Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Black Dahlia by Rick Geary

I'm in danger of turning into a broken record on this subject: Geary has been doing the same thing brilliantly for so long that I've run out of different ways to say it.

Black Dahlia is the seventh in his "Treasury of XXth Century Murder," which followed eight similar books in the "Treasury of Victorian Murder" (and one even earlier book, The Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1, a miscellaneous collection that was the prototype for the whole sub-career). Each one is a roughly comic-book-sized hardcover, of about eighty pages, telling the story of one famous historical murder. He's done Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, Sacco and Vanzetti and several more not as well-known in the 21st century. Each book is carefully researched and filled with maps and diagrams of the towns and murder locations -- all drawn by Geary in his precise but puckish style.

The new book for 2016 -- he's had one of these for most years this century -- covers the famous LA murder case from 1947, as previously retold by James Ellroy and countless others. As always, Geary isn't here to fictionalize the case, or make up his own ending -- he wants to present the true story, as best it can be determined, in all of its complexity and confusion, and lay out what might have happened, if that's clear at all. It isn't, in this case: whoever killed Elizabeth Short got away with it cleanly, and we'll probably never know who he was.

Some of these books are more about the before, and some are more about the after -- some murders have a huge media life, with shocking revelations and new suspects, and some just don't. The Black Dahlia case basically went nowhere, so Geary doesn't have a lot of after to work with. But Elizabeth Short did have a complicated life for her twenty-two years, which means Black Dahlia starts with the murder and then moves back to tell Short's life story, or the pieces of it that seem to be relevant to her death.

Geary seems to be drawn to the unsolved, complicated cases the most -- not the ones where we know what happened and who did it, but the ones where we can almost tell what happened, where there are some suspicions but not proof, the ones that are a bit frustrating, the ones where we're pretty sure a murderer completely got away with it. Black Dahlia is deeply in that mode: whether Short was killed by a gangster or an angry boyfriend, he got away entirely. (And he's probably dead now, which is as much getting away with anything that anyone can ever do.)

As always, Geary's eye is focused and distinct. He gives us the people and places of the time -- the right hairstyles, the right cars, the right streetscapes -- to build the world that Elizabeth Short lived and died in. A series of books about old murders might seem frivolous or macabre, but death is just a lens to look at life. And Geary is excellent at telling us about both life and death.

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