Wednesday, July 23, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Imagine being a cop on the Los Angeles police force for nearly 24 years, and retiring after a successful career with the respect and admiration of your colleagues and your supervisors. Imagine, further, that in retirement you have taken up a cold case to investigate – and not just any cold case, but one of the most sensational unsolved murders in American history. Finally, picture yourself discovering, after an exhaustive investigation, that the murderer was, in all likelihood, your own father.
This is not a screenplay dreamed up by an over-imaginative writer of crime dramas, but one of the most gripping pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read: Black Dahlia Avenger, by Steve Hodel. The Black Dahlia, of course, was Elizabeth Short, a young woman who followed the path beaten by so many dreamers as they made their way to California in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Most of them ended up being disappointed. Elizabeth Short wound up being tortured to death; her corpse was cut in half with surgical precision and left lying a foot or so from the road in a residential neighborhood where it was discovered by a woman and her young daughter on the morning of January 15, 1947.
Dr. George Hodel, the author’s father, had led a varied life – classical pianist, newspaper reporter and ultimately a physician (though he never practiced as a surgeon, he excelled at the discipline in medical school). He was also a sex-obsessed hedonist and an admirer of de Sade who numbered among his friends in Hollywood the actor/director, John Huston, and the avant-garde photographic artist, Man Ray (one of the most haunting lines of speculation pursued by the author is the possible relationship between Man Ray’s photograph, The Minotaur, and the staging of Elizabeth Short’s corpse).
The book is filled with the materials that would have made for excellent film noir: Hollywood, sex, corrupt cops, ghastly murders, and a dogged detective whose childhood memories resolve themselves into important clues as he embarks on the greatest challenge of his life. Does Steve Hodel prove his case? In my opinion, if he has not definitively closed the book on the case, he has at least made an extremely compelling argument – the best one I have seen advanced, so far. And whether you ultimately buy his theory or not, the book is a fascinating – indeed, a mesmerizing – look at the culture and society of post-war L.A., and an example of the truly awesome deductive powers of a first-rate investigative mind.