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BlogOctober, 2009
Breaking Down The Black Dahlia

One treat of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987) is its secondary characters – especially Sergeant Harry Sears. Here’s our first look at him: “A squat, disheveled man stood up, turned around and faced the room. He swallowed a few times, then stammered, ‘C-C-C-Cruz’s wife is sc-screwing the cousin’” (45).

The next few times we see Sears, alcohol is involved. After the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s disemboweled body at 39th and Norton, Sears is “knocking back a drink in full view of half a dozen officers” (69). Minutes later, Sears is “palming his flask so the boss wouldn’t see it. Millard caught the act and rolled his eyes in disgust” (69).

Skim these sentences, and it’s easy to pigeonhole Sears as a stammering, unkempt boozehound – a stock character.

But there’s much more going on. Sears’ attempt to conceal his flask is a fascinating reversal. He had imbibed “in full view” of six colleagues just moments earlier. The reader can draw several conclusions, but here are the main ones: Sears has not lost all his marbles. He cares about keeping his job. He cares about showing deference to his boss, Lieutenant Russ Millard. And Millard, eye-roller though he is, has his reasons for keeping Sears around.

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In the next chapter, narrator Bucky Bleichert refers to Sears as “Harry” for the first time (75). That’s significant in a novel of cops and criminals. In most scenes, last names fly like bullets. In fact, Bleichert doesn’t call Millard “Russ” until Millard insists on it (94).

Moreover, we seldom read Bleichert’s first name: He is usually Bleichert and often Bucky. Only Kay Lake, his intimate, consistently calls him “Dwight.” The instances of Dwight are so few that they are almost always stirring, especially toward the end of the novel in Lake’s letters.

All this suggests that it’s no small thing when Bleichert calls Sears “Harry” at the start of Chapter Eight. In a retrospective narrative like Dahlia, “Harry” signals a forthcoming affinity between Bleichert and Sears. Of course, the causes of this affinity aren’t clear until later. In a plot as detailed and delicate as Dahlia, it is easy to overlook them. But they are there. For one thing, Sears lends his civilian car to Bleichert for three straight days so Bleichert can stake out the suspicious Spragues for 72 hours (306). For another, Sears is generous at Bleichert’s wedding: “By dusk the yard was filled with people I didn’t know, and Harry made a run to the Hollywood Ranch Market for more food and booze” (232).

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By the middle of the novel, we indeed learn “why Russ keeps Harry around” (115). Interrogating suspect Red Manley in the Dahlia killing, Sears is no stammering drunk. In the presence of a potential criminal, he is an intimidator and a relentless truth-seeker. “Sears smashed the table once, twice, three times, then hurled it over onto its side. Red fumbled himself out of his chair…then started weeping. Sears looked straight at the one-way, self-loathing etched into every plane of his flabby juicehound face. He gave the thumbs-down sign, then walked out of the room” (117).

In this scene, Bleichert is not yet sold on Sears; he cites “self-loathing,” a trait that a first-person narrator cannot authoritatively ascribe to another character. But Bleichert’s respect for Sears soon grows. Already privy to Sears’ intimidation powers, Bleichert observes Sears’ intelligence for the first time after a heated conflict between Millard and Sergeant Fritz Vogel over a young female witness. When Vogel departs with a violent door-slamming, it is Sears who diffuses the tension in the suddenly silent room. “How does it feel to be the object of such a fuss, Miss Martilkova?” he says (140). This simple sentence calms both Millard and the trembling witness.

The interrogation ensues without a hitch. And it is Sears who, minutes into the interview, asks its two most pivotal questions: “Was Betty a lesbian, Lorna?” and “Did the Mexican man give Betty a viewfinder?” (143, 144). Starting with this chapter, Bleichert softens in his appraisals of Sears. By the time his wedding rolls around, he is downright generous: “Russ Millard was the best man, and Harry Sears came along as a guest. He started out with a stutter, and for the first time I saw that it was precisely his fourth drink that quashed it” (232).

***

Clearly, our first glimpses of Sears – the unkempt boozehound – belie his nuanced personality. The intense conditions of the Dahlia case – and the passage of time – reveal his depths. In this sense, Sears embodies a Dahlia leitmotif: Only years and duress can expose the innermost truths of your intimates and coworkers – and still, they are likely concealing something from you.

Even Millard, the novel's paragon of virtue, whom Bleichert labels "the best man I ever knew," commits arson in an effort to preserve Bleichert's job (229). It is the last time we see Millard in the book. It is an eminently apt punctuation to a story in which the ethics of every key character become compromised.



Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
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Ilan Mochari