Find it at your library!

I had to squirm (and occasionally skim) my way through this book because I’m squeamish when it comes to violence, but the Black Dahlia murder and Piu Eatwell’s deep dive into the evidence are fascinating enough to make the ick factor worth it. I didn’t know anything about the case going in, but even if you have some background, Eatwell fought for access to evidence never before released—and she has a compelling argument as to the identity of the culprit. She’s also an accomplished historian who excels at creating a sense of place. Black Dahlia, Red Rose is as much a snapshot of postwar LA as it is an analysis of the murder investigation, and even though I’ve never been to California, having read this book I now feel like I have.

True crime can be tough to read. With crime novels, no matter how sick and twisted, you can at least comfort yourself with the thought that it’s all a figment of the author’s imagination. We’re granted no such distance here. Elizabeth Short was a real person whose life was ended purposefully and brutally. So what makes the book worth reading, despite the gruesomeness of the crime itself? In my opinion, it’s the opportunity to explore who the so-called Black Dahlia really was, behind the sensational headlines and prejudice of the times. It’s too easy to cast a beautiful young female murder victim as either a saintly virgin or a disgraced harlot. Based on the picture Eatwell paints of Short, I personally think she (like all women) was more complicated than that false dichotomy allows.

Adding to the intrigue is Eatwell’s exposure of the bald-faced corruption of the LAPD and their unwillingness to bring the killer to justice. As a cock-eyed optimist, I found the department’s failure appalling, but if you’re the jaded type you probably won’t be too surprised. I guess we’ve seen several examples in the news just recently that prove rules don’t apply to white men in powerful positions. I should have known.

Recommended for true crime enthusiasts, history buffs, and anyone who likes non-fiction that reads like fiction.

Find it at your library!

Ever since I inhaled the S-Town podcast in two days, I’ve been looking to recapture that weird, can’t-look-away fascination I felt as I listened to John B. McLemore’s story unfold. American Fire comes pretty dang close.

The basic story is this: a few years ago, someone started lighting abandoned buildings in Accomack County, Virginia on fire. It’s a rural enough area that the fire departments are all volunteer outfits, staffed by people who have to get up and go to their day jobs after fighting fires all night. And whoever this arsonist was, they were prolific, sometimes setting multiple blazes per night, until it started to seem like the entire county would burn to the ground before the guilty party was caught.

I don’t read a lot of true crime because I don’t have the stomach for it, but as the daughter of a fire chief, I found myself curious about the story behind the fires in Accomack and what would drive a person to burn down empty buildings night after night. Journalist Monica Hesse unfolds the story in a way that reminded me of S-Town—there are layers to the people involved and the problems they have. As you might expect, there’s no single, easy answer waiting to be revealed at the end, but in a way that’s what makes it satisfying.

Highly recommended, especially if you have an investigative spirit and enjoy probing the dark corners of other people’s minds.