More compelling still is the woman at the center of it all. The woman about whom there is so much speculation, but whom nobody really knows. We know that she was young, beautiful, complex, elusive, contradictory. That in her real life she occupied a territory as uncharted and controversial as the film noir heroines whom, in some ways, she resembled, and with whom she became equated. That for her contemporaries, her story became a morality tale, a fable illustrating the dangers posed to women by early twentieth century “Hollywood”: a space of adventure and freedom, glamour, ruthless commercialism, and dangerously uncircumscribed female sexuality.
I almost bypassed this book – I’m glad I didn’t. The notorious Black Dahlia case, the murder and mutilation of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short in Hollywood in 1947, with its unending allure of anything gruesome and unsolved, continues to fascinate even if you thought you were bored with it, apparently.
I read a lurid Daily Mail article (yeah, I know) around the time this book was released, trumpeting the new revelations and laying out the juicy details of author Piu Eatwell’s argument for one suspect, Leslie Dillon, in Short’s slaying. That was enough to satisfy my curiosity about this new update, it had a few “hmmmm” moments but I wasn’t interested in reading the whole book. I had an Old Hollywood fascination as a teenager, but that’s also part of the turnoff of this case for me – I can’t get much interested in that that era now.
And at some point I’d heard that the mob was involved in Short’s murder and I lost interest and ignored anything about it after that. “Mob” and “mafia” are my keywords that a true crime story isn’t going to be for me.
Then I started listening to the Hollywood and Crime podcast, the first season of which is dedicated to the Black Dahlia and a number of other murders that occurred around the same time with eerily similar aspects, MOs or details.
The storytelling is deft and raised so many issues and interconnected possibilities that I wasn’t ready to be finished with the case when the podcast story concluded. I think this book is best in tandem with that podcast series, as both present information that’s not available in the other.
The theory of a suspect as presented here is quite fascinating, and weaves in many of the usual themes that have been connected to this case over the years. That made it much more believable to me – a little where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire, if you will. Eatwell effectively ties together elements explaining much about why the crime went unsolved and why the facts, both of that time and as history has unfolded over the years, point to her suspect.
Although this book does cover something about that era, obviously, I liked how it was done. Nothing overblown or too far from the thread of Short’s life and case. Or overly glamorized. As Eatwell recaps, “In truth, it was a tough time after a tough war in a tough world.”
The writing style is mostly engaging and has a good narrative structure, but the format suffers from an overblown use of unnecessary footnotes. Some tell helpful stories or give additional insights, but far too many were pointless. I don’t know how they appear in a print copy, but in the epub version that I read on an ereader, not an ipad which might’ve made footnote-chasing smoother, they’re maddening. Maybe in a print book with footnotes on the same page I wouldn’t have been so annoyed. As it was, it drove me crazy to flip to a footnote (a pain in the ass that requires a delicate, steady, perfectly placed fingertip on my otherwise beloved Tolino) only to find it was something pointless or already referenced ten times before.
For example, things or people that have already been mentioned or will be discussed later are cross-referenced, and certain cases, like that of Albert Dyer and the Inglewood child murders, were referenced so many times that I could irritatingly sense when a footnote just noting the page number was coming.
This Dyer connection is linked to Dr. Paul De River, also an important figure in Eatwell’s telling of this crime. He’s a police psychiatrist who interviewed and corresponded with Leslie Dillon, a bellhop and onetime mortician’s assistant who was questioned in connection with Short’s murder but released, in an attempt to extract details about the crime and establish his profile. Hopefully one that would match the profile outlined for the killer.
He would be likely to boast about his crime. He was exactly the type of personality who, like Albert Dyer* before him, was likely to put himself onto center stage in the police investigation. Therefore, the doctor had deliberately made speculations as to the psychology of the Dahlia killer in true crime magazines such as True Detective. Eventually, he got the response for which he was looking—from one Leslie Dillon in Florida.
*In the spirit of this book’s many footnotes, here’s one of my own and you don’t even have to skip to the end to read it: in the upcoming book Little Shoes, author Pamela Everett puts forward a strong, pretty convincing argument that Dyer, referenced ad infinitum because of De River’s work on his case, was wrongfully convicted/executed. It’s relevant here because Eatwell continually draws parallels between these cases, emphasizing De River’s profiling of both Dyer and Dillon.
Dillon contacted De River and they began corresponding after he offered up his theories on the case, having read De River’s profile of the killer in a detective magazine (worth noting that back in the day, lots of guilty parties were caught with detective magazines, either for research or titillation). Dillon said he suspected a friend of his was responsible, and De River saw the claim as Dillon’s veiled way to confess via the safety of a proxy, while fulfilling his need for attention and recognition in connection with the headline-grabbing crime.
According to De River, who eventually met with Dillon in person, he knew details of information that had been withheld from the public in the hopes of confirming it only with the person responsible. Not to mention Dillon’s mortuary work experience, suspected of the killer because of the body’s bisection, his confessed predilection for sadism (Short was tortured before death) and his overt connection to the Aster Motel, a likely location of the murder.
Eatwell chooses her narrative threads carefully and explores them for the most part satisfyingly fully, but unfortunately that made it all the more disappointing when there were details or questions that felt inadequately covered.
Also, I feel like it’s worth noting because I copyedit/proofread professionally (albeit for far less interesting texts than this) so maybe I’m especially sensitive to mistakes, but there were big errors in this book. Not just typos but accuracy errors – in one particularly egregious example, a scene between Elizabeth and her friend, bit-part actress Ann Toth, is recounted. Ann is said to be the one crying over an incident with a man. But Ann is telling the story, about Elizabeth – it’s clearly Elizabeth who should’ve been described as crying. How was that overlooked by a major publisher?
Another drawback was that despite how thoroughly this was researched, I think some alternative theories were ignored in favor of making the strongest case for the author’s preferred suspect. The research in Hollywood and Crime makes compelling reasoning for connected murders, and indeed it does seem odd that a killer would commit a murder this grisly with foreknowledge of anatomy, surgery, or mortuary science, stage the body for attention, then never kill again.
The other murders get minimal coverage here, and nothing related to Eatwell’s suspicion of Dillon. So as much as I see the logic behind pinpointing him, I also have everything from the podcast stories in mind – how would Dillon fit into those theories? And I felt she was reaching, when, in an odd departure from the narrative Eatwell suddenly inserts herself into the story near the end and interviews Dillon’s daughter, making a big to-do about her being named Elizabeth. So what? It’s a common, often familial name. It’s one of MY names. It’s not nothing that he gave her Short’s name, but it’s not necessarily SOMETHING either.
Well worth the read, it’s convincing, page-turning, and never boring; just feels a little incomplete, ultimately. But maybe anything to do with this case is going to feel that way. Verdict: 3.5/5
Black Dahlia, Red Rose:
The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder
by Piu Eatwell
published October 10, 2017 by Liveright (W.W. Norton)