is checked, but is clean of blood and has no running water. Dulange later admits he made the story up.
Loew offers to send Bucky back to warrants if he interviews four suspects. Bucky and Fritzie conduct the interview. Fritzie brings in a body and tells the suspects to cut the body. He then starts beating the suspects. Bucky pulls the fire alarm and runs away. He has sex with Kay.
Bucky is demoted to beat cop and breaks up with Madeleine. He begins to see Kay on a regular basis, but still dreams of Betty. Kay gets a letter from the police department informing her Lee is fired.
Bucky sees a connection between Fritzie and Johnny Vogel and Charles Michael Isler, a pimp who calls Elizabeth “Liz” when interviewed. He asks Millard to investigate all three. Bucky breaks into both Vogel homes and finds evidence Fritzie is hiding evidence about the case and a women named Sally Stinson. He also finds evidence of extortion.
Bucky and Millard interview Sally who turned tricks with Betty. She was paid by Fritzie to have sex with Johnny. They see Betty, and Johnny had sex with her too. Fritzie threatened her to keep quiet.
Russ injects Johnny with truth serum and Johnny confesses to knowing Betty, his father’s involvement, and the cover-up. Johnny is arrested.
Bucky is put on two weeks leave after Fritzie kills himself and will be assigned to another division. He is now seen as a traitor by the other officers.
Bucky heads to Tijuana to find Lee and gets a tip he is in Ensenada. A bar owner tells him Lee was there a few months ago. A private investigator tells Bucky Lee paid two men to kill Bobby. Lee was killed with an axe, but no one knows who killed him. He digs up Lee’s body and runs when he sees the decay.
Kay tells Bucky she knew Lee before the trial. He planned the robbery with three other men and set up Bobby. Bobby threatened to tell of Lee’s involvement. The men shot by Bucky and Lee were the other men involved in the robbery.
Bucky marries Kay and promises to drop the case.
Section Three: Kay and Madeleine
Bucky becomes an evidence technician.
One day, he finds two thousand dollars Lee left under the floorboards and burns the money. Their marriage suffers.
Bucky sees a picture at a suicide investigation and is reminded of Elizabeth Short. He returns to talk to the wife about the Spragues, Madeleine’s family. Madeleine’s father was involved in crooked construction deals and Madeleine’s mother is mentally disturbed. She thinks this is why Madeleine turned out the way she is.
Bucky begins watching the Sprague house. One night, Madeleine sees him, and Bucky drives away.
Bucky returns home and he and Kay apologize to each other. They go to bed, but Bucky can tell she is faking. She knows he is thinking of Betty.
Bucky follows Madeleine’s car one night. Madeleine is dressed up like Betty, hanging out at a bar. He follows her and a sailor to a hotel, where he watches them go to their old room. He does this for four nights. He starts taking the same pills Lee took.
Bucky asks to be transferred to a beat. While working one night, he calls Madeleine and is invited over. She opens the door dressed as Betty, and he reaches for her.
Section Four: Elizabeth
Madeleine and Bucky have a torrid affair for a month. She says she dressed as the Dahlia to win Bucky back. She changes back to her old look once he is hers.
Kay leaves Bucky. She had detectives follow Bucky, and she knows about Madeleine. She is disgusted because Madeleine looks just like The Dahlia.
Bucky trashes the house and goes to the hotel room Lee filled with evidence on Betty. He picks up a hooker, makes her wear a Dahlia-style wig. She panics and runs when she sees the evidence.
Bucky flies to Boston to investigate Betty’s past. He learns Betty had a blind friend. He tells Bucky she was good at writing. He also tells Bucky that Betty was raped when she was sixteen. When she went to the doctor, she was told she could never have children. She thought if she slept with enough servicemen, she would get pregnant.
Bucky returns to LA and investigates doctors again. He also decides to interview Buzz Meeks, who admits to lying before about his relationship with Betty. He says he doesn’t know who killed her. He does tells Bucky that Betty auditioned for four movie execs, but they laughed at her and told her she could have a part if she serviced them. She left angry. Bucky asks why Meeks never came forward, but is told Loew told him to keep quiet because all of the men had legitimate alibis.
Bucky gets a call from Madeleine, but he says he can’t see her.
Bucky checks the phone records from Betty’s hotel room and gets the numbers for four doctors. One of the doctors is named Roach, which is a link from Dulange’s story years ago. This doctor lost his license for selling drugs.
Roach claims he was in San Francisco when the murder occurred. During interrogation, he admits he examined Betty for Dulange. She used his phone and called someone named Marcy. Betty then left, saying she had a date.
Bucky connects Emmett Sprague, Madeleine’s father to Betty’s dirty movie. He learns the movie was shot in Hollywood, not Mexico.
One of the bungalows built by Sprague is found, bloodstained. The walls are covered with pictures of crippled and disfigured women and pornographic images. A mattress is caked in blood. Bucky notices a blood spattered anatomy book next to the mattress. Bucky takes dark hair samples, strands of rope, fingerprints, and a boot print as evidence. One print appears identical to Betty’s. He also takes a blood stained baseball bat.
Bucky believes George Tilden killed Betty after being fixed up with her at the Sprague house and confronts Madeleine and her father. They are in bed together, and Bucky is told George is actually Madeleine's biological father. Emmett Sprague tells Bucky that George’s father was an anatomist. George used to like to touch the discarded organs as a child.
George saw Betty when the dirty movie was made and became obsessed because she looked like Madeleine. George demanded to meet Betty or he would tell everyone Madeleine was his daughter. Betty called Madeleine from Dr. Roach’s office and came over. Betty left with George, but never came back for her purse. Madeleine paid Linda to say the movie was filmed in Mexico. Her sister was responsible for the letters.
Bucky intends to kill George. He finds George. His bungalow is filled with jars of organs and a written account of the killing. He finds a flap of skin with a tattoo floating in it. The tattoo says “Betty and Major Matt”. George attacks Bucky with scalpels, but Bucky shoots him.
Bucky tells Millard everything, who says the case has to remain open, otherwise Bucky will be fired. They burn the house down.
Madeleine’s sister tells Bucky that Lee took money from her father to leave town. A woman picked up the money. Bucky shows her Kay’s picture, and Martha identifies her.
Bucky confronts Kay about the money. Lee knew who killed Betty and said he would get George after taking care of Bobby. Kay knew the identity the entire time, but never told Bucky because she wanted revenge.
Bucky begins to wonder if he and Lee were set up by Sprague to kill George. He begins to watch the family again.
Bucky visits Jane Chambers and sees the painting again. He learns the painting was sold to the Chambers by Ramona, Sprague’s wife. He recognizes the writing on the receipt as the writing on the confession. Ramona killed Betty.
Ramona confesses to the murder, saying she followed George and Betty to the bungalow. She and George tortured Betty for two days before killing her.
Bucky follows Madeleine to the hotel. She tells the man she is with she killed Lee in Mexico. Bucky arrests Madeleine.
Madeleine tells a gossip magazine about her affair with Bucky and he is fired. He learns Kay left town.
Madeleine is sentenced to ten years in a state hospital.
Bucky receives two letters from Kay, who is living near Boston. She is expecting their child.
Bucky sells the house and flies to Boston.
Bucky decides to be honest with Kay and try to rebuild their life together.