Mass murder is the defining horror of our age – when are we going to realise it starts at home?

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 7 November 2017

It’s happened again: last weekend, an angry young man with a record of domestic violence murdered 26 people in a church in Texas. Before the killings, Devin Kelley sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who had previously attended the church. She wasn’t there on Sunday, but Kelley fired indiscriminately - including at a baby aged 18 months.

Kelley had been discharged from the US air force for attacking his wife and child, and he had been arrested in the past for viciously beating a dog. His name has now been added to an infamous – and growing – list of killers who have a record of domestic violence, before escalating to mass murder.

Of course mass shootings are a very American phenomenon, enabled by easy access to guns. But exactly the same pattern is emerging in terrorist incidents in the US and Europe – and it should make us think very hard about how we respond to domestic violence.

These massacres are often described as ‘senseless’ but there’s no doubt that rage against family members is implicated in many mass killings. Research in the US, carried out by an organisation called Everytown for Gun Safety, found that 57 per cent of mass killings between 2009 and 2015 included a family member, spouse or former spouse among the victims.

In one of the most notorious cases in recent history, Adam Lanza shot his mother in the head before killing 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in 2015, had been accused of domestic violence by two of his three ex-wives.

Omar Mateen had a long history of domestic abuse before he murdered 49 people last year at a nightclub in Orlando. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who deliberately drove a lorry into pedestrians on the seafront in Nice, killing more than 80 people, used to rant about his wife until she left him two years earlier.

In one extraordinary case, pure misogyny was the cause. Elliott Rodger, a student dropout who murdered six people in southern California in 2014, left behind a video in which he boasted about being an ‘alpha male’ and raged at girls who refused to go out with him.

Here in the UK, a relative of Khalid Masood, who mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed a police officer to death in March this year, described how his wife had fled in terror after only three months of marriage.

Rachid Redouane, one of three men who carried out a similar attack at London Bridge in June, had reportedly abused his wife before she left him in January. The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, is said to have punched a female classmate in the head for wearing a short skirt.

How much evidence do we need? It’s clear that men who beat up their partners and children are much more dangerous than the general public realises – they pose a threat to total strangers, as well as their families.

It’s not so long since police and neighbours would react with a shrug of the shoulders, dismissing even noisy disturbances and desperate cries for help as ‘just a domestic’. But we know now that domestic violence can be a precursor to mass murder, whether the supposed motive is a personal grievance or loyalty to a terrorist organisation.

After the shootings in Texas at the weekend, the US air force admitted it didn’t warn the FBI about Devin Kelley’s record of domestic abuse, leaving him free to acquire guns and kill 26 people. The failure to understand that domestic violence is unlikely to be a one-off – that it might actually turn into lethal violence – is something no country can afford any more.

Men who commit violent assaults on women and children must be charged and punished – their victims need justice and other women they encounter need to be warned about a history of violence.

But the criminal justice system also needs to acknowledge the consequences of not helping women escape violent relationships. To put it bluntly, too many children are growing up in households where violence is normalised.

One of the things we know about domestic violence is that boys who witness it often become perpetrators when they’re older. Research on the background of boys who join teenage gangs in the UK’s big cities suggests that domestic abuse is a common factor – and a similar pattern is starting to emerge with young men who are groomed by terrorist organisations.

This should be a wake-up call. From Florida and Texas to Manchester, London and Paris, mass murder is one of the defining horrors of our age.

If we are going to have any chance of stopping it, we have to accept that it begins in the home. And we urgently need to prevent a habit of domestic violence being passed from fathers to sons.

 

Christmas is coming and the body count is rising

Sunday Times, 29 October 2017

It is a sad fact that most murder victims are quickly forgotten. Donato Carrisi’s showy detective, Special Agent Vogel, is determined not to let that happen in The Girl in the Fog (translated by Howard Curtis, Abacus £12.99). Vogel is convinced that a teenage girl, who has disappeared from an isolated village in the Italian Alps just before Christmas, is already dead. To keep the case in the public eye, he shamelessly stages stunts and manipulates the media.

