Friday afternoon. The wet cold week is almost over. I’m sitting in the parking lot waiting for the bus to bring Gnat and friend home from camp. It’s late. It’s always late.

A woman gets out of an SUV, comes over to my car. Asks if I’m waiting for the bus. I say yes.

“Where are the other parents?” she asks. I look around: she’s right. All the cars in the lot are empty. It’s 10 minute past ETA for the bus; shouldn’t there be others?

“I got here at 4:11,” she says. “Did we miss the bus?”

“It’s supposed to be here at 4:15,” I say.

“No – 4:10. If it came and we weren’t here they would have gone to the next drop off. Do you know where that is?”

Oh crap. Crapcrap crapity crap. Now, I know that there’s no real problem here; if the bus moved on it would eventually deposit Gnat and Friend at the end point, where they would be safe until we showed up. It’s not as though unclaimed children are chloroformed and sold into slavery. You have to show ID to get them, so no one could get them at the next stop. But the idea that my child is OUT THERE SOMEWHERE is horribly unnerving - and even though the bus has been half an hour late every day, I’m starting to twitch. Not that it takes much to get me twitching. But I'm already thinking of what I'll say to the mom of Gnat's friend. I, uh, missed the bus, and they're somewhere, but I'm pretty sure I can find them, and even if something happens I can use my juice to get the story on page 1A, so don't worry -

Time slows. Time goes on hands and knees over hot coals and broken glass.

Ah. There’s the bus coming this way . . . and it keeps going. Passes the lot. Now I’m convinced that she’s been sold to Organ Farmers. I check my watch to see how late the bus is now . . . my watch has stopped. Ohmygod, how symbolic is THIS?

But then the bus reappears; it just went around the block to turn around. Gnat and friend get out. Exhausted. Covered in paint. They’ve had enough of camp, frankly. We asked Gnat if she wanted to go back, and she declined - “too much outside,” she said. I understand. The camp had no buildings, to speak of, just a shelter without walls. And it rained every day.

Would you like a camp with some inside places?

Uh huh.

Well, we’ll see what we can do.

Camp was over. Let summer begin! Saturday brought heat and light. The temps jumped 20 degrees, and the miserable dank week before was forgotten. I filled her backyard pool. My wife gardened. I weeded. Jasper panted. We all swatted skeeters. Breeze through the screens at night. Summer is here, again; all is forgiven.

Say “The Fifties” and most people know what it means. They might be wrong, but they have an idea. The fifties connect with us more than previous decades, because the fifties had TV. We understand a society with TV better than one without. It was also, I think, the first time that mass culture – advertising, TV, movies, etc. – successfully sold a “new look” to the culture that received the messages. Art Deco and Moderne were new styles of their time, but they had limited impact. (The Chrysler Building and the Empire State were instant American icons, but you didn’t see replicas all over the country.) The Fifties was the triumph of streamlining, push-button technology, new graphics styles, new icons. Add easy credit and the rise of the suburbs, and you had a new American styl created in millions of homes, expressed in furniture, clothes, magazines, dishes, toys.

But what came before? The Forties, of course. But to most of us the Forties are half a decade; they end at V-J day. The years from '46 to December 31 1949 seem strange and indistinct, don’t they? You can’t quite get a fix on them. What the cars looked like. How people dressed. What the commercial buildings looked like. What the magazine ads had to say, now the wartime themes were gone. The biggest events of people’s lifetimes – the Depression and the War – were over. We’d won. And we instantly had a new set of problems, too. Between the Rooskies and the nukes, there might have been something unnerving about “1950.” It was terra incognita; it was the other side. It had the same chilly sound as 2001, or 1984.

So think of this year: 1947. Right in the middle of the lost era between the end of the war and the start of the 50s. Ask anyone to name something that happened in 1947, and they’d probably come up blank.

Except for some, who’d have a ready answer: The Black Dahlia. The murder of Elizabeth Short.

I’ve been interested in this case since I read Ellroy’s novelization of the story - one of the finest crime novels ever; ask anyone in the business, and they'll tell you it's the gold standard. Part of the fascination comes also from the bare facts of the case: it’s one of the great unsolved mysteries. Every era has one, and they have a macabre fascination that lasts and lasts simply because there’s no resolution. There’s death, there’s headlines, and then . . nothing. The secret goes to the grave. Time doesn’t reveal the answer; time denies it.

We have different reasons for remembering different crimes – in the case of the Ripper, it wasn’t just the hideous nature of the murders, but the first few saucy taunting letters that established a persona. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” written in that confident hand. From that came all the images of some upper-class fellow in a top hat and cape skulking through foggy gaslit Whitechapel. Nonsense, I think. I’ve read enough about the case to know I don’t want to read any more. It always dead-ends in some aristocrat suffering from tertiary syphilis who was second-cousin to a 32nd degree Mason who knew the Queen’s groomsman 27 years before the murder, etc. More likely a gynophobic nutjob with a blade and a grudge. But it is an interesting story – when you study the press accounts, see how the media responded, it seems very familiar. It’s a recognizable world. They had newspapers; we have newspapers. It doesn’t seem so remote.

