Some books defy genre and subgenre labels. Theodora Keogh’s novel about Los Angeles’ 1947 Black Dahlia murder, The Other Girl (1962), is one such work. It could be read as a psychological suspense novel or as lesbian pulp fiction. It has the jet-black philosophy of hard-boiled crime fiction but the elegant prose of a Golden Age detective story. It is impossible to categorize the novel as being definitively of any one of these subgenres, as it would be a reductive to a novel that so seamlessly interweaves many styles, and ultimately leaves the impression that Keogh regarded herself as above crime fiction. It is telling, then, that The Other Girl would be Keogh’s final novel: her work would soon be out of print, and all critical interest would fade.
When news reached the blogosphere of the passing of Theodora Keogh on January 5, 2008, it generated a wave of speculation, debate and a renewed interest in her work as a novelist. Who was this woman? Why are all of her novels out of print? The Daily Telegraph published the only comprehensive obituary of Keogh, and it was through the Telegraph that I, like many crime-fiction readers, first heard her name. Keogh had led a fascinating life, which alone could provide material for a dozen novels. Born in New York in 1919, the granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, Keogh was educated in Manhattan and Munich, worked as a dancer in Canada and South America, and designed costumes for films such as The Pirate (1948) and Daddy Long Legs (1955), amongst many other triumphs and disasters.
By comparison, her literary career, although influential, formed a relatively minor part of her life. Keogh published nine novels between 1950 and 1962. It was her last book, The Other Girl--a fictionalization of the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia--that took me by surprise. I thought I had read every Dahlia book out there, both fact and fiction. Around the time I heard about Keogh’s novel, I was conducting a series of phone interviews with James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia (1987). Had he read The Other Girl? Ellroy informed me that he had neither read nor heard of the book, or of Keogh. Now my curiosity had got me hooked. I purchased a second-hand copy over the Internet and sat down to read the novel. Although I had built up my expectations, I was not disappointed. I read The Other Girl in a single setting, and instantly came to regard it as a classic of the same stature as John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977) and Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.
Although in Dunne’s and Ellroy’s novels Elizabeth Short is not so much a character as a ghost, haunting the lives of those trying to solve her brutal murder (in True Confessions, Miss Short was renamed Lois Fazenda, “the Virgin Tramp”), in The Other Girl she is a character, referred to quite simply as Betty. Betty is just one of a cast of oddballs and eccentrics whom Keogh weaves around Los Angeles’ most infamous and gruesome unsolved crime. The novel’s main focus is on Marge Vulawski, the daughter of immigrant workers who has grown up on a farm just outside of L.A. Marge came to the City of Angels with high hopes but has become bitter and cynical, as her practical know-how with farm machinery and her broad build have led her to a unexciting job as a garage mechanic. In the city, Marge befriends Zoe, a woman who calls herself “the Duchess,” and was once, by her own account, a lady of wealth and importance. Now virtually penniless, the Duchess still wears the luxurious clothes of her better days, but the clothes are, in a reference to Dickens’ Miss Haversham, literally rotting on her and symbolize her decline. Through Zoe, Marge meets Betty at a local drugstore. Betty is an aspiring actress who is represented by the sleazy agent Herman Lee: Lee has never had a successful client, but he does not want one, as he preys on their naiveté. Marge is instantly attracted to Betty, but her sexuality is treated with ambiguity and at times appears to be more of a yearning for friendship. Marge’s desire to be around Betty means tagging along with her on a date with two French sailors. In one of the novel’s most powerful (and for the time groundbreaking) scenes, Marge and Betty have their first sexual contact with each other during an orgy with the two men:
But her [Betty’s] breasts themselves were surprisingly small; fresh and round and shiny like a peeled twig with dark, insulting nipples. The fresh, tender lower curves of these breasts entered into Marge’s memory for ever. They merged with childhood dreams, with infancy. They became the salty, threaded stuff of her generation.The Other Girl is unusual amongst crime novels as it does not begin with a crime that kick-starts the plot and motivates the leading character to try and solve the mystery. Nor is there any significant back-story to shed light on where the plot is heading. This novel is not so much a whodunnit as a who-will-do-it. Keogh supplies a detailed character study of a bunch of unusual people and then follows them as their relationship with Betty gradually turns from attraction to bitterness and sexual jealously. Each character is given a motive for murdering Betty, but how will the narrative move toward the act, and who will be responsible? Keogh keeps you guessing right up until the shocking climax.
Was what followed called an orgy? The French sailors hadn’t treated it as such. To them it appeared natural, neither odd nor perverse.
Despite the initial interest in Keogh following her passing, no serious reappraisal of her literary career followed. This is, perhaps, to be expected as the tone of The Other Girl can be alienating, and the novel is difficult to place within a genre. Keogh’s sketches of people who have lost their soul while looking for a glimmer of success sometimes reads as misanthropic. Her candid description of sexual experimentation is liable to offend many readers, but the ambiguity of Marge’s sexuality has probably also barred the novel from becoming a classic of lesbian pulp fiction alongside the works of Ann Bannon or Valerie Taylor. Perhaps this obscurity was just what Keogh intended.
The Other Girl is a brilliant novel which has lost none of its power to be both haunting and puzzling.