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A city's sins, a family's skeletons

Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story, Steve Hodel, Arcade: 504 pp., $27.95

May 25, 2003|Gary Indiana | Gary Indiana is the author of numerous novels, including "Resentment: A Comedy" and "Do Everything in the Dark," published this month.

She came to Los Angeles during World War II from nowhere special, a pretty girl with big hair and bad teeth who liked to go to bars and nightclubs. She believed in love and romance and lived on hot dogs and Coca-Cola, lavished hours on her makeup in dollar-a-night furnished rooms. A drifter, something of a cipher, she was a person people remembered vaguely but could never quite pull into focus. A good time gal who didn't really seem to have a good time, demanded a little too much sympathy and hardly ever returned a favor. She sometimes spoke of a husband killed in the war, a baby who died, but these were figments of a waking dream that carried her through sleepless nights. If someone hadn't cut her in half, the world would know precious little about Elizabeth Short.

She had been nicknamed the Black Dahlia, a name so movie-perfect for the era of noir that her murder became symbolic of everything weird and inexplicable festering under the city's gleaming surfaces. Steve Hodel's bestseller, "Black Dahlia Avenger," is the latest in a long procession of novels and nonfiction books to treat the Dahlia case as Los Angeles' emblematic homicide, a killing affixed to the city the way Jack the Ripper is to Victorian London and the Strangler is to Boston. The Dahlia killing engraved itself into urban mythology; it seemed to say something stark and ugly about the emptiness of glamour and the wages of sin. Short's dead body became a movie star, a cautionary tale and a magnet for a large assortment of pathologies, many of them literary.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Black Dahlia -- The May 25 book review of "Black Dahlia Avenger" misidentified Fred Sexton, the alleged accomplice of the alleged Black Dahlia killer, George Hodel, as Frank Sexton. In addition, the name of author Steve Hodel's first wife, Kiyo, was misspelled as Kayo.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 01, 2003 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Black Dahlia -- The May 25 review of "Black Dahlia Avenger" misidentified Fred Sexton, the alleged accomplice of the alleged Black Dahlia killer, George Hodel, as Frank Sexton. In addition, the name of author Steve Hodel's first wife, Kiyo, was misspelled as Kayo.

The symbolic message of Short's corpse as the killer arranged it at 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park in early 1947 could not in itself be less mysterious or more readily aligned with notions of Hollywood as a sausage factory for the young and beautiful. Like the Manson killings, the Hillside Strangler slayings and the Night Stalker spree, the Black Dahlia murder was carried out with its effect on the public very much in mind. The perps in all these cases had something to tell the world, posing the bodies, writing things in blood, sending a garbled telegram about the incurable in human nature.

The classic account is John Gilmore's "Severed," which achieves the almost impossible feat of turning the very blankness of Elizabeth Short's brief life into a thing of riveting oddity. According to Gilmore, Short had a rare vaginal deformity that made the image of a sexually easy creature of the night nothing more than an image; if we accept this premise, the Dahlia story becomes the dark tale of a hapless mimic whose grasp of adult relations extended only to what they looked like in the movies. There's no reason not to credit Gilmore's fastidious account, in which one drifter kills another, then dies in a flea-pit hotel fire: This cruddy, depressing solution to the mystery is utterly consistent with the pathos of the world the Black Dahlia traveled through on her way to the big nowhere.

For a certain mentality, however, prosaic justice demands that an unusually vicious, legendary murder turn out to have been committed by a truly unlikely, preferably famous individual or, failing that, someone connected to famous people. Hodel, a former homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, manages to implicate several famous personalities in Short's murder. "Black Dahlia Avenger" has the added frisson of its author's bizarre discovery, after two entire years of research, that Short's killer was -- gasp! -- his own father.

Hodel is not the only person in recent years to discover exactly this skeleton in the family closet. In 1995, a book called "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer" revealed that its co-author, Janice Knowlton, a former lounge singer, had discovered through recovered memory that her father murdered Short after Short left an aborted fetus in her father's garage. Horrifically, Knowlton was forced to witness much of the torture and mutilation inflicted on Short and to help him dispose of the remains.

Knowlton's is the kind of book it doesn't do to argue with: Its author seems to have channeled a rich vein of snuff pornography while gazing at healing crystals in some quack's office. Hodel, having been a homicide cop, would seem a more rigorously fact-driven investigator. And yet Hodel's father, like Knowlton's, was named George. What Hodel considers proof is strangely tangled with nebulous memories. Could Steve Hodel be an "alternative personality" of Janice Knowlton?

Let's call this personality Steve and see what he has to say. After an obligatory shock-horror opening that whisks us back to Leimert Park on that dreadful morning in 1947, Steve recounts his own bittersweet and strained relations with his father, Dr. George Hodel, up until his death in 1999. There would be no funeral, as per his will, but Steve flies to San Francisco to console Dad's widow, June. She gives him a small photo album that belonged to his father, unwittingly opening Pandora's Box.

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