Interview with Piu Eatwell, author of Black Dahlia, Red Rose

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Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the “Black Dahlia”

A few weeks ago, I finished reading an excellent true crime book entitled Black Dahlia, Red Rose (order your copy here). The book tells the story of the Black Dahlia murder, the gruesome, unsolved murder of a woman whose body was found cut in half in Los Angeles. The case is one of the all-time “classics” in the annals of dark history.

Having read and watched a lot of material on the case over the years, I consider this to be the definitive investigation into the case, and recommend the book to my readers.

Below is my interview with the author, Piu Eatwell. Thank you, Piu, for taking the time to talk to ForenSeek!


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Piu Eatwell. Photo: Carsten Wilde

Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m British and I live in Paris, France. Nowadays I write full-time, but in my past life I have been a documentary TV researcher for the BBC, and a lawyer in London.  I was born in Kolkata, India, and grew up there until the age of nine years.  I think my mixed origins and the far-flung places I have lived have all informed my perspective as a writer, as well as my interest in different subjects and points of view. 

How did you first hear about the Black Dahlia case?

The case is so famous that I’m not sure I know when I first heard about it – I think it was always there, at the back of my consciousness.  I think most people will have “heard about” it vaguely, without exactly knowing all the details.

What inspired you to write about it?

I was particularly drawn to the world of Hollywood in the 1940s, and have always been a fan of “film noir.”.  Especially the mysterious women of film noir: the characters embodied by the likes of Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson, etc.  For me, it is a strange and exciting period – there is the violence and brutality inherited from the War years, but also the excitement and ambiguity of new roles being carved out for women.  All of these elements, and more, are captured in the Black Dahlia case.

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The case is old and vast. How did you approach such an infamous case?
What were your “first steps”?

My first steps – as is always the case – were to go to the primary documentation.  Which meant ordering vast numbers of files from the FBI and the Los Angeles District Attorney.

What were your primary sources for the book?

My major sources were the FBI file on the Dahlia case (I succeeded, by a legal application to the FBI, in getting the redactions taken off their case file), and the Los Angeles district attorney’s file on the case (the DA’s office was very helpful).  The LAPD, on the other hand, were very unhelpful, and indeed they have consistently refused to release their file on the Dahlia case. 

In terms of people, the Los Angeles writer Donald Freed was an important source, as he interviewed one of the key witnesses in the case in the 1950s.  After the hardback version of the book came out, I was also contacted by Buzz Williams, the son of a gangster squad officer on the case, who had some exciting new information.

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The book is not only well written, with beautiful, fluid prose, but
also extremely meticulously researched. How long did it take you,
altogether, to put together Black Dahlia, Red Rose?

The entire book took about a year and a half to research and write…. about average for my books.

We experience a lot of the story through the actions of the newspaper
reporters of the time, and you even point out at one point in the book
that the press often seemed to be a step ahead of the LAPD. Why do you
think that was?

At this point in 1940s LA, the police force was corrupt, over-stretched, and under-resourced.  By contrast, the rival newspaper magnate dynasties of Hearst and Chandler had enormous budgets to spend and could give their reporters funds to bribe potential witnesses, even to keep back key evidence and look over it before the police did.  Thus it was that key witnesses in the Dahlia case were interviewed by reporters as well as (or even instead of) the police, and key evidence – such as the victim’s trunk of personal possessions – were pored over in newspaper offices.  Nowadays, that kind of thing could never happen.

And speaking of reporters working the Black Dahlia case, one of them
was a female in a very male dominated world, named Aggie Underwood. Who was she?

Aggie is one of my favorite characters! She was a crime reporter and subsequently editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Express, one of the first female editors of a major national US newspaper.  She was born into a very poor family, her father was an itinerant glass-blower who handed her over to be brought up by various relatives, including an aunt who tried to make her into a child star and when that failed, deserted her.  She started off as a secretary at the newspaper offices because her then-husband refused to buy her silk stockings, then worked her way up to becoming editor.  She once slapped a reporter with a dead fish, and if the office was quiet, she would fire off a pistol to get everybody going again!  She was one of the most successful and longest serving editors of the Herald-Express, beating all the odds to become a legend.

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Aggie Underwood. Notice the baseball bat on her desk.

One aspect that features prominently in the book is LAPD corruption,
and its negative effects on the investigation into the Black Dahlia
murder. Did anybody ever have to answer for this corruption in court?

No, sadly, the entire corrupt establishment of the LAPD at the time (ie the 1940s/50s) got away scot-free.  Even if the LAPD of today were to release the Dahlia file, I suspect most of the incriminating evidence was destroyed many years ago, in the 1950s.  It is therefore unlikely that anybody will ever be called to account.

The so called Gangster Squad were also involved in the Dahlia case.
Who were they, and why were they involved?

The Gangster Squad were an elite squad of the LAPD, formed to investigate organized crime and police corruption.  Their methods were controversial and unorthodox – for example, bugging people and rough tactics in interrogation.  Nobody knows exactly why they were brought into the Dahlia case over and above the regular police investigation, but my belief is that it was because it was suspected that the regular LAPD officers involved (particularly Finis Brown of homicide) were corrupt.

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Your book zeroes in on a suspect, and you build quite a convincing
case for his guilt. Without giving away the story, what kinds of things
convinced you that the killer was him?

Certain character traits of the Dahlia killer as shown by his methodology – exhibitionism, a desire to boast about the crime, putting himself into the scene by writing letters, getting mixed up in the investigation – all of these chimed with the character traits of the man I suspect as the killer, or at least, one of them (because, as I explain in the paperback (softcover) version of the book, I suspect several people to have been guilty of this crime). My views have developed with additional information, especially in the light of my interview with Buzz Williams, whose evidence is given in an Afterword to the paperback edition of the book.

Are you planning on writing anything more in the true crime genre?
What are you working on now?

For the moment, I have put true crime “on hold” and am exploring some new directions in writing.  But I am sure I will return to the genre when a new case that grabs my attention comes up.

Where can people keep up with your work?

The best place for regular updates on my work is Twitter, @PiuEatwell

And finally, my regular questions.

Your top 3 films?

If… (1968)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Anupama (1968) (classic Bollywood movie)

Your top 3 books?

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Your top 3 albums?

Led Zeppelin – IV (1971)

Pink Floyd – The Final Cut (1983)

Wham! – Make It Big (1984) (yes, sorry!)

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