Carrisi’s gruesome debut, The Whisperer, was an international sensation. The new novel is more low key, offering daily insights into an investigation that goes badly wrong. Vogel’s insistence that he knows the identity of the killer feels like an obsession, and threatens to end his career. But Carrisi has a series of shocks up his sleeve, forcing readers to question everything in this coldly brilliant exposé of the depths of human nature.

There is a dismal Christmas in store for another family in The Darkest Day by Hakan Nesser (translated by Sarah Death, Mantle £16.99). Nesser is best known for his novels starring the gruff Inspector Van Veeteren, but now he has come up with a younger, more dynamic detective. Inspector Barbarotti is half-Italian, lives in a fictional Swedish town, and is more in touch with the modern world. His first case starts with a birthday party for a newly retired teacher and his eldest daughter.

The celebrations are clouded from the start: the teacher’s wife fantasises about killing him, unable to face the prospect of retiring to Spain with her pedantic spouse; and their son is recovering from a very public humiliation on a reality TV show. When two members of this highly dysfunctional family disappear, Barbarotti has to disentangle years of bad blood and resentment to get to the heart of a thrillingly complex case.

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths (Quercus £16.99) is the fourth in her atmospheric crime series set in the final days of variety acts in the 1950s. The celebrated stage magician Max Mephisto is appearing in Brighton, sharing the bill with a group of nearly naked young women who enact historical scenes. This seedy attempt to get round censorship laws evidently gives someone an idea, leading to the discovery of a body posed to recall the execution of Lady Jane Grey. This fine novel offers the pleasure of familiar characters while taking a sympathetic look at the vulnerability of women in a dying industry.

Ragnar Jonasson is the author of the acclaimed Dark Iceland series. Whiteout (translated by Quentin Bates, Orenda £8.99) brings his inexperienced detective Ari Thor Arason to a deserted village where a young woman has apparently jumped to her death. Ari Thor learns that the woman’s mother and sister died on the same spot 25 years earlier, revealing a tortured history that recalls his painful upbringing. Jonasson has come up with a bleak plot and characters, but his evocation of Iceland’s chilly landscape is hard to put down.

 

Why are we still locking up women for killing their violent partners?

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 25 October 2017

Women who kill violent partners do not get much sympathy. When members of the public read about a woman who has stabbed her husband after years of abuse, they ask ‘why she didn’t just leave him? Why didn’t she call the police?’ Few of them realise that women whose lives are in danger often call the emergency services, but it doesn’t stop the violence. When women try to defend themselves, the result is a murder charge – and an egregious miscarriage of justice.

Now a campaign is being launched by two organisations, the Centre for Women’s Justice and Justice for Women, to collect evidence about the treatment of women who end up in prison for killing violent abusers. ‘Women who have fought back out of fear and desperation are still being unjustly convicted of murder of their abusers,’ they say.

The campaigners want to improve public understanding of such cases – and the often horrific abuse that led up to them. To that end, they’re asking women who have been charged with killing violent male partners to contact them, whether their cases ended in conviction or acquittal. They’re also seeking information from lawyers, probation officers and social workers who have experience of such cases.

To be absolutely clear, this is about fairness in the justice system, not undue leniency for women. Campaigners say that insufficient support, lack of alternatives and fear keep women in violent relationships, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Two women a week are killed by violent partners or ex-partners, while a small minority end up killing the man who has tormented them.

Justice for Women are currently campaigning for a number of women in this situation, including Farieissia Martin, a mother of two small children. She was convicted of murder two years ago, at the age of 22, after she stabbed her partner, Kyle Farrell. She grabbed a knife when Farrell tried to strangle her but his history of violence was not explored during her trial. She has launched an appeal against both sentence and conviction.

