Black Dahlia, Red Rose
By Piu Eatwell
Liveright. 350 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by James Lileks
After investigating the details, the police cleared Woody Guthrie of the Black Dahlia murder. They moved on to . . .
"Hold on," you say. "Woody Guthrie was a suspect?"
Yes. And he had copious company.
The murder of Elizabeth Short - the newspapers, following a vogue for ascribing floral names to heinous crimes, called her the Black Dahlia - is the most famous cold case of the 20th century. Short's doomed allure has never quite dimmed, and every few years another book appears on the subject. Do we need this one?
Yes. Piu Eatwell tells the story like a novel, but she notes in her foreword that every quote was taken from "a letter, memoir, or other written sources." She takes her chapter titles from noir movies. The prose is forthright, with occasional nods to the hard-boiled conventions and the romantic tone of Raymond Chandler.
This recount of the search for Short's killer isn't a police procedural. It's an account of postwar Los Angeles, before the freeways were carved into the land, before seedy Bunker Hill was razed. Before TV, before Miranda. As for the LAPD, think L.A. Confidential, not upright, stolid Dragnet. Bad cops, ethically questionable reporters, the demimonde of Hollywood - it's worse than you might think.
Eatwell changes tone at the end of the book, when her own investigations require a switch to first person. She revisits the motel, still standing in 2016, where the murder possibly occurred. She dispatches rival theories with brisk efficiency, particularly Steve Hodel's insistence that his father did it. (Hodel didn't help his case by writing another book about how his father was also the zodiac killer.)
There will be other books. There will be other theories. They'll have to meet the Eatwell standard. She didn't find some mysterious suspect or Shocking New Evidence. She simply went through everything that could be read and announced a conclusion that feels correct. The cops had the right guy all along, and they let the Dahlia's killer free.
At the end, Eatwell tracks down the man's daughter, and though she learns nothing new about the case, she learns something about the suspect.
He named his daughter Elizabeth.
This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.