How does The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy make use of the hardboiled subgenre of detective fiction?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Ellroy’s 1987 fictionalized account of the investigation into the 1947 murder of 22-year-old waitress Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia, fits neatly into the genre known as noir and featuring a “hard-boiled detective story.”  Beginning with its setting, in late-1940s Los Angeles to its first-person narrative by the police officer investigating the horrific crime, to the descriptions and narrative style, The Black Dahlia is completely at home in the category of “hard-boiled detective fiction.”  Even the plot development involving the murder of one of the main characters, Lee Blanchard, is straight out of the genre, especially given the fact that Blanchard was the lead character’s partner in investigating the crime.  Definitely shades of Sam Spade.  Ellroy definitely owes a debt to those who came before him, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Ellroy’s main protagonist and the story’s narrator is Los Angeles Police Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert.  Once again, as with Chandler and Hammett, the physical descriptions provided by the narrator/detective combine a straight-forward style with occasionally awkward metaphors, as in the following description:

“Silverlake-Echo was several miles due est of Mount lee, a hilly area with lots of twisting streets, greenery and seclusion, the kind of terrain a necrophiliac might find soothing.” 

Similarly, Ellroy’s narrative style provides for dialogue unique to the genre, as when Bucky questions Kay Lake, the woman who becomes between Bucky and Lee, until the men acknowledge that their  partnership and mission is more important than any dame:

“Where’s your sketch pad?” I asked.

… “I gave that up,” Kay said. “I wasn’t very good, so I changed my major.”

“To what?”

“To pre-med, then psychology, then English lit, then history.”

“I like a woman who knows what she wants.”

Kay smiled. “So do I, but I don’t know any.” 

The Black Dahlia can definitely be categorized as “hard-boiled detective fiction.”  What sets it apart from its progenitors is its use of a real-life, high-profile crime in which its investigators find themselves immersed.  With a sentence like this, “Four black-and-whites responded to my shots.  I explained to the officers that it was a lights and siren roll to Wilshire Station – I was booking the woman for Murder One,” there can be no doubt what kind of book Ellroy has written.

Read the study guide:
The Black Dahlia

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