Despite changes in the law in recent years – the old ‘provocation’ defence has been replaced with ‘loss of control’- campaigners argue that women are still being convicted of murder when they should have been found guilty of manslaughter at most. Manslaughter has traditionally been the verdict in cases where men kill their wives, and stories of sympathetic judges accepting that a husband ‘snapped’ and strangled a ‘nagging’ wife are all too familiar.

These are outdated stereotypes, endlessly recycled in seaside postcards showing a diminutive man being pursued by a woman with a rolling pin. They have no more to do with real life than the pernicious myths that influence rape trials, where victims often feel as if they (and not the defendant) are on trial.

Historically, judges and juries were more likely to listen to a ‘nagging’ defence from a man, without requiring much supporting evidence. Even now, female defendants are often treated more harshly, not least because defence lawyers with no experience of such cases fail to document the scale of the violence their clients suffered over a sustained period.

Campaigners see an opportunity here, because the government is currently consulting on a new domestic violence bill. The prime minister, Theresa May, had made tackling domestic violence one of her priorities and the bill is likely to be published in the next 18 months.

The House of Commons justice committee has welcomed guidelines published today by the Sentencing Council, which call for greater consistency in sentencing of cases involving domestic abuse. Crucially, the committee also highlights the importance of considering mitigating factors in the small number of court cases where a victim has turned on her abuser – exactly the kind of situation that campaigners are talking about.

These are small positive steps in a debate that’s being going on for decades. Justice for Women has been working on behalf of women wrongly convicted of murder since the 1980s, when a number of high-profile cases – including those of Sara Thornton and Emma Humphreys – focused attention on the issue.

Sara had been convicted of murder after stabbing her violent, alcoholic husband Malcolm when he threatened her and her daughter. Malcolm Thornton was awaiting trial for assault when Sara killed him in 1989, but his history of violence was not taken into account at her trial. She served several years in prison before she was acquitted of murder (but convicted of manslaughter) at a retrial.

In recent years, the truly shocking scale of domestic violence in this country has become apparent. With refuge places in short supply because of council budget cuts, the resources needed to help the many thousands of victims are simply not in place. That is shocking in itself but if the worst happens, the least we can do is ensure that abused women get a fair trial – just like anyone else accused of a serious crime.

John Campbell Memorial Lecture

I’ll be giving my lecture ‘Charles the Rash’, hosted by Republic, at 7pm on Wednesday 1 November, at Mary Sumner House, 24 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3RB

The country is bitterly divided. The political class is in disarray. Things couldn’t possibly get worse – could they?

A new head of state, the most egregiously unqualified since Edward VIII, is waiting in the wings. Step forward Charles Windsor, a credulous fool and a man in a hurry.

We’re about to get a lesson in what inherited privilege really looks like – and it’s the biggest opportunity for British republicans in decades.

 

 

 

 

 

The grim truth about the sexual violence epidemic in Britain’s schools

Daily Telegraph, Monday 9 October 2017

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard very disturbing reports about the extent of sexual violence in some schools. I’ve heard about girls who wear shorts under their uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault; I’ve heard about groups of boys who have all been accused of sexual violence, including rape; and I’ve heard about distraught parents being advised to move their daughters to another school, leaving the boy or boys who raped them in place.

I’m not talking about children being targeted by adults. This is sexual violence carried out by under-18s on other children – and I’ve been told that some schools are reluctant even to acknowledge they have a problem, for fear it will have a negative impact on their Ofsted reports. Most, though not all, of the victims are girls – and the assaults are being carried out by boys who are the same age or slightly older.

I’ve heard about these alleged incidents because I’m Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, which brings together senior police officers, representatives of the criminal justice system and organisations that work with victims of sexual violence. But nothing prepared me for hearing the testimony of parents and children in a harrowing Panorama programme, ‘When Kids Abuse Kids’.

No mother should be confronted with the discovery that her six-year-old daughter has been digitally raped in the playground by two boys over a period of six weeks. No teenage girl should have to sit GCSEs in the same room as a boy who has raped her. No girl should suffer bullying and abuse at school from other teenagers because she has had the courage to go the police. Yet all these things happened to the girls whose stories are told in the Panorama programme.

