Book Club Profiles: Scenes of the Crime

There’s a neighborhood there now. A middle-class neighborhood.”

Michel Nellis is not talking about land use or real estate. She’s talking about the former crime scene of the Black Dahlia murder, where 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dismembered in 1947. The case and since has spawned many a book, fiction and nonfiction, intent on uncovering the killer.

This nonghoulish tax practitioner from Santa Barbara was there, along with seven of her friends, as part of a special trip organized by her book club, The Wild Women Travel and Literary Society. Earlier this year, the club had read two books on the Black Dahlia case: James Ellroy’s 1987 “The Black Dahlia,” a hard-boiled detective novel, and this year’s “Black Dahlia Avenger” by Steve Hodel, a nonfiction “solution” to the case based on evidence that quite literally fell into the author’s hands.

“Hodel’s book was the antithesis of Ellroy’s,” says Ms. Nellis.

The weekend trip took the club to many of the sites mentioned in both books. The members took the train from Santa Barbara and spent two nights in downtown L.A.

“We took a walking tour of Victorian (houses), walked the streets where the Black Dahlia had been, sipped cool drinks in the Biltmore Hotel lobby and ended up in Chinatown for dinner and a show.”

Of course, Ms. Nellis adds, “We found time to discuss the book several times over the weekend.”

This is the club’s second annual trip. The first centered on Salinas after one member chose “The Grapes of Wrath” to read. Another member, possibly remembering an English assignment from her school days, said, “I’m only reading that if we can go to the John Steinbeck Center.”

And so it was.

The Sunday afternoon club began in April 2001, after Ms. Nellis had left her previous one. “They weren’t talking about books,” she says of the former club, “They would talk very briefly about the reading, then talk about who was marrying whom, their children, their husbands. I decided to start a club that would focus just on the book.”

So Ms. Nellis told two friends, and they told two friends, and somewhere along that equation the group topped out at eight members. Membership is closed for now.

“I find that’s a manageable level,” Ms. Nellis says. It certainly helps when choosing the next book to read. “We meet every six to eight weeks, which gives us all one book to choose per year.”

“For a while we were on an Africa kick,” she says when asked if any thread runs through the selections. “We read ‘Africa, Africa’ by Frederic Hunter, ‘Mango Elephants in the Sun’ by Susana Herrera and ‘Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver.”

There was also a brief period where some of the selections featured a spiritual side, which led to some in-depth discussion.

“We went around the room and talked about how we were raised, whether or not we were religious and how we’ve shifted over time,” Ms. Nellis recalls. Titles included “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, “The ‘God’ Part of the Brain” by Matthew Alper and “Atonement” by Ian McEwan.

The Dahlia adventure was so successful, the club is already pondering a reading list and destination for next summer’s road trip.

“We’re considering a book about (William Randolph) Hearst, as well as one centered in the Palm Springs or San Diego area.”

North, south or east, the adult version of the field trip has expanded this club’s horizons.

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