Friday, April 06, 2007

Murder and Obsession in Sri Hartamas

The Black Dahlia was a book club choice proposed by Kaykay the (one and only) bloke in our group who was desperate for us to tackle a more "masculine" read.
He's written a hilarious account of our meeting and the various reactions to the book as a coroners report and in the style of Ellroy!

That's the great thing about belonging to such a group: it forces you to break out of your comfort zone and see what else is out there. Perhaps I wouldn't have picked up Ellroy left to my own book browsing instincts, but am glad that I've now made his acquaintance.

The novel is based on a real murder case which is still unsolved to this day. (In the book? Well you'll just have to read it ... or see the film.)

Ellroy's own mother, Geneva (Jean) Hillicker was murdered in 1958 when he was a child, and when the Black Dahlia case hit the newspapers eleven years later, Ellroy fused the two slaughtered women in his mind in what he describes as the central myth of his life. When the film came out, Ellroy wrote an afterword to his book which you can also read online here at The Virginia Quarterly Review.

I didn't find the book an easy read at first and I must confess I skipped to the murder scene, reassured myself that this was a book I might indeed enjoy, and only then started reading again from the beginning. I still feel the novel takes far too long to get started, and while I appreciate that Ellroy spends time developing the main characters - Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert (from whose point of view the story is told), Sgt. Leland 'Lee' Blanchard and Lee's girlfriend Kay Lake - the relationships between them weren't really developed. (I'd anticipated, for example that there would be a complicated love triangle and lots of tension between the guys - but Lee disappears completely halfway through the book!)

At the core of the novel is dark sexual obsession. Both Lee and Bucky become slowly consumed by their feelings for the dead woman - which go well beyond simply wanting to solve the murder case. Madeleine Sprague, the femme fatale of the novel, is the most incredible creation: obsessed by the Dahlia herself, she knows how to play on the obsession of others. His portrayal of the female characters in the book allows Ellroy to explore the complexity of women's sexual psychology convincingly. (Angel or demon? Sorry, women are both.)

All the characters (even those in walk-on parts) are sharply realised. No-one is likeable, everyone (even Bucky, with whom we have the most sympathy) corrupt. The cops brutal (sadistic even) in their methods. (There is one truly awful interrogation scene when I wanted to look away ... but couldn't.) The atmosphere of the novel is dark and cloying, and you feel that you might really have stepped back into 1940's Los Angeles. I liked Ellroy's terse telegraphic style, which reminded me of Raymond Chandler, and the use of the slang of the time gives an authenticity to the writing (although the use of a glossary is recommended!).

Would I recommend it? Yes. I still think it's more of a guy's read though, but anyone who enjoys well-turned crime fiction should enjoy it. I am looking forward to seeing the film.

Out last book club read discussed at out meeting earlier this week was One Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li which I wrote about here. I'm used to having my choices thrown back at me as being too literary, but those who turned up were unanimous in their praise for the book. "Loved it," was the verdict, and "How on earth did she get in the heads of so many different characters?" the question we carried away with us.

(Note: For those who don't know KL, Sri Hartamas is a nice middle-class residential area in the city, and it's where our Black Dahlia meeting took place in Shashi's house.)


KayKay said...

As always, thanks for keeping an open mind my dear and picking up books you normally wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole! You're the antidote to book snobs everywhere.
On another note check the comment for my review of The Religion on my blog:

It's from the author apparently!! Assuming it isn't a hoaxter, that made my day I can tell you!

bibliobibuli said...

wow kaykay

yes, i'm sure it's the author

and this is the great thing about blogging the authors you're talking about do drop by (it's happened several times to me)

i even came across a blog where salman rushdie had answered back!

Anonymous said...

Sri Hartamas is an isolated enclave built from the ground up to exclude low-income earners -- there's no way to reach it other than by car, bike or cab. :D