Sunday, January 3, 2016

December reading

Despite the holidays, I got in four books. I almost got five, but didn't quite finish the last one before the new year.

The River is Dark by Joe Hart
This was in my Bouchercon swag bag and I opened it at random late one night when I was headed to bed. Hours later, I was still wide awake and barreling toward the end. I have got to read more stuff by Joe Hart.

The book opens with the massacre of a small family - father, mother, even the family dog. The family's only child, Eric, runs to his parents room, locks the door and crawls under their bed with a phone and dials 911, trying to summon help as he hears "it" come upstairs, searching for him. Eric will be his family's lone survivor, but at great cost. When he awakens from his coma, his only description of his attacker is "a monster".

We then switch to Liam Dempsey, a former detective - and the reason for his premature "retirement" is an ongoing question mark that is eventually revealed in good time. He barely gets his morning going when he receives a phone call that his estranged brother and his brother's wife have been murdered in their home. As the only surviving relative, this falls into his lap. Upon arriving in the seemingly idyllic town, he discovers that the brutal murder of his brother and sister-in-law were the second such killings in a week. Eric's family was the first.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Liam himself starts to become a person of interest, which I have been told at writers conferences is cop-speak for "suspect". Between this and his cop skills, he now has to conduct his own investigation, not only to clear himself but to find out who is butchering the locals.

Hart is a fantastic writer. I was immediately sucked into the story and couldn't stop reading. He hooked me from page one and I simply couldn't put it down. Hurray for insomnia. I think it was around 2:30am when I finished. I appreciated that the story is unconvoluted. Hart has a very clean, simple forward writing style. Things happen as they need to, and Liam's background was revealed a bit here and there, as needed.

If I have any criticism, it's that as we get closer to the end, our hero begins to sustain injuries at the hand of the murderous monster that aren't life-threatening, but any one of these injuries would reduce a normal person to curling up in a fetal position, and still he manages to fight off the monster while sustaining one after another of these injuries. That's a personal peeve, but this is certainly not the only place I've seen it. Despite that, I highly recommend The River is Dark and look forward to reading more of Hart's work.

"Liam stood, glancing in all directions as he retreated to the house, his mind trying to make sense of what just happened. An uneasy feeling like a ball of infection began to throb in his stomach. He didn't know what bothered him more: the sight of the shadowed form appearing and disappearing within the storm, or that it seemed to have come to visit the grave of the Shevlins' deceased infant."

Murder with a Twist by Tracy Kiely
I saw Tracy Kiely on a panel at Bouchercon and was intrigued by her using one of my favorite films, The Thin Man, as an inspiration for an updated take on Nick and Nora. In this case it's Nic (former New York Detective Nicole Landis) and Nigel Martini, a west coast heir. There are a lot of nods to The Thin Man, especially their new name. There is a dog, although instead of the lovable (if somewhat cowardly) Asta, the Martini's have a newly acquired gigantic Mastiff. Their last name is a nod to the virtually non-stop boozing in the original (although they don't drink quite as much in the updated version).

One thing I noticed was that although the back cover promised that the book "Includes cocktail recipes!", there weren't any. I looked at reviews on Amazon and Good Reads and only a couple of people commented on this.

It's an upbeat, breezy read and another one I got through in one late night sitting.

"The voice was gruff and to the point. "Do yourself a favor," it said, and go back to L.A. before you get your other pretty leg shot up." With that the line went dead, which was fine by me. It didn't seem like it was going to be a good conversation anyway.

"Who was that?" Nigel asked, as I turned off the light.

"The Ladies Home Journal," I replied. "You've been selected to receive a free trial subscription."

"Tell them no thanks," Nigel said as he pulled me close. "Their centerfolds are terrible."

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
With a focus on the unsolved William Desmond Taylor murder and its sordid aftermath, this Edgar Award-winning book examines the scandal culture of early Hollywood and how it resulted in the Hays code. And while he's at it, author Mann puts forth his own unique take on who he thinks killed Taylor.

It's the early 1920's and Adolph Zukor is head of Famous Players-Lasky, one of the biggest studios and theater chains in Hollywood, and the powerful Zukor is looking to get bigger. He wants to dominate Hollywood, but his ambitions are endangered by a series of scandals involving stars that are making Hollywood look unsavory and like a bad influence on the American public. This has religious and moral figures threatening boycotts and the government considering regulating the industry, endangering Zukor's plans.

First Bobby Harron, recently replaced as director D.W. Griffith's star of choice, commits suicide. The beautiful Olive Thomas dies in Paris after accidentally ingesting mercury bicarbonate after a night of carousing. Then comes the Fatty Arbuckle scandal in which the popular comedian is charged with murder after actress Virginia Rappe dies during a weekend long party thrown by Arbuckle. The revelation of popular star Wallace Reid's addiction and his subsequent drug-related death. As if all this wasn't enough, popular director William Desmond Taylor is murdered in his Los Angeles home, revealing a secret past that Taylor had always guarded fiercely.

In addition to Zukor, Mann focuses on three actresses who were connected to Taylor in very different ways, and contends that one was responsible for setting in motion Taylor's murder.

Mabel Normand was a popular comedienne who was fighting to stay clean. While they weren't romantically involved, Taylor was a close friend and confidant, and a huge help to Normand's sobriety, once chasing off a drug dealer who came to her house after she'd returned from rehab.

The painfully young and delusional Mary Miles Minter was madly in love with the much older Taylor, who cared about her but didn't share her passion. Minter was being groomed as the next Mary Pickford by her studio and her monstrous stage mother Charlotte Shelby. Shelby was a truly vile person who makes Joan Crawford look like Harriet Nelson. Shelby didn't like the idea of her little cash cow being involved with an older man; she despised Taylor and had threatened him in the past. This gave her the honor of long being considered to be the primary suspect, although she was never tried, suspicion followed her for the rest of her life.

The trio is rounded out by Margaret Gibson, who dreamed of the kind of stardom Normand and Minter had attained, and pursued it relentlessly despite setback after setback. She had known Taylor years before he was killed. "Gibby" mixed with some criminal types, and when acting gigs dried up she often resorted to blackmail schemes with several of her lowbrow buddies. It's this activity that Mann uses to tie Gibson to the Taylor murder. He doesn't put the gun in her hand (that honor goes to one of the other blackmailers) but he holds her responsible, as she seems to decades later with a startling deathbed confession.

This book is not a quick read; it covers a lot of ground, but weaves all the stories together to demonstrate how interlocked all these different people were, even when they rarely crossed paths. Even back in the 1920's, despite being a relatively new industry, Hollywood was already a machine determined to preserve itself at any cost, including the lives and careers of some of its biggest players.

"With icy disdain, Shelby answered every one of the panel's questions, repeatedly asserting her innocence. Afterward, the jury disbanded. They handed down no indictments, but neither did they offer any exonerations."

Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth
I'm going to give this one its own post, which will follow shortly, because in addition to discussing the book, I want to address some issues - both good and bad - that I have with self-help and self-improvement books, and the promises they make.

"When you no longer believe that eating will save your life when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed or lonely, you will stop."

1 comment:

rubel said...

It's this activity that Mann uses to tie Gibson to the Taylor murder. He doesn't put the gun in her hand (that honor goes to one of the other blackmailer