The White Dahlia : Arthur Maimane
While compiling a mean street guide to local crime fiction, Crime Beat came across this story, “The White Dahlia”, by Arthur Maimane. (See an earlier post for biographical information on Maimane.) The title is an interesting one, and possibly has a United States connection, reports Mike Nicol.
(Note: Crime Beat is pleased to publish the complete short story below Nicol’s introduction.)
In 1947 the corpse of a woman named Elizabeth Short was found in a Los Angeles suburb. She had been murdered, her body severed and carefully arranged in the vacant lot. The case soon took on a media tagline: the Black Dahlia.
The previous year a movie called The Blue Dahlia with a script by Raymond Chandler had gone on circuit. The plot, in brief, concerned a soldier, Johnny Morrison, recently returned from the battlefields of the Second World War to find that his wife had been unfaithful. On a rainy night she is murdered. The police figure Johnny did it. Helped by a mysterious woman, Johnny tries to solve the murder in a quest that turns up some surprises.
Elizabeth Short was a fan of the movie and was known by her friends as the Black Dahlia because of her dark hair and black lacy underwear.
It’s impossible to say if Arthur Maimane knew of this case or had seen or heard about the film. But in an email to Crime Beat, his widow, Jenny Maimane, speculates that it’s ‘likely since The White Dahlia is not a title that would easily come to mind in a South African context – Arthur was not exactly knowledgeable about flowers and probably didn’t even know what a dahlia was at that stage’. Which seems to be the sort of detective work the Chief himself might indulge in.
Of course The Black Dahlia went on to receive more crime fiction fame as a James Ellroy novel, based, in part, on the murder of Ellroy’s mother in the late 1950s. It’s a convoluted world, is crime fiction.
Again: our thanks to Jenny Maimane for permission to use Arthur Maimane’s ‘The White Dahlia’.
Last month I was telling you blokes about how the police got me out of gaol whilst serving a term for my movie-making misdeeds. They wanted me to stop a gang of diamond smugglers working from Durban. Their undercover man, Detective-Sergeant Joe Moloi, had only found out that the leader was called the ‘White Dahlia’. I come down here, I see Joe killed, and I follow a lady who drives a car I recognise as the one that carried Joe’s killers. And what does she do? She leads me into a trap!
I come up for air like a drowning hippo.
‘What’s the game, Big Boy?’ she asks in a theatrical whisper.
‘Say, lady, what’s the matter now?’ I act surprised.
‘You think you are a clever one, don’t you? Maybe you don’t think I know you’ve been following me since I left my car, hey? You snoopy bas-’
‘Now wait a minute!’ I say, acting relieved, though the point of the gun hidden by my open jacket isn’t very comforting. ‘You’ve got me all wrong – though I’m flattered by your noticing my following you. Why I did is because with the big bag you’re carrying, I thought you might be going for a swim – and I wanted to see if those curves are real. And I thought we might have an interesting chat after the smile you gave me. You know lady, I’ve seen plenty pieces of Eve’s flesh but not one to touch you. I remember when I was in – ’ I’m getting set for the usual boring success-of-a-wolf story when she cuts me short.
‘On your way, sailor! I don’t come tickey-a-dozen. I’m awfully expensive – and even then not for punks like you who think they own all the cheesecake they’re allowed to see!’ she says in a not-so-good American accent. I watch the graceful retreat of her swaying curves.
I’m interested. Professionally and otherwise. I go to the nearest phone and put a call through to Cassim at his lounge. I give him the Buick’s licence number and describe the expensive lady. He tells me she’s Lillian and I shouldn’t touch her. She’s poison. Her present boyfriend is a tough egg from Jo’burg called Moollah. I’m wondering if it’s the Moollah I knew. He doesn’t know where she lives, but knows she’ll be at a party given by some rich Moonsamy Loogat tomorrow night. If I want to know more about her, he says I must come round and see him. He doesn’t trust the phone.
I have nothing to do, so I go and see him. With the encouragement of a few pounds he tells me a bit about her; not anything definite.
‘And who’s the White Dahlia?’ I ask him as I leave.
‘The White Dah-‘ his face turns grey and his voice fades off. I know he won’t be much use, so I leave him.
I’m pretty busy the next twenty-four hours, verifying Cassim’s suggestions.
He arranges for me to get an invitation to Loogat’s party, and even supplies me with a quite pretty partner. He almost knows his way around here.
When we get to the big and over-furnished house I find the ‘cream’ of Durban society: African, coloured and Indian. Not the type of cream I’d use in my coffee though; the type that’s only good for the rubbish bin.
And she’s there.
It’s about elevenish when I get a chance to speak to her. She’s standing to one side, dressed like a Christmas tree with all the lights on and looking at the crowd like they were already in the rubbish bin I’ve been associating it with.
