A Case for a Suspect in One of LA’s Most Notorious Unsolved Murders

Book review: Black Dahlia, Red Rose, by Piu Eatwell (Amazon / Book Depository)

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 Shoesauthor 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)

Amazon / Book Depository

24 thoughts on “A Case for a Suspect in One of LA’s Most Notorious Unsolved Murders

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    1. Me too! There’s just something so morbidly fascinating about unsolved cases. I really recommend the podcast – it was so interesting that I kept finding things to do (housecleaning, doing my nails) to have an excuse to listen more to it! I haven’t listened to the Manson season though, that story’s never been a draw for me so I don’t know if it’s good or not on the podcast, but the dahlia killers one is fantastic.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Yes! I’ve also been fascinated by the infamous serial killers, in terms of psychology, like how is someone capable of killing so many people, and psychopaths like Bundy are truly interesting to me. I’ll also skip the Manson bit, as I never found him intriguing. I’m thinking the whole cult thing + the choice of victims glorified him to a level of a pop star, but I’ll still watch the Tarantino movie, because I love Tarantino. 🙂 I think I’m mostly facsinated by these crimes because we don’t have anything like it in my country, not one known serial killer, while USA has hundreds.

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    1. That makes two of us 🙂 I’m also fascinated by the topic…you should read Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler, I reviewed it a few months ago. He was an FBI profiler of serial killers and did some really fascinating work with some of the well known and lesser known ones.

      I like cult stories too, but I don’t know…something about the Manson story just doesn’t interest me at all. I think you might be right, it’s something about how it was so elevated as pop culture, it’s weird. And just sad.
      What country are you from, if I can ask? I’m also not sure why America has so many – my husband (non-American) is always astounded by that! I don’t completely understand why it is, I read something about it having to do with intense pressure to succeed and be competitive but there’s surely more to it than that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Adding it to my tbr as we speak, thanks! 🙂 I’m also interested in John E Douglas, since I watched the Mindhunter series, criminal profiling is my most recent obsession. 😀

        I’m from Serbia, country three times smaller than Texas, at least, so it makes sense we have much less crime, but even so the serial killers are a phenomenon to us.

        I think the main switch is something that happens in early childhood, or the way someone is raised, but the competitiveness and the pressure to succeed may be an additional layer which our “regular” killers lack, and which would probably drive them further into sociopathic behavior and mass killing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is too funny – my husband was born in Serbia! (when it was Yugoslavia.) His family moved to Austria when he was a kid. What a funny coincidence!!!

        Douglas’s Mindhunter book is on my TBR! I think you’ll really like Whoever Fights Monsters, parts of it also made it onto the Mindhunter show, it was really interesting to watch it after I’d read the book.

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  2. I’m so excited to read this one! Bought it at Christmas, but just haven’t gotten to it yet. There have been SO MANY true crime podcasts about this case, I look forward to learning more.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories and Hollywood & Crime both have covered it. I prefer Hollywood & Crime. It starts with Black Dahlia and continues to other similar cases from Old Hollywood and further.
        And if you really love true crime, I recommend Sword and Scale. It doesn’t mention the Black Dahlia case, but has more modern cases.


      2. I loved the Hollywood and crime coverage of this one, I think it goes well with this book because as I said, they both offer info that’s not in the other. Which is also problematic, I guess, but taken together really interesting! I don’t know the other two you mentioned but I’ll check them out! I’ve heard a lot about Sword and Scale. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with true crime podcasts but I’m always looking for new ones! I’m listening to Real Crime Profile right now, where a former FBI profiler and a behavior specialist from Scotland Yard go really into detail on some big cases. I love it!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I got into them from listening to Serial (season 1 is so much better than season 2). I LOVED how it was presented and Sword and Scale was recommended based on that. I don’t know why I like them so much either. Another one I think you might like is Up and Vanished. It’s a recent missing persons case and the whole thing is so good!


      1. I read Devil in the White City and I wasn’t completely crazy about it. Having read another book of the author’s, I think part of the problem is that I don’t like his writing style or what he chooses to focus on. I’m in the minority though, people love that book! But that case is fascinating – I’ve heard there are some good documentaries about it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds fascinating! 🙂 I recall there was crime fiction on Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (fascinating author as his own mother was murdered) but I believe in book he solved the case so I guess should read this so my brains can do some fact-checking.

    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book is a really good one about the case, I think there are several other nonfiction accounts alleging different suspects but the evidence of those has usually been debunked. I read Ellroy’s Dahlia book years ago – I love another of his novels, L.A. Confidential – but his Dahlia is a novel with a completely imagined storyline so I don’t think it has anything relevant to the case, from what I remember. Have you read his memoir, I think it’s My Dark Places? I haven’t read it but it’s about his mother being murdered and supposedly is really interesting. He had it pretty tough, I think. I hope you read this one, I’m interested in your thoughts!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Footnotes that aren’t interesting enough to feel worthwhile are the worst in ebooks! My kindle is old and doesn’t handle footnotes particularly gracefully either.


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