The Bookworm: Mystery, murder and magic

Did author solve 70-year-old murder; and another entry for Hoffman fans

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Black Dahlia, Red Rose”

By Piu Eatwell

c. 2017, Liveright

$26.95, $35.95 Canada; 368 pages

One hour. Then it’s all tied up. It happens every week: a mystery is solved, nice and neat, just as soon as your favorite TV detective has his aha! moment and before the last commercial has run. As the credits flash, you feel satisfied: you’ve just armchair-sleuthed an easy whodunit that practically explained itself. And, as in “Black Dahlia, Red Rose” by Piu Eatwell, it didn’t take 70-plus years.

“Black Dahlia, Red Rose” by Piu Eatwell.

Betty Bersinger only wanted her toddler daughter to get some fresh air. But on that January morning in 1947, while walking past a vacant lot in their California subdivision, Betty noticed that something had been discarded, possibly a mannequin. She called the Los Angeles Police Department, who sent a squad car. Newspaper reporters, as they did those days, arrived at about the same time.

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What they found shocked the community: the mannequin was human, a fresh corpse of a young woman, nude, mutilated, scrubbed clean, and cut in two. There was no ID near her body and few identifying marks but police took fingerprints and quickly learned that the dead woman was Elizabeth Short. 

Born in a small town near Boston, Short was just 22 when she was murdered but though her death was tragic, it was almost no surprise. The beautiful middle daughter of five, often unemployed, she was a troublemaking, rudderless drifter who was known to enjoy the company of many men – some, married. 

For 70 years, the question has lingered: who killed Elizabeth Short? Through old interviews, released documents, and good old-fashioned sleuthing, “Black Dahlia, Red Rose” author Piu Eatwell (above) thinks she knows.

That, hints Eatwell, may have been Short’s undoing.

With the name of the deceased known, the LAPD began solving the crime with help from a department psychiatrist and, as tips poured in – including then-shocking suggestions that Short was a lesbian – they ultimately settled on not one, but three viable suspects to question. Unbelievably, just when it seemed like the “Black Dahlia Murder” was nearly tied up, everything fell apart: scandal shook the LAPD and departmental changes affected the Dahlia investigation, which didn’t end, so much as it fizzled out.  

For 70 years, the question has lingered: who killed Elizabeth Short? Through old interviews, released documents, and good old-fashioned sleuthing, author Piu Eatwell thinks she knows.

It’s as good a hypothesis as any – and yet, it’s not easy getting there. “Black Dahlia, Red Rose,” starts out somewhat like an extremely gruesome vintage movie with hard-bitten, choppy sentences, bloody details, and late-1940s slang that falls just short of noir and that, according to Eatwell’s end-notes, come directly from decades-old memoirs, written in that manner. That lends an authenticity that readers can appreciate, but it can be hard to follow; it lends a sense of time but, even with footnotes, expect occasional roughness in both style and story.

In the end, there were many years and many players in this tale, almost all of which are deceased, so Eatwell’s speculations are just that: speculation. Even so, determined readers will enjoy this books’ overall tone of fedora-wearing, hands-on murder-solving – and if that sounds appealing, stop here, start “Black Dahlia, Red Rose” and clear your calendar.

Your time will be all tied up.

“The Rules of Magic”

By Alice Hoffman

c. 2017, Simon & Schuster

$27.99, $36.99 Canada; 367 pages

Once upon a time, your heart was broken. It was ripped out of your chest, stomped flat, shattered into a thousand pieces. Romance, you decided then, was something you didn’t want anyway. Love is for dreamers and optimists. Love, you were sure, is for suckers. Or, as in the new book “The Rules of Magic” by Alice Hoffman, love is cursed.

“The Rules of Magic” by Alice Hoffman.

Despite that their parents enjoyed a relatively happy marriage, the Owens siblings had always known that they should never fall in love.

It wasn’t safe, they were told. The one they’d fall in love with would be doomed to die young, a heartache that could be blamed on only one thing: as descendants of Boston’s Maria Owens, and her daughter and her daughter’s daughter and so on, the Owens siblings were witches.

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As the eldest, Franny scoffed at her “gifts,” but she secretly loved them. 

Tall, with long red hair and fair skin, she was the responsible sister who could see auras and talk with birds. At 17, she learned to make potions from her Aunt Isabelle; also at age seventeen, Franny turned away the boy who adored her. It just wouldn’t do to keep him around. It was too dangerous.

People always said second daughter, Jet, was a dead-ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. With long black hair and luminous gray eyes, Jet was a boy-magnet and could read minds. She, however, only had eyes for one boy and though he was exactly the wrong person to fall in love with, she was sure she could outwit the Owens’ curse. 

If you’re not familiar with author Alice Hoffman (above), it might take a few pages before you see where you’re going in “The Rules of Magic.”

As the only son born in many generations, Vincent was unusual the minute he entered the world surrounded by an aura. Dark-haired and tall, he was a charming, talented musician and magician – the latter perfected, thanks to an ancient, forbidden book that had found him, more than the other way around. Girls swooned over Vincent, though he sneered at the very idea of love. He couldn’t escape the family curse anyhow, could he, so why bother?

“The Rules of Magic” is one of those books that, when presented with a hint of things to come, you’ll say, “Wait. But … ”

And yet, here’s a light warning: if you’re not familiar with author Alice Hoffman, it might take a few pages to see where you’re going. Dip your toes, stick your whole foot in, though, and you’ll soon be immersed in a tale that’s believable and not, both at the same time, which is exactly what you want in a gauzy novel like this. Fantasy swirls in and out with the characters here, as they also suffer from the same human foibles and desires that we mortals have and it’s all held together by magic.

If that’s not a great way to imagine love, I don’t know what is.

“The Rules of Magic” serves as a prequel for Hoffman’s 1995 novel, “Practical Magic,” but with a small dram of patience, you can read it first just as easily. And read it you should – or miss it, be heartbroken.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.