Black Dahlia, Red Rose - Piu Eatwell
Black Dahlia, Red Rose - Piu Eatwell *****
I have to admit to a certain sense of excited anticipation at the prospect of reading a new book that proposes a solution to the unsolved notorious Black Dahlia murder. It's not that I was all that familiar with the details of the Black Dahlia case - although it's hard to not be aware of such a famous murder mystery - but I had read Piu Eatwell's investigation into another historical true life case (The Dead Duke), and I was sure that her methods of exploring archive records, accounts and interviews would be no less rigorous, the inferences weighed and balanced and the revelations no less fascinating.
The case of the Black Dahlia might be more recent and more well-known than the Edwardian Druce-Portland case in The Dead Duke, but the challenges of getting to the truth of this notoriously unsolved case are just as difficult. The brutally mutilated and bisected naked body of 22 year old Elizabeth Short was discovered on a vacant lot of an LA suburb in January 1947. Although the police received a package containing her clothes and some messages believed to be from the killer, and although several suspects were investigated, no-one was ever charged for the murder of the young woman who would be called the Black Dahlia. Despite considerable press attention, the impetus to solve the case was lost due to various reshuffles in police personnel and suspicions of police corruption.
The challenge for anyone investigating such a case many years later - when much of the physical evidence has been lost or disappeared, with even taped interviews only being available as transcripts - is in separating the facts from the intense speculation and sensationalism of the press reports. Immediately dubbed the Black Dahlia because of her style of dress, Elizabeth Short's death attracted a great deal lurid Hollywood scandal headlines. Intense scrutiny and speculation would see the young woman from Medford, Massachusetts described as everything from "violated beauty" to "man crazy delinquent", from innocent victim to femme fatale, another young woman fallen victim to the Hollywood dream machine that would lure so many young girls to their ruin.
In Elizabeth Short's case, the journey was probably not so much a journey for movie stardom as much as to find another means of living off the wealth that was being generated in South California, a way to find a job and a husband. Making her way from one cheap hotel to another, relying on encounters with men smitten by her beauty to get her from place to place and pay her way, the young woman was always vulnerable and somewhere along the line she fell in with the wrong people. The notorious network that connected Hollywood with police corruption, sex scandals, prostitution, bootlegging and narcotics is a very murky world, but some major names continually crop up in the Black Dahlia case that suggest some level of participation, knowledge or cover up.
Like her previous true crime investigation, Piu Eatwell makes Black Dahlia, Red Rose read like a thriller that continually throws up intriguing and shocking details. Although it might read like a noir thriller in places with revelations and shocks coming thick and fast making it difficult to put down, the investigation is not fictionalised or sensationalised, the author presenting only facts: if there is an impression of sordid glamour to the proceedings, it's inherent within the sensational case itself. Colourful characters emerge, other extraordinary cases with possible links briefly float to the surface (to be dealt with in passing or in footnotes), allowing fascinating little connections to be made which point towards one particular likely probable outcome.
It's hard to imagine how difficult it must be for anyone investigating this case not to be drawn towards the murky goings on at the LAPD and the vice scandals that rocked Hollywood during this period, but with her training as a qualified lawyer, Piu Eatwell trusts in the verifiable and known facts and in other new evidence that has emerged. Black Dahlia, Red Rose doesn't go looking for facts to fit a theory, as some recent claims of resolution in this case have done, but rather by cutting through the supposition, the blind-end leads and cover-ups, it gradually tightens the focus on where the known facts lead. This is a thorough, focussed and evidence-led investigation that presents a convincing case where everything points to one likely suspect as the brutal murderer of the Black Dahlia. And, as is often the case, the truth turns out to be stranger than fiction.
Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell is published by Coronet on 5th October 2017