Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Fantasy World of Celluloid Villains and Heroes...*

At times, we all want to escape. It’s appealing to imagine what it would be like to live the life of a glamorous super-athlete, rock star or movie celebrity. Perhaps that’s why so many people buy and read celebrity tell-all books and magazines and follow celebrities in the social media networks. Celebrity doings can certainly be lurid and intriguing, and that may be part of the reason that movie stars have featured prominently in a great deal of crime fiction. Mysteries centered on filmdom often capture readers’ attention. We want to know what “the glamorous life” is like.

Interest in film stars has been a part of mystery fiction for a long time. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgware Dies) is the story of film and stage star Jane Wilkinson, who’s married to George Alfred Saint Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. She desperately wants to be rid of her husband, because she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton, a “prize catch,” and wants to marry him. One night, she asks Poirot to help her persuade her husband to grant her a divorce, saying that if Poirot can’t help her, she’ll have to “…go round in a taxi and bump him off.” Poirot is reluctant, but finally agrees to at least see the Baron. He and Hastings are granted an appointment, but when Poirot mentions the divorce, Edgware tells him that he’s already written to Jane, agreeing to a divorce. Completely surprised by this, Poirot tells Jane about it, and she seems delighted. Poirot begins to believe there’s more to this than just a simple request for a divorce, and his suspicions are confirmed the next day when he’s told that Lord Edgware’s been stabbed to death. At first, Jane Wilkinson is the obvious suspect; she’d threatened her husband, and someone matching her description and giving her name was admitted to Edgware’s home on the night of the murder. However, Jane Wilkinson has an ironclad alibi; she was seen at a dinner by twelve other people who also attended the party. Now Poirot has to find out what really happened on the night of the murder.

Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side) is also centered on a film star, Marina Gregg. Marina and her husband buy Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead, and renovate it for their use. When it’s ready, they throw a party to which all of the locals are invited. One of those locals, Heather Badcock, is a serious fan of Marina Gregg’s work, and gushes over her idol when she actually meets Marina. She’s overjoyed, too, when Marina Gregg gives her her own cocktail. Heather’s joy ends in tragedy when she suddenly sickens and dies. At first, everyone believes that the cocktail was meant for Marina. It was hers to begin with, and Marina’s certainly made her share of enemies as a film star. One of them is her rival, Lola Brewster, who’s one of the suspects. However, before long, it becomes clear that Heather actually was the intended victim. Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry (former owner of Gossington Hall) uncover the secret behind Heather’s death and find out who wanted to kill her and why.

Ellery Queen does his share of investigating film star cases, too. For instance, in The Four of Hearts, Hollywood studio magnate Jacques Butcher persuades Queen to help write the script of an upcoming movie about film legends John Royle and Blythe Stuart. They were romantically linked years ago, but bitter feuding ended their relationship. The two are still suspicious of each other, but they’re also desperate for money, so they agree to the film and to the publicity stunts that go with promoting it. To everyone’s surprise, the couple reunites and Royle and Stuart are actually married on an airstrip right before leaving on a honeymoon trip. With them are Blythe’s daughter, Bonnie and John’s son, Ty, who are also actors. The four take off with much fanfare. At the end of the flight, John Royle and Blythe Stuart are both dead, the victims of poisoned cocktails. At first, their children suspect each other. As it turns out, though, a masked person disguised as the pilot left the cocktails on the plane, and Queen sets out to find out who that person was and why the couple was killed. He discovers that, before their deaths, both Stuart and Royle had received mysterious packages containing playing cards. After their deaths, Blythe’s daughter, Bonnie, receives similar packages. Those cards are an important clue to the case, and in the end, Queen finds that John Royle’s and Blythe Stuart’s deaths had nothing to do with the feud between them. Instead, the motive has to do with greed.

We see a much seamier side of Hollywood in Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town. David Spandau is a former stuntman who turns private investigator when his body can no longer endure stunt work. He’s hired by up-and-coming actor Bobby Dye to help protect him from blackmail threats. It seems that Dye’s become entangled with Richie Stella, a local gangster, drug dealer and nightclub owner who wants to be a major Hollywood producer. Stella wants Bobby Dye to star in a script he’s written, but it’s a terrible script, and Dye doesn’t want to be involved once he reads it. Stella, naturally, doesn’t take kindly to Dye’s refusal to honor his side of the bargain, and threatens Dye with exposure about his involvement with a young actress who died suddenly. Stella threatens far worse, too, if Dye doesn’t cooperate. In Spandau’s efforts to protect Dye, he runs afoul of Stella and his gang, as well as some other very unsavory people who are behind a lot of Hollywood films.

