James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia is a fictionalized account of the real life murder of Elizabeth Short. Short’s body was found in an abandoned field near the famous Hollywood sign on January 15, 1947. Despite a long and public investigation, the murder remains unsolved to this day. It is one of the most famous unsolved cases in American history.
The novel follows Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, an officer known more for his prowess in the boxing ring than his ability to uphold the law. He becomes partners with Lee Blanchard, a well-known and respected officer who is rising quickly in the police department. Bucky learns quickly at the hands of the more experienced Lee. He also falls in love with Lee’s live-in girlfriend, Kay Lake, a woman Lee met when he arrested and testified against her ex-boyfriend.
While investigating another crime, Bucky and Lee are among the first officers to respond when the body of Elizabeth Short is found. She has been mutilated and cut in half. Also, her mouth has been slashed open from ear to ear. Bucky and Lee are transferred to the case, and Lee becomes obsessed with finding the killer. His sister was murdered when he was a child, and Bucky believes Lee’s unwavering focus on the case is a result. Bucky instantly wants to be off the case, but in compromise he promises Lee one week on the case.
The investigation uncovers many unsavory details about Elizabeth, who was known by many aliases. Elizabeth was a liar who used men for her own ends and was obsessed with becoming a Hollywood star despite her lack of talent. Betty, as she was more commonly known, also appeared in a pornographic movie. However, all evidence that painted Betty in a questionable light was swept under the rug by the Assistant District Attorney, who wanted to find the killer of the "innocent" Betty in order to further his future political career.
Bucky remains on the case for months, despite the disappearance of his partner. He becomes involved in the conspiracy to hide evidence when he engages in an affair with Madeleine Sprague, a Black Dahlia look alike, in exchange for making certain her name remains out of the investigation. Bucky and the other officers investigate thousands of leads; however, none lead to the capture of the murderer.
Bucky is eventually taken off the case, but his obsession with the murder victim permeates all aspects of his life, including his marriage. Bucky investigates the murder even when he is off duty. His marriage suffers and eventually dissolves as he becomes further and further enmeshed in the life and murder of Elizabeth Short.
Eventually, Bucky’s investigation leads him to a bungalow in Hollywood, where it appears the investigation comes to an end. However, the haunting image in a painting leads Bucky to uncover a larger conspiracy, one in which he serves as an unwitting participant. The real killer is someone Bucky never suspected, andthe conspiracy to conceal the killer’s connection to Betty could cost Bucky his career.