Sunday, April 6, 2008

Black Dahlia Avenger, by Steven Hodel

I confess to a perhaps unnatural fascination with "true crime" stories. I have read many, from the very good to the unbelievably bad. But that isn't the primary reason I wanted to read this book.

When I visited a special motel in Desert Hot Springs one year the owner told me that Steve Hodel had been there and had told him his story about the Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short) murder. The motel owner (a friend of mine) was highly enthusiastic about Hodel and his book. I decided to get it some day, in large part because of that endorsement. That day came when I saw that it was available through paperbackswap.

Hodel is a retired detective from the same police force that investigated this murder years before he joined. His experience as a detective led me to believe that his research and analysis would be sober, thorough, and logical, even though it focused on his father.

It's a thick book, full of details and exhibits and what the author refers to as "thoughtprints" - his way of connecting dots. His use of these thoughtprints bothered me a bit because they are a way of relying on assumptions more than on cold hard evidence. I recognize that the type evidence he obtained was not direct (photographs, memories, notes with odd references, newspaper articles) and it was necessary to try to piece together the meaning from them, but I felt he went from finding this type evidence to drawing those conclusions and then referring to his conclusions as fact. It seemed odd that a detective would make such leaps.

From the beginning I wondered about his decision to do this investigation without aid of LAPD files on the subject. He made several assumptions about their availability but did not actually make the effort to obtain them until after the book was published (this version of the book is the expanded version and does include information from LAPD files). His explanations, that he no longer has the connections to the department that he once had, didn't convince me. In his place, if I had the other materials that he unearthed and so carefully labeled and reproduced, I would have been hungry for confirmation of my conclusions, hungry enough to see how far I could get in looking at those files.

Another block to my own ability to buy Hodel's story whole is the writing itself. I am sure the editors worked slavishly to make it readable and to organize it. Sometimes, though, you reach a point where you have to say "enough" and let it go out in the world. I suspect this is what happened. The book is repetitious, oddly organized, and difficult to wade through. It got to the point where I set it down after reading just a page or two, then picked it up later to continue slogging on. A better writer might have been able to put it together better and make a better case with the same facts.

Hodel may well be right in many of his assumptions, and the case he made for a "coverup" in the years surrounding the Black Dahlia murder and early investigation, is convincing. In fact, the case he makes against his own father as the murderer is worth serious consideration. I do quibble with some of his reasoning:

He draws a portrait of his father as a man who used women and then discarded them (except for his last wife, who hung in for 30 years). Yet when Steve Hodel creates a possible motive for the killing of Beth Short he assumes Short agreed to marry Hodel and when she later jilted him he became enraged and killed her. The two pictures of George Hodel don't match, in my opinion.

I also found Hodel's "evidence" that his father's longtime friend, Fred Sexton, also took part in some of the murders Hodel attributes to his father unconvincing. One part of the evidence is a photograph of Sexton compared to a police sketch of a perp seen by a witness. The drawing shows a man with a prominent widow's peak, while Sexton has none and has a high forehead. I can't buy that they are the same man.

All of which does not mean that I don't believe Hodel's basic conclusion that his father killed Elizabeth Short. It seems very possible and even likely. I am less convinced by what he trots out as the other murders also committed by his father.

I am frustrated that all his work did not lead to an official investigation, a circumstance that clearly befuddles Hodel as well. At one point he took his findings to a DA in Los Angeles county offices, a person who could in fact find reason to call for an investigation. The chapter is titled "Filing My Case with the District Attorney's Office". Yet he did not officially file the case there. Instead, he contacted a member of the office whom he knew, gave him the information, and requested an "as-if" memo. The DA knocked out a several-page memo stating that he would file it if it were real. Why didn't he file it for real? I didn't get a good answer to that either.

A near-exhausting hunt that, for me, turned up almost as many questions as answers.

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