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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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.