Whether anyone should be surprised that such horrendous abuse is going is another matter. In September last year, a Parliamentary committee published a damning report on the extent of sexual violence in schools. The Women and Equalities Committee found that sexual harassment and abuse of girls was being ‘accepted as part of daily life’. It highlighted the fact that even primary school children are learning about sex and relationships from hard-core pornography, and called on the government to take urgent action.

A year on, campaigners say the government has been too slow to act to the committee’s report. In March, ministers announced that sex and relationships education is to be made compulsory in all schools, but the plan is unlikely to come into effect until September 2019 – and parents will still have the right to withdraw children from the classes.

In the meantime, many schools appear to be floundering, reluctant to involve the police even when serious (and criminal) incidents are reported. Girls who have told teachers about sexual assaults by male pupils claim they were advised to stay out of the boy’s way and block him on social media sites – a response campaigners describe as ‘hopeless’.

According to Rachel Krys, Co-director of the End Violence Against Girls Coalition, teachers have been left waiting for guidance from the government and girls are still being exposed to danger. It is a stark picture, and one some people will find hard to believe. But a slew of figures, collected from 38 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales for the Panorama programme, provides dramatic new evidence for the claims.

They show that almost 30,000 reports of under-18s sexually assaulting other children have been made to the police in the last four years. More than 2,000 of those alleged offences (2,625 to be exact) were said to have occurred on school premises, including in primary school playgrounds. That figure includes 225 alleged rapes. Reports of peer-on-peer assaults, where victim and perpetrator are close in age, rose from 4,603 in 2013 to 7,866 last year – an increase of 71 per cent.

Most shocking of all are the figures relating to alleged sexual offences committed by children under the age of 10, who are below the age of criminal responsibility and can’t be prosecuted. Reports from 30 police forces showed that the numbers had doubled from 204 in 2013-14 to 456 in 2016-17. The boys who assaulted ‘Bella’, the six-year-old in the Panorama programme, fell into this category.

Many victims, and their parents, are shocked and horrified by the failure of schools to offer the support they need. ‘It’s not what actually happens that has the worst effect on you, it’s what comes after it’, said one of the girls who took part in the Panorama programme. ‘It’s the being disbelieved – it’s the people failing you.’

Just over a year ago, the Women and Equalities Committee accused the government of having ‘no coherent plan’ to ensure that schools tackle the causes and consequences of sexual violence. From the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing, and the dreadful cases unearthed by Panorama, that is still the case. The figures show that ministers are failing to protect children in the very place where they should feel safe, and the situation is getting worse. They should hang their head in shame.

Back to the Future

Sunday Times, 8 October 2017
Origin by Dan Brown
Bantam Press £20 pp480
Dan Brown likes spectacular settings. The Da Vinci Code famously opens with a murder in the Louvre, and his new novel, Origin, uses the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a backdrop. In typically portentous style, Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor from Brown’s earlier books, has been summoned there to hear a maverick computer genius, Edmond Kirsch, reveal the answers to two of life’s most profound questions: where did we come from, and where are we going?
Not long afterwards, Kirsch’s presentation — which will supposedly shake the foundations of organised religion — is cut short by a sudden act of violence. Wrongly accused of complicity, Langdon goes on the run with the Guggenheim’s beautiful director, Ambra Vidal. She is engaged to the heir to the Spanish throne, adding a handy celebrity connection to events.
Inevitably, Langdon’s suspicions about who was responsible for the outrage at the museum fall on the Catholic church, and the scene is set for a Christians-versus-atheists ding-dong. In the meantime, and in a frantic quest for even more picturesque locations, Brown sends his fugitives to Barcelona. Never able to resist an opportunity to unleash his inner tourist guide, he interrupts the action to recite statistics about the height of Gaudi’s unfinished church, La Sagrada Familia.
Elsewhere, he’s happy to show off his research into European history. Nietzsche appears as the “renowned” (a favourite Brown word) 19th-century German philosopher. The Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco is described at length on no fewer than three occasions, while Winston Churchill appears as “the celebrated British statesman” who was also “an artist of remarkable talent”.
The novel is tiresomely long — no wonder, with all those adjectives clogging up the narrative — but the biggest problem is Kirsch’s claims about the significance of his discoveries. The scientific experiments described towards the end of the novel can’t possibly live up to such a hyperbolic build-up — and they don’t. Rational readers (assuming any have persevered this far) are almost certain to wonder what all the fuss was about.
There is a final plot twist, involving a supercomputer called Winston, which leaves Langdon quaking in his shoes. Aficionados of mid-20th-century science fiction will
be less shocked, especially if they are familiar with the work of Isaac Asimov and Fredric Brown. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, both men wrote memorable short stories about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Over just a handful of pages, they managed to convey a great deal more than Brown does in this entire overheated farrago of nonsense.