There’s a similar mob/Hollywood connection in Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music. When an L.A.P.D. officer finds the body of independent filmmaker Tony Aliso stuffed into the trunk of his own Rolls Royce, Harry Bosch is called back from suspension to investigate. At first, the kind of murder (and Aliso’s shady reputation) lead everyone to believe that this is a classic mob “hit,” so Bosch isn’t sure why the L.A.P.D. seems so reluctant to investigate. He, himself, pursues the case, though, and traces Aliso’s financial dealings to a Las Vegas money-laundering operation. It turns out, too, that Aliso’s been involved in the operations of a not-exactly-reputable Las Vegas casino. In the end, Bosch uncovers Aliso’s dealings, along with some unsavory secrets that well-placed members of the L.A.P.D. would very much rather keep private. He also re-unites with a former love, Eleanor Wish.

Marshall Karp’s sleuths, L.A.P.D. detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs, also uncover Hollywood’s underbelly, so to speak, in Bloodthirsty. The two detectives have been hoping to make a deal with high-profile Hollywood producer Barry Gerber for a movie based on one of their cases. They’re hoping that a picture deal might get them some fame and definitely some fortune. One night, Gerber doesn’t appear at an important red-carpet event. It’s soon clear why when Gerber is found dead, his body drained of blood and stuffed into a trash can. Gerber wasn’t exactly a popular figure in town, so there are plenty of suspects. Then, two days later, the prime suspect, actor Damian Hedge (himself a “bad boy”), is abducted and later found dead, killed in the same way. Then, more deaths occur. Now under increasing departmental and public pressure, Lomax and Biggs have to find the killer before even more victims turn up dead.

In Robert B. Parker’s Blue Screen, we meet Buddy Bollen, who’s not exactly a top Hollywood producer. He’s made a lot of money, though, by making sleazy films. He’s also the owner of a baseball team, the Connecticut Nutmegs. He wants his rising star/girlfriend, Erin Flint, to play for the team as its first female player, and he’s hoping that her debut with the team will coincide with the release of her latest film. Erin’s afraid that she’s in danger, though, so Bollen hires private investigator Sunny Randall to protect Erin. Things go wrong, though, when Erin’s personal assistant and younger sister, Misty Tyler, is found with her neck broken. Since the murder occurred in Connecticut, it’s under the jurisdiction of police chief Jesse Stone, so Randall and Stone work together to find out who killed Misty and why. Along the way, they discover that Erin and Misty have a very dark past that has everything to do with Misty’s death.

Filmdom and movie stars capture our imaginations. The business of movie-making, too, seems to be glamorous on the surface. As many mystery novels show us, though, it’s full of nepotism, shady deals and unsavory connections. So it makes sense that there would be a lot of crime fiction based on this context. Do you enjoy novels about the world of movies and actors ? Which are your favorites?

*Note - The title of this post is a line from the Kinks' Celluloid Heroes


  1. I think one reason we are drawn to mysteries about film stars is that it makes them more down to earth. We see they can be touched by the same problems that touch us. Or you could look at it that we visualize a movie star that we dislike as the victim. :) They do make for very interesting reads.

    Thanks again for guest blogging at Thoughts in Progress. You're always welcome to guest post anytime.

  2. Mason - That's very true! We want to think of film stars as human, so when they face troubles, they seem more like us. It is also fun, isn't it, to see a nasty, arrogant film star as the vicim...that can be engaging : ). Mysteries like that just draw us in...

    It was a great pleasure and honor to "camp in your living room." : ) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I'll most definitely be back.. : )

  3. I love it that you used the Kinks title! Great post, as always. You do such a good job of telling the story in a book without telling too much for those who haven't read it yet. Thank you.

  4. Nan - Thanks : ). I really do try not to spoil the fun for people who haven't read the books that I mention. I don't think there's anything that we can assume that everyone has read. And it's funny you'd mention that Kinks song; Celluloid Heroes is one of my two or three favorite Kinks songs, and one of my favorite songs in general.

  5. One of Robert Crais's books (or maybe more than one!) was about the movie set - these Elvis Cole novels are really great, with strong elements of an updated Raymond Chandler. I also read a relatively recent one by Jonathan Kellerman which was a similar "indictment" of the lifestyles of the stars - I weakly could not refuse a free copy of this book even though I decided to stop reading him a while back.

    On the whole, my own version of "getting away from it all" is to live in a monkish cell with a limitless library. I realise this would not be very interesting to read about compared with movie stars, but I suppose identification with this type of "getting away" is one reason why I enjoyed The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths very much (just finished it).

  6. One of the most intriguing is The Face on the Cutting Room Floor by Cameron McCabe. A very unusual novel indeed.

  7. Maxine - Thanks for the reminder of Robert Crais' Elvis Cole. I've not read nearly enough of Crais, so I'm glad you brought him up. You're right that there is a similar indcitment of Hollywood there.

    Your review of The Crossing made me want to read it, too, and I intend to : ). Folks, Maxine's excellent review of The Crossing is here.

    Martin - Oh, thanks for the suggestion. I haven't read that one, so I shall have to look for it. You always have the most ineresting suggestions for reads!