Sunday, October 15, 2006

Book Review: The Black Dahlia Files - The Mob, The Mogul, And The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles by Donald H. Wolfe

Amazingly enough, The Black Dahlia Files’ subtitle -- The Mob, the Mogul, And The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles -- doesn’t quite say it all. The alliteration and the intimation are there, but the breadth and depth of the book's implications are barely alluded to in an unsolved 60-year old case that took in many elements and considered varied personalities from Bugsy to Bumstead -- Mob boss Bugsy Siegel to the Blondie movies’ Dagwood, Arthur Lake, that is.

In retracing that transfixing story behind the murder of the would-be starlet Elizabeth Short -- the subject of a recent Brian De Palma screen treatment of a James Ellroy novel -- Donald H. Wolfe delved into recently unearthed case files that had been buried in the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office since the black-haired beauty's bisected body was found January 15, 1947 in a vacant lot. Or, to be more precise, found in a symbolically ritualistic manner in what may have been more than just a randomly selected dumping ground.

This is just one of a multitude of findings, one layer of an intricately interlocking set of circumstances discovered as the investigative Wolfe draws on personal knowledge and delves into those “catacombs of money, power, and influence.” The outcome constitutes an ultimately convincing and level-headed account, and casts a substantial net, from the coast to coast travels of "The Black Dahlia" and, within Southern California, her wanderings from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

What helps make Wolfe escape conspiratorial crackpot charges, and what makes Files so credibly convincing, is that he uses some of Southern California’s usual suspects in mid-20th century sleaze and open secrets -- the corrupt police department on the take, organized crime, movie industry sordidness, and a sensationalistic press that will look the other way when it serves them to -- as springboards for substantiations of collusion and cover-up.

If you didn’t before know the extent of the inextricable and historic links between crooked L.A. cops at all levels and the Syndicate, and how the newspapers and film studios fit into this deceitful web, Wolfe presents a seamless case. Moreover, the author shows how all these forces kicked into cooperative overdrive when Short, her Tinseltown dreams turned into a nightmarish call-girl existence, finds herself pregnant by the most powerful man in the city, the Los Angeles Times’ publisher Norman Chandler.

As a man who can control the editorial and news slant of his leading newspaper, who influences which shady politician is elected mayor or which minion police commissioner, and who determines the course of contending mob wars and violence, Chandler wields overwhelming command over the fate of the city - a domination that can’t be jeopardized by a scandal that could trigger outcry from competing newspapers and opposition from an unaware public.

In providing explanations of why LAPD officials were actually railroading innocent “suspects” and how the newspapers purposely published misleading stories, Wolfe names names -- including that of the murderer -- and details the particulars of the murder itself. Taking his incisive analysis beyond the speculative realm, the author uses and cites a barrage of documented proof -- and many of these archival photographs, investigative reports and news clippings make it into the body of the book or are included in the abundant appendixes.

While the demoralizing "fact that the Black Dahlia case had been handled by the enforcers of the city’s vice-ridden underworld was a confidential manner hidden from the public for more than fifty years,” it is nonetheless a relief that there were a few heroes and principled institutions. Wolfe makes sure these honest detectives, journalists and newspapers are duly acknowledged, even if they faced demotion or retaliation at the time.

In addition to Wolfe’s expressive page-turner style that successfully conveys Short's ever-edgy sense of terror and desperation, this kind of attention to detail is another indication of Wolfe’s comprehensiveness and conscientiousness as a writer, marking a cohesive and riveting read and assuring The Black Dahlia Files its likely status as the most definitive book on the subject to date.


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