The still-unsolved 1947 Black Dahlia murder remains the perfect L.A. tabloid mystery. The victim, 22-year-old Hollywood wanna-be Elizabeth Short, got her nickname from the flowers she wore in her jet-black hair; her corpse was neatly sliced in half and posed spread-legged in a vacant lot. In addition to James Ellroy's classic 1987 "The Black Dahlia," the case has spawned several true-crime accounts with maybe-true solutions. The latest: "Black Dahlia Avenger" (481 pages. Arcade), by retired LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel. The killer? His own father.
Dr. George Hodel was a charismatic but domineering Hollywood physician. His son claims that the doctor, who died in 1999, had an affair with Short before killing her--and may have committed a dozen other unsolved murders, covered up by the LAPD. (As a specialist in venereal diseases, his son says, Hodel kept files so embarrassing as to make him untouchable by the law.) In 1949, he was tried for incest with Steve's half sister; he was acquitted, and the family dismissed her as a pathological liar. "We're on a level of pure evil here," Hodel told NEWSWEEK. "You couldn't invent a story this bizarre."
Without access to police files--he'd retired before starting his research--Hodel pieced together his case from interviews, newspaper clips and family lore. His first inkling: arty photos his dad took of a woman who looked strikingly like the Black Dahlia. Detectives had long suspected that only a doctor could have cut up Short so neatly, and Hodel hired a handwriting expert who found it was "highly probable" that George Hodel handwrote the killer's taunting notes to newspapers. "When I saw the handwriting," Hodel says, "I thought, 'Oh, s--t, he did kill her'." And he believes the ghastly arrangement of Short's corpse was a bizarre homage to his father's close friend the surrealist photographer Man Ray.
"I believe Steve has solved the case," says Stephen Kay, a veteran L.A. deputy D.A. to whom Hodel unofficially showed his evidence. Kay agrees that Dr. Hodel was also behind the 1947 murder of a young nurse named Jeanne French, whose killer scrawled F--- YOU, B.D. on the victim's abdomen. According to the handwriting expert, that writing also looks like George Hodel's. Last week the D.A.'s office opened Black Dahlia files that Hodel hadn't been able to see. They prove Dr. Hodel indeed became a suspect after the incest accusation. His house was bugged, and transcripts suggest that he was rattled after being questioned about the case. "Supposing I did kill the Black Dahlia," Hodel tells a friend in a transcript summary. "They couldn't prove it now."
Sounds damning. Yet the file also makes clear that Hodel was only one of 22 suspects; investigators concluded the bugging tapes generally "tend to prove his innocence." And the younger Hodel presents almost no evidence of a police cover-up. But if nothing else, he gives us a fascinating family psychodrama; we watch his image of his father morph from flawed but lovable ladies' man to monster. And his theory of the case will intrigue Black Dahlia buffs--at least until the next book comes along.