Why does the Dahlia case have a similar power? Because of the tabloid-ready name, the unsolved nature, the particulars of the murder (I won’t go into them here, but trust me: really bad) the letters sent by the killer, and the grayscale noir landscape of the latter 40s in which the crime occurred. Because Ellroy did a hell of a job bringing the case to life. Because people get attached to Beth Short like few other crime victims. I'm not one of them – I mean, it’s a horribly sad story and a gruesome case, but she remains an absolute cipher. I think people pour their own personalities into her for that very reason. She could be your sister; she could be your daughter. She could have been your mother. We only know her at all because she showed up in a vacant lot washed, arranged, exsanguinated and cut in half, and because no one paid for the crime.

Similar indignities were visited upon a woman the tabloids called the victim of the Lipstick Killer, just a few months later; does anyone obsess about her? And that’s the heart of the case. Think of it: Jack the Ripper. The Green River Killer. Ted Bundy. Son of Sam. The Zodiac killer. All the other pathetic malevolent men who did these things – we know them, more or less. Their crimes defined them. Their victims were numerous, and hence they were characters in a story about their killer. But the Dahlia is the main character in her story, and because her killer was never caught her story is the only one we have.

This is all a very long way of describing my Saturday. I went grocery shopping in the late afternoon. Bought steaks, some soda, milk, and – whoa. In the book section of Lund’s I saw a cover that just leaped out at me: BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER. I’d heard about this. Read some reviews; hadn’t given them much thought. These books come along every other year, purporting to solve some crime of the century. But I picked it up. Got home, started reading.

Finished it around 2 in the morning, convinced. More or less. The author believes that the killer of the Black Dahlia was a Hollywood physician named George Hodel. Murder-mystery novelists wouldn’t dream of creating characters like Hodel; too far-fetched. A genius whose parents had Rachmaninoff over to the house now and then. A musical prodigy whose performance was covered by the LA Evening Herald when he was nine. He covered sex-crime stories for an LA daily paper before he was 20. He was a cab driver at age 17, a classical-music station radio announcer in his early 20s; he went to med school, became a practicing physician. He was close friends with film director John Huston and photographer Man Ray. The very model of the sociopathic genius you find in serial-killer airport-bookstore novels, except the dials went to 12. And the author suspects him . . . why?

Because when George Hodel died at age 93 in 1999, he left behind a book of photos, and the author is convinced that two photos in the book are portraits of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, taken by George Hodel. (Who was also an accomplished photographer.)

The author is a retired LAPD detective.

His name is Steve Hodel.

He’s the son of the man he names as the killer.

And that’s what makes the book so in-fargin’-credible. If you met this guy in a bar, you’d think he was nuts. Oh yah, my mom was married to John Huston before my dad, and my half-sister was college roommates with that singer from the Mamas and the Papas. You ever hear of that famous photographer, Man Ray? He did a portrait of my mother, ‘cause he was friends with my Dad, who was a big-time doctor before that whole big incest / orgy-circle trial in ’49. And he killed the Black Dahlia too. Sure, pal. Sure.

But everything up to the last assertion is a matter of record. And as we learn, the police records on Dr. Hodel are extensive. The paperback I bought had many additions, information people provided after the first printing. Apparently old LAPD men contacted the author, confirming that his father had been an official suspect. One retired officer says he helped wiretap Hodel’s house. The author got the transcripts of the taps. I read them, thinking: case closed.

Of course, my wife looked at the pictures of the Dahlia, and the pictures the author said his father had. “That’s not the same person,” she said.

I think they are. Because I want them to be? Because I really do want to know the story has an ending?

Even if the author’s conclusions are all Even if the author’s conclusions are all wrong – and Ellroy, in a foreward, says he believes the author now - the evidence is fascinating. You can’t help but resist the author for most of the book; at some point you give in. Maybe afterwards you think: aww, bunk. And then but maybe. You could read it all as one man striking back at a father who abandoned him, if you wish. Or you can read it is a piece of If nothing else, there aren’t many accounts of the Black Dahlia case this detailed that include the author’s recollection of Gregory Peck scooping up dog crap.

If nothing else, you’ll learn about 1947. It'll seem familiar and strange. You could survive if you found yourself there; most things would make sense. They had ball-point pens, for example; the Dahlia killer wrote his notes with one. But they were new on the market. Adjusted for inflation, they cost about $125. That's the sort of thing that would blow the time-traveler's cover - he'd shake the pen, scribble a little, decide it was dry - and toss it. That's the detail people would tell to the cops in 1947. He had a ball-point pen. And he just threw it away.


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