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Mother's Murder Unsolved, Too : 'The Black Dahlia' Novelist Spurred by Own Tragedy

October 04, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

In 1965 Ellroy, then 17, was expelled from Fairfax High School for excessive truancy and fighting. Later, he said, he conned his way out of the Army by faking a nervous breakdown. And for the next 10 years he lived the life of an alcoholic and drug addict, often homeless, supporting his habit by breaking into houses and shoplifting.

Arrested 60 to 70 Times

During that period of his life, Ellroy estimates, he was arrested 60 or 70 times for drunkenness, trespassing and shoplifting. Eventually he wound up in a hospital with an alcohol-related disease. "I realized that if I didn't change my life I would die," he said. So when he got out, he checked into a rehabilitation program. And after landing a job as a golf caddy, he began writing as a sort of therapy in the afternoons and evenings.

His first book, "Bronze Requiem," was published in 1981. Five others, all crime novels, none very successful, followed. Then came "The Black Dahlia." "It was time to attack the obsession," the author said.

Working on a $20,000 advance, Ellroy--who has lived in a New York suburb for the past six years and been sober for the past 10--spent slightly more than a year researching and writing the book. The result is a tome that many consider a breakthrough for him in terms of accessibility to readers beyond the usual small coterie of crime aficionados. Critics and readers have compared him to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Listed 12th on the Doubleday best-seller list, the book has been optioned for a possible movie. And some of the excitement it has generated was evident during the West Coast leg of a six-city national tour organized by the book's publisher.

"I liked it," said Peggy Krynicki, 33, a personnel manager and self-professed crime enthusiast who recently showed up at Sherlock's Home, a Long Beach book store, to catch a scheduled appearance by the author there. "It seems real. You read it and you find yourself speculating about what's possible. This is the closest to true crime that fiction gets."

Said Chris Caswell, the store's co-owner: "His books sold well here before, but it was a fairly narrow group of people who were reading them. This book has gone well beyond that. The Black Dahlia remains a secret fascination for many people. It's become a Southern California legend."

Ellroy seems to be taking his new-found notoriety in stride. Living alone in a $450-a-month bachelor apartment in Westchester, New York, he says he writes six hours a day, works out regularly and still drives without a license, a residual from his lawbreaking days. His favorite extravagance, he said, is buying expensive clothes for women he is attracted to. And he likes to poke fun at the notion of himself as a serious literary artist in the notes he inscribes on his fans' flyleafs.

Underneath the playfulness, though, is a genuine and lasting tenderness for the longtime object of his obsession. "I always thought I would just catch her (on paper)," he said of the Elizabeth Short/Geneva Ellroy that lives in his fantasies. "Instead, I came to love her just like Bucky Bleichert did."

So, in a sense, she is with him now as he plans his next project, a three-book series set in Los Angeles of the 1950s. And with him periodically as he continues to physically re-visit the scenes of her past: the formerly vacant lot at 39th Street and Norton Avenue where her body was found; the drugstore at 6th Street and Pine Avenue in Long Beach where, legend has it, people first started calling her the Black Dahlia.

Sometime during the current tour, Ellroy said, he plans to visit the Dahlia's grave in Berkeley, there to "send up a few prayers for her and tell her I love her.

"Because in a perverse sort of way she's very much like me," he said. "At 22 she was probably more together than I was. I was lucky that nobody slashed me to death at 22. Who knows what she could have become?"

Will the truth of the Black Dahlia's death ever be known? He paused on that one, then answered definitively.

"The truth is my novel," he said. "And it's fiction."

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