by Cynthia Chow
& Timothy Hallinan
This week we have a review of the latest Junior Bender mystery by Timothy Hallinan, a guest post by Timothy about his ties to Hollywood and how they have affected his books, and you can enter to win a copy of The Fame Thief–details at the end of this post. Also in this same issue, a review of the second book in this series, The Little Elvises.
The Fame Thief: A Junior Bender Mystery By Timothy Hallinan
Review by Cynthia Chow
There’s a good reason why professional thief Junior Bender would prefer to give up his side occupation as a private detective for criminals. With criminals as clients who want other criminals investigated, someone is always going to be unhappy and the probability is high that that someone already has a record of not following the law. Unfortunately, when Junior is literally dragged in front of Irwin Dressler, the extremely elderly but definitely not retired mobster, Junior is given an offer he can’t refuse without losing the function of his body parts. Dressler demands that Junior take on the case of Dolores La Marr, a beautiful Hollywood starlet whose career was cut short by her arrest and tabloid exposure of her involvement with mobsters. In 1950.
With technical help from his teenaged daughter Rina, Junior discovers that Dolores, formerly Wanda Altshuler, was brought to Hollywood at the age of not sixteen by her fame-hungry mother, and exploited and used by the studios until her one breakout film that poised her on the break of stardom. An obvious set up in Las Vegas ended all that and now Dressler demands that Junior discover who was behind the plot that led to her being dragged in front of congressional hearings investigating the mob. What Junior does not need is the distraction of a lethally cute-as-a-button hit woman demanding that he track down a woman who may be her daughter and who may also want her dead.
Hallinan uses his background in Hollywood to the fullest as he brilliantly and extensively describes the extravagant, excessive, and often brutal world of Hollywood in the fifties. Beautiful actresses were a disposable commodity and even the most established of stars existed with the knowledge that their fading looks will bring the fall of their careers. Junior himself is an absolute delight with a level-headiness that only highlights the absurdity that ensues around him. While hiding out in the Valentine Schmalentine motel that has a moat that successfully traps the drunk on love and drunk on alcohol, Junior also plans an elaborate scam to prevent his ex-wife from being swindled into selling their house to live in an overpriced development. Luckily, Junior has all of the lowest but most trusted of connections to make this happen.
Hallinan succeeds in crafting the wonderful blend of a Hollywood exposé and a noir mystery with the complexities of a caper. What Junior does not realize is that the emotions and crimes from sixty years ago have not subsided and as he tracks down the actresses, PR reps, and directors from the past a trail of bodies will soon follow. Junior is an extraordinarily sympathetic and very likable character who continues to wield his wry humor and sardonic wit even as he feels the guilt when he realizes what his actions have triggered. Chapters that alternate to Dolores La Marr’s narrative from the forties and fifties are just as realistic and moving and the details bring to life the glamour and darkness of Old Hollywood. Hallinan’s descriptions are vivid and hilarious, never more prevalent than when he describes Public Relations representative Pinky Pinkerton as appearing to be the size of a ventriloquist’s dummy but wearing the suit he wore thirty years ago and normal sized.
This third Junior Bender mystery satisfies as an extremely enjoyable mystery with loads of dark humor and a brilliant cast of characters who are enmeshed in a spider web plot that spanned through the decades.
Going Hollywood by Tom Hallinan
When I started to write the Junior Bender mysteries (with Crashed) I thought the focus of the series was going to be the peculiar position a San Fernando burglar finds himself in when he’s more or less forced into becoming a private eye for crooks. When a crook has a bunch of stolen stuff stolen from him or her, or when it becomes obvious that someone is interfering with illegal plans, going to the cops is not an option.
Junior is the option. Not that he always wants to take the assignment. As he says in the second book, Little Elvises, “Every time I do it, I almost get killed.” (The response of the crook to which he says it is, “Ehhhhhh.”) I liked the peril of that situation: if he succeeds in solving the crime, the perp will want to kill him. If he doesn’t, his client will want to kill him. Seemed like he’d really have keep his wits sharp. Seemed like it might even be funny.
And then it went Hollywood on me.
I wasn’t even aware of it until my editor pointed it out: all three books (thus far) deal with an aspect, albeit sometimes a fringe aspect, of show business. In Crashed, it’s a former TV child star, now a walking pharmacy, whom someone want to exploit in a naughty movie. In Little Elvises, it’s the 1960s and 1970s phenomenon of nice-looking Italian kids from Philly who got their hair combed back, were taught to sneer, and became ersatz Presleys, for a few minutes, on “American Bandstand.”
In The Fame Thief, Junior is compelled to investigate something that probably wasn’t even a crime: the brutal destruction of the career of a Hollywood Starlet in 1950. And for all that it happened six decades ago and was probably legal (even if it was cruel) his investigation produces dead bodies right and left, proving that a good vendetta just gets more vicious with age.
How did this happen?
Since I was born and largely grew up in Los Angeles, where most of the world’s glitter is stored, I’ve been surrounded by show business my whole life. We had minor television celebrities (Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger, and some hard-drinking children’s show hosts) as neighbors, and I dated the daughters of a couple of stars of the forties and fifties, Alan Ladd and William Bendix. I was interested even then in the connection between the celebrity and the person you’d sometimes see watering his lawn or drinking all by himself at noon in his living room with the blinds drawn. The mismatch fascinated me.
And then, in college, I joined a band and began to write and sing songs, and we almost made it—we signed a contract, recorded an album for Universal, appeared on TV, played clubs, opened a couple of times for Sonny & Cher, and got a good cold look at the music business, which at the time was run by tiny guys in ironed jeans who thought of the word “derivative” as high praise. (A band mate, Robb Royer, went on to join up with our studio producer and form the group Bread, which sold ten zillion records.)
I got a job in a P.R. firm that led to my co-owning an international company that went way beyond PR and brought me into continuing contact with everyone from Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier to the producers and stars of rock-and-roll television shows. Public relations can be interesting because, as the veteran P.R. man Pinky Pinkerton says in The Fame Thief, “It’s the crossroads between who somebody really is and who they want people to think they are.” Once again, in a way, the relationship between the star and the man drinking alone in the middle of the day.
So anyway, I was working sixty-hour weeks and living in LA, New York, and London, and I burned out. It stopped being fun. I had written six private eye novels while I was working, and I decided that I was going to spend a few years just making money and hoarding it so I could write full-time. So I did, and I am.
But here I am, revisiting in my writing life (at least in one of my series) the business I wanted to get out of. I guess it’s one way to know whether it’s real love: just because you’re sick of it, that doesn’t mean you don’t think about it. I am pleased to announce, though, that there is NO show business in Junior #4, Herbie’s Game. None. Zero.
And I kind of miss it.
To enter to win a copy of The Fame Thief, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “Fame”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 22, 2013. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.