Black Dahlia Avenger
A Genius for Murder
by Steve Hodel
Arcade, 481 pp., $27.95
ON JANUARY 15, 1947, the mutilated body of a young woman, neatly cut in half and drained of blood, was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. She was identified as Elizabeth Short, a twenty-two-year-old beauty from Massachusetts known to acquaintances as the "Black Dahlia." Her murder became Los Angeles's most notorious unsolved case--but now, more than fifty years later, a retired Los Angeles police detective named Steve Hodel believes he has cracked it: His own father, he concludes, was the Black Dahlia killer.
That may be true. Dr. George Hill Hodel may have been the murderer. But there's something odd whenever sons go hunting for evidence with which to attack their fathers, and in the course of writing "Black Dahlia Avenger," Hodel has handed hostile critics too many clubs with which to beat him.
Such hostile critics abound, of course, for every crime writer in the world has a theory about what happened in 1947. Beth Short, who had come to Hollywood with the customary dreams of show-business success, was friendly and attractive. She enjoyed a good time, and she often lied or embroidered the truth, inventing love affairs and even a marriage to a pilot killed in action. Her aura of mystery, her black hair, and her preference for black clothing combined with the title of a current movie ("The Blue Dahlia," a film-noir classic written by Raymond Chandler) inspired her nickname. With a beautiful young victim, weird circumstances, and that evocative ready-made tag, the murder became a media sensation, fueling the circulation wars of Los Angeles's then-numerous daily newspapers--with the result that Elizabeth Short has joined Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and the princes in the Tower as a focal point of mystery fact and fiction. At least three major crime novels have been based on the case: John Gregory Dunne's highly fictionalized "True Confessions" (1977), James Ellroy's "The Black Dahlia" (1987), and Max Allan Collins's "Angel in Black" (2001), the last two using real names and sticking closer to the documented facts.
The theories advanced range from the plausible to the wildly fanciful. (The most off-the-wall suspect to date is Orson Welles, accused by Mary Pacios in the 1999 "Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.") The best-regarded book-length account of the case has been "Severed" (1994, revised in 1998) by true-crime specialist John Gilmore. The best part of "Severed" is its portrait of the victim, including extensive material on her early life. Its main drawback is that Gilmore asks the reader to take his word for too much of his information. His account is based primarily on personal interviews, including those with his declared suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson, alias Grover Loving Jr., alias Arnold Smith, who was burned to death in a 1982 hotel fire before he could be interviewed by the police. Though Gilmore's solution has many advocates, it is not completely convincing.
Now, in "Black Dahlia Avenger," Steve Hodel, who retired from the Los Angeles police in 1986, has written an intensely readable account of the case. His literary knack should be no surprise, since he came from a family of writers. His mother wrote film and radio scripts and was the first wife of writer-director John Huston. His older brother, Los Angeles broadcaster Michael Hodel, wrote mystery and science fiction. And his father Dr. George Hill Hodel counted among his accomplishments a teenage stint as a newspaper crime reporter with a knack for lurid prose.
The elder Hodel, a wealthy and socially prominent Los Angeles physician at the time of the Dahlia murder, was a child piano prodigy, a radio broadcaster, and a photographer, as well as a surgeon and psychiatrist. Several times married and a frequent host of wild parties, George Hodel clearly had a sinister side. Two years after the Dahlia murder, his teenage daughter Tamar, Steve's half sister, accused Dr. Hodel of incest. Acquitted in a highly publicized trial, he fled the United States, leaving his family behind, to spend most of his remaining years in Asia as a successful marketing consultant. Though he was never an easy man or a particularly good father, his often-estranged son felt enough filial love to reestablish their relationship in his last years.
After Dr. Hodel's death in 1999 at age ninety-two, Steve Hodel found in his father's album a pair of photos that piqued his curiosity. Believing both to be of the same woman--and that woman Elizabeth Short--he began to research the Dahlia case, without access to police files but using newspaper accounts and personal contacts. His investigation led him to conclude that his father not only murdered Elizabeth Short but killed several other Los Angeles women as well. Furthermore, he connects his father's alleged partner in crime, Fred Sexton, to yet more murders, committed after Dr. Hodel left the country, including the 1958 killing of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, mother of novelist James Ellroy.
Serial killers were not as closely studied nor as well understood in the 1940s as they are today, and the lack of cooperation among law enforcement agencies made the connections between their crimes less likely to be detected. Still, many at the time believed one killer might have been responsible for several slayings of young women, including the Black Dahlia, though the Los Angeles police department finally, and somewhat inexplicably, adopted the official position that the killing was an isolated crime.
As a police detective, Hodel knows how to build a case. Much of the circumstantial evidence he gathers is persuasive, especially the connection, bolstered by support from a graphology expert, between hand-printed messages to the police and press, ostensibly from the Black Dahlia killer, and his father's own writing. Some of them were signed "Black Dahlia Avenger" or with the abbreviation "B.D.A." Like the Jack the Ripper letters, which they often resembled, these might have been hoaxes. But a message in the same style of printing, including the letters "B.D.," was found written in lipstick on a subsequent victim, Jeanne French, whose nude and mutilated body was found, in another vacant lot, on February 10, 1947.
THE ACHIEVEMENTS of Chief William Parker and Chief of Detectives Thad Brown--who turned Los Angeles's tarnished and corrupt police department into the exemplary big-city force celebrated on the radio and television program "Dragnet"--were real. But along the way, claims Hodel, they were party to one of the most infamous cover-ups in law enforcement history. Hodel contends that his father was known by Los Angeles police to be the Black Dahlia killer but escaped justice because he knew too much about local vice, including an abortion clinic run by two detectives, and police connections to organized crime.
Steve Hodel has made a solid prima facie case against his father, one that gets a stamp of approval from Los Angeles County's Head Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay. Information revealed since the publication of Hodel's book supports the claim that his father was a prime Black Dahlia suspect. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez quotes the following statement by Dr. Hodel from wiretaps of his phone: "Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary, because she's dead."
BUT THERE ARE still problems with the account in "Black Dahlia Avenger." In accusing a parent of the crime, Hodel joins a bizarre subgenre already occupied by the generally derided "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer" (1995), in which Janice Knowlton (assisted by writing pro Mike Newton) blamed her father for the crime--by relying on repressed memories. Some of the cynical ridicule vented on Knowlton has spilled over onto Hodel, and the spectacle of a son pinning such heinous crimes on his own father, who is both beyond earthly justice and unable to defend himself, invites questions of morbid psychology, familial disloyalty, exploitation, insensitivity, and greed.
But Hodel doesn't show such morbid tendencies in other ways. He reveals a respectful attitude to Elizabeth Short in his refusal to depict her as a prostitute or to reproduce graphic post-mortem photos, and he is openly disgusted with Will Fowler's trivializing of a torture murder as "an unopened present" and "a wondrous thing" in his 1991 memoir "Reporters." In accusing his father, Steve Hodel is also salvaging the reputation of his half-sister, who at the time of the incest trial was excoriated by Dr. Hodel as a pathological liar, a charge believed even by her own family. Indeed, Tamar Hodel's witness-stand statement that her father killed the Black Dahlia was a factor in the jury's disbelief.
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.