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 24 September 2017

Many journalists live in fear of a big story that falls apart, prompting cries of ‘fake news’. That’s what happens to investigative reporter Marcus Murray in So The Doves (Bluemoose books, £15), an unforgettable crime novel by the poet and author Heidi James. Murray has just published a sensational story revealing connections between a British bank and the arms trade, but then his source disappears and the emails he relied on turn out to be forged.

Banished to his home town in Kent by his editor, who wants him out of the way, Murray finds himself covering the discovery of a decades-old dead body on the route of a high-speed rail link. He isn’t much interested until he realises that the remains are connected to a sequence of violent events he witnessed as a teenager. James writes lyrical prose, combining a compelling plot with a portrait of a man forced to question the entire basis of his life.

Henning Mankell is often credited with creating the worldwide appetite for Nordic crime. He died two years ago, at the age of only 67, and his final novel confronts themes of ageing and loss. After The Fire (Harvill Secker £17.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy, brings back the main character from an earlier Mankell novel, Italian Shoes. Fredrik Welin is a retired doctor who lives alone in the isolated house he inherited form his parents in the Swedish archipelago.

One morning he wakes up to find his house on fire, and narrowly manages to escape with his life. The blaze was started deliberately, one of a series of arson attacks, and Welin is left with the suspicion that someone he knows has tried to kill him. The novel’s atmosphere is bleak and elegiac, suggesting that Mankell wrote it with his own impending death in mind.

A couple of years ago, the Swedish writer David Lagercrantz published the first volume in his continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Lagercrantz is an accomplished author in his own right and he’s just published his second Millennium novel, The Girl Who Takes An Eye for an Eye (MacLehose £20), translated by George Goulding. It begins with the super-hacker Lisbeth Sander banged up in a brutal women’s prison, where she enlists her old ally Mikael Blomkvist to help her investigate a sinister research project involving twins.

This is a promising plot, recalling the failures of real-life psychoanalysts in the case of the bogus Swedish serial killer Thomas Quick. But Lagercrantz is almost too respectful of Larsson – instead of allowing the original characters to develop, he falls back on what he already knows, playing up Salander’s tendency to extreme violence and Blomkvist’s tedious love life. The best sections are about the dire impact of the twins project, and they would work just as well in a stand-alone novel.

Ann Cleeves is one of the most consistently interesting British crime writers. She lives in the North-east and her latest novel, The Seagull (Macmillan £16.99), brilliantly evokes the run-down seaside resort of Whitley Bay. A former  police officer, serving a prison sentence for corruption, offers to tell DI Vera Stanhope about a long-ago murder if she promises to keep an eye on his grown-up daughter and her children. Stanhope is wary but the conversation leads to the discovery of two bodies, and a mystery as satisfying as anything Cleeves has ever written.

Being hit by a partner is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ – when are we going to stop blaming women?

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 21 September 2017

There is an epidemic of domestic abuse in this country. More than a quarter of women aged 16 to 59 have experienced abuse at some point in their lives, according to the government’s own figures. Many victims are trapped in violent relationships, unable to leave because refuge places are in short supply and they have nowhere else to go.

