Donald Maass used The Black Dahlia in The Fire in Fiction to illustrate how to make a character “special.” Since no one personality would appeal to all readers, the best way to make a character special is to show how that character impacts others. Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” had a life-altering impact on Bucky Bleichart, even though they didn’t meet until after her murder. For the purpose of Maass’s illustration, this book is perfect. The Dahlia affected every single character in the novel, major and minor, but she pervaded Bucky’s life until he was obsessed with her.
This is a brutal book, depicting a world devoid of beauty and populated by complex, ugly characters, as is expected in a noir. This isn’t intended for tender-hearted readers, for those of us who have been blessedly sheltered from the savageries of life. It’s a hard read, and I’m embarrassed to admit I read it. Being commanded to “keep your eyes from evil,” I almost feel like I’ve sinned.
For writers, there is so much to learn from Ellroy’s style. He seems to have totally immersed himself into the underworld of the 1940s, and immersed himself into his main character so well it must have messed with his psyche. His setting depictions were vivid–at times too vivid. All of his characters were complicated, many with intricately woven subtleties that added depth to their personalities. One, Russ, aka “padre,” seemed to be the only character that didn’t belong in the storyworld. He had a wife, a family; he seemed able to leave the ugliness behind him at the end of the day and not get caught up in the seduction of the hunt beyond professionalism. Although Ellroy never said so, he appeared to be a Christian. Ellroy would almost have to have a believer to round out his cast of characters.
I can’t decide how many stars to give this book. It deserves five, because the writing and the presentation of the story were amazing. But it’s a hard read. The deeper you get in the story the more barbaric the events. I didn’t like reading it, but was drawn to it every time I talked myself into putting it down. I’m definitely not a better person for having read it, but after studying some of his techniques during the read, I may become a better writer because of it.
Still, I can’t recommend this to my friends.