Eighty years after her murder on January 14 or 15, 1947, you’d think there’d be nothing new to say about the death of Elizabeth Short, dubbed “The Black Dahlia” by the Las Angeles press. Over the decades, her short life has been fictionalized in print and on screen, and she’s been portrayed as everything from a prostitute, would-be actress, a lesbian, to a frigid sexual tease.
Without question, the moniker of “Black Dahlia” put Short into the national spotlight in 1947 and afterward, along with the much publicized grotesque, lurid details of how her body was found. Her face had been slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears, portions of her thighs had been sliced away, her body had been cut completely in half, and The lower half of her body was positioned a foot away from the upper half. And that’s just part of the mutilations she endured.
The public was further intrigued on January 24, 1947 when a suspicious manila envelope was discovered by a U.S. Postal Service worker that had individual words that had been cut-and-pasted from newspaper clippings. A large message on the face of the envelope read: "Here is Dahlia's belongings” containing Short's birth certificate, business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper, and an address book with the name Mark Hansen embossed on the cover.
Not surprisingly, Police quickly deemed Mark Hansen, a man with underworld connections, a suspect. Author Piu Eatwell thinks he was involved, even if she doesn’t think he was the actual killer. She thinks Leslie Dillon, a man with known connections to both Short and Hansen, was.
Much of Eatwell’s exploration of the case focuses on what happened after the discovery of Short’s corpse and why, in the author’s opinion, the case was never solved. According to the latest historian to try her hand at uncovering the truth to the brutal crime, that elusive truth could have been told long ago if not for the obstruction and cover-ups by a number of Las Angeles police higher-ups who either didn’t want to get into interdepartmental turf wars or didn’t want to upset some gangsters who’d corrupted the LAPD. Like Mark Hansen.
Eatwell spends little time reviewing the plethora of other theories and other proposed suspects but instead offers her research into why she’s convinced Leslie Dillon got away with murder. She explores what evidence was ignored, neglected, lost, not presented to the 1949 grand jury, and she discusses why some witnesses were pressured into keeping silent. While the crime is shocking enough on its own, how the criminal justice system operated during that era, at least as described by Piu Eatwell, is equally chilling. Like the views of several police officials who felt the death of a footloose 22 year old just wasn’t worth all the trouble to solve the case. Considering all the current problems we’re having with the U.S. judicial system, Piu Eatwell’s portrait of the events of 1947 and after are sadly much too convincing and believable.
Piu Eatwell’s nonfiction book should appeal to readers who like true crime stories but also fans of fictional murder mysteries. The story of the Black Dahlia is still one with sensational elements and Eatwell presents a vivid and gritty world in which Elizabeth Short died. Her book probably isn’t the last word on the subject, but it is one worthy of contemporary interest.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Oct. 4 at: