Given that the sadistic 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short -- aka the Black Dahlia -- has transfixed the public imagination for more than half a century, and that retired LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel is not the first author to implicate his own father for the crime, Hodel's new book has its work cut out for it. Perhaps that's why Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder is stuffed with every kind of sensation you could ask for: sex, serial murder, star power, evil genius, corruption, family betrayal, and even some perversely arousing avant-garde art. Or perhaps, because some things you just can't make up, it's all true.
"Dad was a very mysterious, enigmatic individual," says Hodel, who lives in Washington State but grew up in the Hollywood home of the UC Berkeley-grad father with whom, as he writes, he never enjoyed "a real father-son relationship."
In the spring of 1999, after the death of Dr. George Hodel -- certified genius, expert surgeon, and surrealist-art aficionado -- Hodel fils went to his late father's San Francisco penthouse, "remarking to myself how beautiful the morning sun could be in San Francisco, with its promise of a complete renewal." A renewal is what Steve Hodel got, but it was a rude one. Among the doctor's belongings, he found a private photo album containing some unsettling pictures, notably two posed shots of unidentified women, one with dahlias in her dark hair.
He recalled the similar photo, widely published in newspapers during his youth, of a pretty 22-year-old with dark, dahlia-adorned hair -- a woman whose mutilated corpse was discovered in a vacant LA lot and eventually buried in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery. It was California's most sensational murder to date; yet despite the furor it sparked, the crime still remains unsolved.
Driven to uncover what he was sure was a connection between his dad and the Dahlia, Hodel secretly took himself out of retirement. Digging deep into the dirt of his family history, he gradually amassed a heap of evidence that he believes has solved the notorious case, with the horrible extra benefit of proving his father to be an unpunished serial killer.
As he worked on the case, even his confidants admonished him: "You might be really losing it here." But part of what makes a good detective good is tenacity.
"One of the hardest things for me to do was to put myself in my father's mind," the author says. "I had to remove my emotional self. At the same time, I've been trained to do this. You could say I put myself on automatic, and that's what cops do." Though perfectly willing to discuss the difficult details of his story, he perforates his conversations with moments of aggrieved silence.
Black Dahlia Avenger recounts the chilling handwriting analysis, the documentation demonstrating that police in 1947 had in fact suspected his famous father, and, most morbidly fascinating, the so-called "thoughtprint" with a decidedly artistic flourish. Elizabeth Short's body was found bisected at the waist -- a clean cut requiring a surgeon's skill -- and arrayed in a gruesome pose, evoking a pair of works by the surrealist Man Ray ... who was, as it happens, a friend and mentor to the author's father. The plot just doesn't seem to stop thickening.
"My mission was not really to become a writer," Hodel muses, but with its process of organization, narrativizing, and building support, "the way you do an investigation is similar to the way you write a book. Sadly, the whole story is not out. It would really probably take two or three books to tell the whole story." But tell it he must.
"I do sort of see this as my mission now," says Hodel, who spotlights in his book a sordid social circle of which his father was a kingpin, and which dabbled in drugs and sexual extremes including -- if Hodel's half-sister is to be believed -- incest. A taste for sadism, the author alleges, went way over the edge.
"I never, never would have gone public with this had I not ultimately crossed that evidentiary threshold," he says.
The only headline to outsell the Black Dahlia case in the 1940s was the announcement of VE-Day. The case holds a fascination to this day; whole Web sites are devoted to it and Hodel has been interviewed by reporters all over the world.
One of many other books to touch on the Dahlia is crime reporter Will Fowler's memoir, in which the author callously but perceptively suggests a public view of the long-unsolved case as a self-propagating source of titillation, an "unopened present."
"That really pissed me off," Hodel responds. "Imagine [the victim] is your daughter! And somebody doesn't want it to be solved? Many people, like Fowler, fell in love with the mystery."
As a longtime cop, he maintains that his sole allegiance is to the truth, his sole duty to solve the crime: "You need to have closure for relatives." And now that he has come out as the putative killer's kid, one can only wonder what kind of closure he can expect for himself.
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