‘Hello Annie-get-your-gun!’ I say to her with my best smile.
‘Hello yourself Mr Follow-me-around!’ she says with a smile brighter than a searchlight.
‘I’d prefer you calling me “Sailor” like you did the other day. ‘Cos if you do, you’ll give me an opening to tell you about my amorous adventures on the Seven Seas – the ones you so rudely stopped me from telling the other day.’
‘Oh stop that nonsense, Chester!’ she says with a little laugh that looks like it’s been practised in front of a mirror. ‘Why don’t you tell me instead about your, shall I say pleasant though short residence under His Excellency the Governor-General’s hospitality?’
‘Oh that! You surprise me, Lillian. I didn’t think you’d take so much interest in a peanut-boy like me.’
‘And perhaps I should be equally surprised that you know my name? Don’t try and pull that one over on me, Chief; I’ve heard a lot about you. You are too clever to speak like that,’ she says with a knowing look. And I reckon she’s very very clever herself.
After that we have quite a nice time together, dancing, talking and laughing like old friends. I notice when we dance she tries to get close enough to feel if I’m carrying a gun. I don’t let her ‘cos I am.’
Everything stops about two.
‘Will you drive me home?’ she asks prettily. ‘You can see I’m an unwanted lady without an escort. But perhaps you brought a lady-friend?’
‘Friend?’ I query quickly, looking round and seeing my partner has vanished like a good girl. ‘You’re the first lady I’ve met in this town – and I don’t care to meet any others.’ We look deep into each other’s eyes.
As we drive off in the Buick I quickly slip my Mauser from its special pocket under my left armpit into the glove compartment next to my thigh. Now I let her snuggle into me. She really puts on the pressure, and I’m enjoying myself – what with driving a souped–up car that can do 130 miles per hour and being caressed by a lady like this Delilah here.
‘Which way do we go, sweets?’ I ask softly.
‘Anywhere you please,’ she answers dreamily.
After searching a bit I get on to a road that leads into the hilly and deserted hinterlands. I notice a car following us. She is clever all right. I park near the top of a steep hill. It parks farther back where I don’t see it.
We have a grand necking session. And as she caresses me, she makes sure that I’m not carrying a gun. I make as if I don’t notice it.
When I’ve had enough of her, I come to business. I reckon I better start asking questions before she does – in the Delilah fashion.
‘Look, sweets,’ I say, ‘I’ve got some business to talk to you. I don’t know which gang’s boss you’re running around with, but he must be making a packet to satisfy all your awfully expensive tastes. Though I’ve got my idea about him and his racket, you’re going to tell me everything. And I mean everything! And you’re going to like it; ‘cos if you don’t I’ll get you a few years on Robben Island – and I know all about you and the joint in Cato Manor!’
She gasps – and I can hear you too – ‘cos I haven’t told you what Cassim suggested and what I verified, eh? I didn’t ‘cos I wasn’t sure till now that she gasps.
‘Surprised, eh? Here’s another surprise: I’m a cop! Specially imported from Jo’burg to crack this town wide open. I reckon you don’t believe it ‘cos everybody who knows me here things I escaped from prison? Well, sweets, here’s another surprise: I never was in prison! Anyway, that’s beside the point. Say your pie-’ She gives a loud honk on the hooter.
As I hear a self-starter whine a hundred yards back, I switch on the ignition and kick down the accelerator. She’s been looked after good; she roars to life, and I let her roll. I forget about Diamond Lil for a minute. She slams down the footbrake when we get to forty m.p.h. and I almost kiss the windshield as the car jerks to a stop.
I give her a judo-chop with my hand on the back of her neck and start the engine up. The Buick jumps forward and she slumps on to the floorboards, paralysed from the neck downwards.
I don’t know the curving road, so I drive slow and they catch up on me. They draw level.
You blokes ought to know that I mean for them to catch up with me soon. But I want to give them a run for their money first – even if it means ducking bullets. What I’m thinking now is that if they get me, maybe I can get a bit nearer this character they call ‘White Dahlia.’
‘Stop! Stop or we shoot!’ a gratey voice commands.
I look out the far window and only see blackness. I can see a gun barrel pointing at me from their car. I pull out my Mauser and throw a shot at them. They slacken and I lead again.
Not for long, though. They draw level again. I look out my widow again. I have a fleeting glimpse of the top of a tree in mid-air ahead and to my side.
As they try to stop me by edging in front of me I swing the Buick to my right. The engines collide with a loud tearing sound. As if in a dream I watch the Buick engine rise into the air, turn to the left and the dark void… Then it comes down, down, down, down until I can see my feet straight under me.
A last resounding crash and all is blackness.