In such circumstances, who could possibly believe that staying with a brutal partner is a choice, rather than a counsel of desperation? Yet a major new report shows that too many of the people who provide front-line services – police officers, social workers, health professionals, youth offending teams and probation officers – apparently believe that putting up with domestic abuse is a ‘lifestyle choice’.

The conclusions of the report – written by inspectors from four government bodies, including Ofsted – make for distressing reading. The inspectors looked at what was being done to support child victims of domestic abuse in six local authority areas up and down the country, from the north of England to the home counties. In some cases, they found that child victims were being ignored because police officers believed they had made a ‘lifestyle choice’.

The inspectors even found reports that talked about victims learning to ‘make better relationship choices’, as though anyone – adult or child – would actually choose to live with emotional or physical abuse.

‘We found instances of language being used that incorrectly held victims responsible for the risk of domestic abuse,’ the inspectors say. ‘We also found instances of inappropriate practice, including a police log that had been updated to state that a safeguarding visit would not be appropriate because both parties were “as bad as one another”’.

Men are sometimes victims but we know that women are twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence, according to the Office for National Statistics. Yet the notion that both partners are equally culpable is stubbornly hard to shift, whether we’re talking about statutory bodies or members of the public.

‘Why didn’t she leave him?’ people ask when a woman is murdered by her partner, even though statistics show that victims are at greatest risk immediately after leaving a violent, controlling man. It’s not that long since police officers used to describe violent incidents in the home as ‘ just a domestic’, as though such assaults belonged in a lesser category.

These attitudes are wearily familiar, which doesn’t make them any the less shocking when they appear in an official report. Even more astounding is the habit of assuming that children bear some responsibility for the damage they suffer at the hands of adults – and the fact that it is still going on

It should be obvious that children can’t make ‘lifestyle choices’ and they certainly can’t give consent, legally or morally, to being in an abusive relationship. Back in 2013, a report into the activities of sex-grooming gangs in Rochdale rightly caused outrage. One of the victims, a girl who was repeatedly raped at the age of 15, revealed that social workers had told her parents she was a ‘prostitute’ who had made a ‘lifestyle choice’.

Things were supposed to have changed in the wake of such scandals. Yet it’s been revealed in the last few days that draft guidelines drawn up by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) would allow child victims of sexual exploitation to be denied compensation on the grounds that they ‘consented’. The guidelines have been described as ‘deeply shocking’ by the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, who is calling on the government to rewrite them.

At the heart of tall these scandals is a long-standing tendency to focus on the behaviour of victims instead of perpetrators. Official agencies are still asking ‘why did they put up with it?’ when they should be looking at what allows perpetrators to get away with abuse for so long. The authors of this latest report on the treatment of domestic abuse are clear that there needs to be a ‘sea-change’ in attitudes. They are calling for ‘a widespread public service message designed to shift behaviour on a large scale’.

It isn’t hard to work out what that message should be. Each year, an estimated 1.3m women experience domestic abuse in this country, according to official figures. When are we going to stop blaming them for being beaten up by their partners?

