I am delighted to take part in the blog tour to celebrate Piu Eatwell’s latest book, Black Dahlia, Red Rose, which reexamines the sensational case of the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947:
The murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the ‘Black Dahlia’, is a well-known historical cold case. What ignited your interest into this real-life murder mystery?
As a former lawyer, I have a keen interest in cold cases. Also, some years ago I was researching a television documentary for Channel 4 about the Manson murders. This introduced me to the fascinating world of Hollywood and crime. The Black Dahlia murder is the ultimate challenge for any true crime writer because it is the most famous unsolved cold case – with the exception of the Whitechapel murders in 1880s London.
Your last book, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, was set at the end of the 19th century, whereas Black Dahlia, Red Rose is set in the 20th. What differences did you encounter in researching the two periods? Did you have to adapt your methods?
Although the worlds of my last two books are very different – ‘The Dead Duke’ is set in Edwardian England, ‘Black Dahlia, Red Rose’ in 1940s California – the methods of researching the books were essentially the same. Both involved the detailed examination of court documents and police files. They were both challenging to research, in different ways. In the case of ‘The Dead Duke’, there was the sheer amount of information – literally hundreds of boxed files, housed at Nottingham University special collections. In the case of the Dahlia, the challenge was rather in obtaining the documents themselves – this required legal demands under freedom of information laws to the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department.
What were the principal challenges and obstacles of investigating this case, and how did you overcome them?
The main challenge was obtaining the case papers, as outlined above. I had to make legal demands from the US authorities holding the documents, which meant reading up on the provisions of relevant US law. Luckily, as an international lawyer, I was able to do this. Even tracking the relevant newspaper articles was incredibly difficult: most were held on microfilm and therefore could not be searched online; visits had to be made to the relevant public libraries, and everything painstakingly indexed and catalogued by hand.
Elizabeth Short was only 22 years old when she was brutally murdered. Through the re-telling of her tragic story, have you been able to assess what sort of person she was? How do you feel about her?
I think Elizabeth Short suffered from terrible press and misconstruction after her death, largely due to political interests. There was, firstly, enormous concern in Los Angeles at the time about the huge influx of young women flooding into Hollywood, hoping to become movie stars. Elizabeth Short became the poster child for the conservative press to warn American girls about the dangers of leaving hearth and home: ‘this is what happens’, it was effectively said, when you do so. The statements on record of the police officers at the time are also shocking in the way they denigrate Elizabeth as virtually a slut who ‘deserved’ her fate. Perhaps this was their way of trivializing what, in my view, was the disgraceful mismanagement and outright cover-up of the investigation after her death.
Black Dahlia, Red Rose is set in 1940s Los Angeles. What did you enjoy the most about researching the city’s history and what were you most surprised to discover about life there at the time?
It was truly fascinating researching the history of Los Angeles in the early twentieth century. I have always been a huge fan of ‘film noir’, and my research brought the city in this period of gangster cops and movie moguls to life. What did surprise me, however, was how true to life those ‘noir’ movies were – in fact, the tangled web of intrigue that surfaced from my research would beat the plot twists of films such as The Big Sleep hands-down.
There is a complex cast of characters involved in this murder case. How did you manage to weave all their stories and roles so effectively into the main narrative?
I started my research, as I always do, with no set plan or idea of how the story would pan out. It was only after several months of intensive research and immersion in the case files that I began to get a picture of what happened. Then it was a question of weaving the threads together to make a narrative that was gripping but true to the facts of the case, as they happened.
One of the major elements of Black Dahlia, Red Rose is the chequered history of the LAPD. Was it difficult to find out the truth about the police department’s past? What aspect of policing in Los Angeles shocked you the most?
It was extremely difficult to research the history of the LAPD. What is astounding is that, even to this day – seventy years after the events in question – there is still an unwillingness to look at the facts of the case and openly admit to the mistakes of history. The LAPD itself has consistently refused to release its full file. In that sense, while the ‘cover up’ as such occurred in my view many years ago, in the 1940s, there is today still a reluctance to review or revisit the past.
I should think that as a lawyer, this has been a particularly exciting venture for you. Would you do the same again? And if so, do you have your eye on another unsolved case to examine?
As a lawyer, this was a particularly challenging case to investigate. Although I have written on cold cases before, this is also the most high-profile case that I have written about. In a sense it has been a fantastic experience, due to the high level of interest in the book and the positive feedback I have received. However, I am also shocked at the way in which I have been harassed and trolled online, mainly by so-called ‘experts’ with competing books and theories of the case. I find this disappointing, as a case of this importance does not ‘belong’ to any one individual: rather, it is a part of the complex tapestry of all our lives, to which everybody is entitled to contribute. Nobody has a right to control the narrative. That is the whole basis of its appeal. So, I am rather in two minds as to what to do next: another high-profile case, or something rather less controversial? I haven’t decided yet!
Black Dahlia, Red Rose is a gripping read and I would highly recommend it:
You can find out more about Piu’s work on her website here, and follow her on Twitter @PiuEatwell