The Magazine

Daddy Did It

Steve Hodel finds a new suspect for Black Dahlia's murder.

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By JON L. BREEN
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Hodel generally draws a clear distinction between fact and conjecture, though his opening chapter follows the "thoughts" of the victim, a bad sign in an ostensibly factual account. Meanwhile, he allows himself a strange venture into the life of painter and photographer Man Ray, who lived in Los Angeles at the time of the crimes and reportedly was a close friend of Dr. Hodel. Steve Hodel contends that his father posed the body of the Black Dahlia in homage to some of Man Ray's artistic work and their shared enthusiasm for the Marquis de Sade. The claim is not convincing and has the unfortunate effect of making Man Ray appear almost a co-conspirator.

But the most serious problem with "Black Dahlia Avenger" is that the first link in Hodel's chain of evidence is the weakest. The book's critics have justifiably assailed its author's confident identification of the photographs in his father's album. It's not clear that they even depict the same woman, let alone that the woman is Elizabeth Short. Hodel claims he reached his conclusion after examining numerous photos of Short on the Internet, but apart from the dust jacket, his book presents no images of Short for comparison.

Hodel obviously is not required to make an iron clad case connecting his father and Fred Sexton to every crime mentioned in his book. Still, reasoning that is farfetched or obviously erroneous casts doubt on his main case. For example, Hodel compares one of his father's typewritten letters to one purportedly from the killer of Georgette Bauerdorf, victim of a 1944 bathtub murder. Hodel assumes that using a double hyphen to represent an em dash is somehow unusual. On the contrary, it is standard. Word-processing programs do it automatically.

SOME OF HODEL'S most outspoken critics owe allegiance to John Gilmore--particularly the novelist Gary Indiana, who reviewed Hodel's book dismissively for the Los Angeles Times after contributing a glowing cover blurb to Gilmore's "Severed." Gilmore himself has been among those quoted as disputing Hodel's photo identification. His own book has more pictures of Short for comparison, including a particularly gruesome post-mortem head shot--and no, Gilmore's selections look no more like the pictures in Dr. Hodel's album than does the picture of Short on Steve Hodel's dust jacket.

So what's the final verdict on "Black Dahlia Avenger?" Its accounts of cover-ups and civic corruption are all too believable, and much of the circumstantial evidence it presents against George Hodel is persuasive. Still, the more fanciful speculations, along with that dubious first step, taint its authority. Has Steve Hodel solved the case? I think so, but he has some tidying up to do for the paperback edition. Perhaps the next Dahlia book should assess all the competing theories--written by someone without a dramatic new suspect to advance. But that approach doesn't make for bestsellers.

A frequent contributor of essays on mystery fiction to The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.