BLACK DAHLIA SOLVED: how Piu Eatwell cracked this classic cold case
A fascinating reexamination of one of the world’s most infamous unsolved cases, in her true crime novel Black Dahlia, Red Rose, Piu Eatwell claims to have solved the mystery of who killed Elizabeth Short. We spoke to the author about what her interest in the case was and why she thinks she’s done what the cops and many other investigators have failed to do in the past.
The case is one of the world’s most notorious. What makes your book the one to read for avid true crime fans compared to the multitude already out there?
While I don’t want to boast, I think the simple answer to this question is that my book actually does track down the real killer (or killers, because I believe there were in fact two people involved in this murder). In order to write the book, I went through all the contemporary police files and newspaper reports that were available – amounting to several thousands of pages of documents. A review of these showed, surprisingly clearly, what happened in this case. It is my opinion that the Dahlia case was in fact solved, but subsequently covered up for a number of reasons that are explained in the book. The amount of circumstantial evidence pointing to the two culprits identified in the book is so significant that to explain it away would, in my opinion, be virtually impossible.
When did you first become interested in the Black Dahlia case and what inspired you write a book about it?
I first became interested in California and crime when I researched a documentary film for Channel 4 television about Charles Manson and the murders committed by the Manson family, a few years ago. To make that film I spent several months in Los Angeles and this experience introduced me to the fascinating, gritty world of Hollywood and crime. The Black Dahlia case really fascinated me because of the way that this particular murder acquired such mythical proportions and came to represent the dark side of Hollywood, even though there were many other brutal murders committed in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Also, it is a surprising fact that, although this is such a famous case, there have been relatively few non-fiction books written about it. The most famous book remains James Ellroy’s novel Black Dahlia, which although a brilliant book is entirely a work of fiction with no bearing on the true facts.
You have named chapters after film noir titles from the 1940s and 50s, what exactly inspired this quirk in your writings on this case?
In writing this book, I was inspired in part by the smoky, grainy images of the old film noir movies of the 1940s and 50s: Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (in fact, the corrupt police officer played by Welles in that film, Hank Quinlan, reminds me a lot of one of the real-life cops in the Dahlia story, LAPD chief of detectives ThadBrown). The Hollywood in which the Dahlia victim Elizabeth Short lived is, in many ways, very similar to the rain-soaked city portrayed in the film noir movies of the 1940s. So, the references to these films in the titles of the book’s chapters are both a homage to this genre and a conscious evocation of that film world in the reader’s mind. They are also, in many instances, just great titles in themselves and very evocative: for example Dial M for Murder, Farewell my Lovely, The Specter of the Rose, etc.
What do you think your readers will most enjoy about your research?
I hope readers will enjoy the experience of following my detective work through to the surprising conclusions reached in the book, and also feel a sense of satisfaction that those conclusions are based on a very thorough review, which is obvious from the detailed notes and references at the end of the book. Also – without giving away any spoilers – there is an unexpected ‘twist’ at the very end of the book, something that the killer went on to do in later life, which everybody who has read the book so far admits has completely astonished them.
What were you most shocked by in your research on the case?
There is quite a lot that is shocking about the case. Obviously, going through the victim reports and autopsy papers brought home to me how vicious and violent this murder really was – something I did have a vague idea about, but which really came home to me when I read the actual police and forensic reports. Elizabeth Short was tortured in a prolonged way before she was killed by slashing to the mouth and a blow to the head, her body subsequently sliced in half and tossed on a public pavement for all to see. I was also quite shocked by the way in which both the police and public turned against the victim, and made out that – by her free and easy lifestyle – she was somehow to blame for what happened to her. Obviously, nobody deserves a fate like hers.
Will you be tackling any other cold cases in the future?
I’m quite intrigued at the prospect of re-visiting the Manson family murders for a future book, as I think that – as with theDahlia killing – the ‘official’ story is probably quite different from what really happened in this case. I’m also working on a short piece of fiction which will, like my non-fiction books, investigate a historical mystery and be as thoroughly researched as the others, with the only difference being that because it is fiction, it will give me a free rein to make up the ending.