Real-life Film Noir

Sunday Times, 10 September 2017
Black Dahlia, Red Rose
America’s Most Notorious Crime Solved for the First Time by Piu Eatwell (Coronet £20)
­
On a frosty morning in 1947, the owner of the Aster Motel in downtown Los Angeles made a spine-chilling discovery. The interior of cabin 3 looked like a slaughterhouse, with blood and faeces spattered on the floor of the bedroom and all over the bathroom. In cabin 9, meanwhile, someone had left a bundle of women’s clothes, also stained with blood, and wrapped up in brown paper.
The owner, Henry Hoffman, was an ex-con who had been arrested only four days earlier for beating his wife. His distrust of the police overcame any curiosity he felt and he set about cleaning up the mess, soaking the blood-stained sheets before sending them to the laundry and instructing his wife to burn the clothes.
Astonishingly, he didn’t say a word, even when the police came round later in the week, making inquiries about a body that had been found not far from the motel, on the very morning of his gruesome find. The victim, 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, was lying on a grass verge in an unfinished housing estate. Her injuries are too horrific to describe, but the most striking detail was that the body had been cut in half through the abdomen. A post-mortem suggested that Short had been tortured before she was killed.
Thanks to Hoffman’s extraordinary negligence vital evidence was destroyed, and it was only a chance remark by the mother of a suspect that led the police to the motel (and the probable site where Short’s body was bisected) when the case was reinvestigated two years later. By then, it was well on the way to becoming one of the most sensational crimes in US history, occupying a role
in American culture that resonates to this day.
In death, Short quickly acquired a sinister soubriquet: the Black Dahlia. It became the title of a well-known novel by James Ellroy, which was turned into a sprawling film by Brian De Palma in 2006.
What is clear from Piu Eatwell’s heart-rending book, though, is that Short’s sad life and horrible death were far removed from the legend that grew up around her.
Eatwell is a British author, and in this second foray into legal history she demonstrates how great a role chance played in creating the Black Dahlia story, beginning with the fact that a classic film noir — The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd — was released only a year before Short died.
Eatwell traces the origin of the Black Dahlia name to a pharmacist in Long Beach, who obligingly told reporters that Short had hung around the soda fountain in his store the previous summer, when she was drifting. He claimed his male customers nicknamed her the Black Dahlia because of her jet-black hair and fondness
for lacy black clothes.
In reality, far from being a film noir femme fatale, Short was a naive and frequently homeless young woman from the East Coast. Irresistibly drawn to California, she had been arrested for underage drinking four years earlier while she was working as a clerk at a US army camp. Her body was identified from fingerprints and a mugshot dating back to that arrest.
After the murder, Short’s attraction to men in uniform quickly became public knowledge, cementing the idea that she had been a kind of man-eater. Eatwell writes brilliantly about this mythologising process, showing how Short came to embody southern California’s “girl problem”. Anxious commentators fretted that it was impossible to control the “chastity” of all these unattached women converging on Hollywood.
Among other things, Eatwell’s book is a vivid portrait of late 1940s Los Angeles, where gangsters, pimps and corrupt cops mixed in the same circles — and exploited vulnerable women. All Short had going for her was her youth and her looks, which brought her to the attention of a wealthy Danish businessman, Mark Hansen, who had connections with the mob.
Hansen allowed young women to stay in his house behind a nightclub he owned. Short stayed there on two occasions, but their relationship was stormy and Hansen eventually threw her out. She refused to go quietly and Eatwell’s theory is that Hansen then asked a low-life associate named Leslie Dillon to get rid of her, not realising he had put her in the hands of a sadistic psychopath.
Hansen’s name came up early in the murder inquiry, but he was one of many suspects. Reporting of the case was so lurid that just about anyone who had come into contact with Short was dragged into it. Even the singer Woody Guthrie, who had attracted police interest because of his communist sympathies, was briefly considered as suspect.
The truth, according to Eatwell, was more prosaic. She has trawled through thousands of official documents, including previously unseen files compiled during a grand jury investigation in 1949, and makes a compelling case that Short was murdered by Dillon at the Aster Motel, with or without the knowledge of Hansen. Dillon escaped trial, despite a mass of evidence identifying him as the most likely culprit, solely because the cops were by turns incompetent, riven by departmental rivalries and trying to protect Hansen.
One of the few contemporary observers who got close to the truth was the city editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, Jimmy Richardson: “[Short] was a pitiful wanderer, ricocheting from one cheap job to another and from one cheap man to another in a sad search for a good husband and a home and happiness.”
By the time of her murder, her teeth were falling out
and she was filling cavities in her mouth with candle wax, a detail that exposes the grim truth behind the Black Dahlia legend. After decades of cultural appropriation by journalists, novelists and film-makers, Eatwell has finally offered Short a type of belated justice. Her book reads like a thriller, but it never loses sight of the real woman whose life was so savagely extinguished.