If crime writer James Ellroy and TCM host Robert Osborne collaborated on a fictional book about the Kennedys' involvement in a massive coverup of "the real cause" of Marilyn Monroe's early death at 36, the plot of which was then peppered with a salacious dash of my beloved Scott Michaels from Dearly Departed Tours, you would have this book. And I would love it just as much as I do love this book. It's no great literature, but it's the trashy fun/dark waters/not poorly written at all territory I always hoped a decently produced afternoon movie on MM's death would trod, and who would've expected it? I ordered the title (as is my wont) from the library on the strength of a magazine review, and promptly forgot about it. When it arrived, I went "Oh, neat cover," and chucked it in my pile of checkouts on the kitchen table. Three weeks later, the due date loomed, and I cracked the cover on Sunday expecting to read a couple pages, get disgusted with the state of modern literature, and return it on Monday. Instead, I got wound up in the story of Ben Fitzgerald, Deputy Coroner for the LAPD, who finds Marilyn Monroe's diary (mystically entitled The Book of Secrets) at the crime scene surrounding her death, and pockets it to go on his own, off-the-radar investigation of what really happened. It's very Nancy Drew for the Hollywood Babylon set...and there is nothing wrong with that! Not quite the tell-all, explanatory look into history I think some of the press literature may be touting it as, but definitely a nice romp down Hollywood's dark memory lane.
Snappy dialogue à la My Girl Friday ricochets between Fitzgerald and Jo, author of the fictional gossip column "Annie Laurie" (think Sheilah Graham) and co-conspirator in the anti-conspiracy investigation (if that makes sense). Baker breaks one of the cardinal rules Stephen King set forth in On Writing by describing his characters as looking like specific actors, instead of describing their actual looks, but I think this was more a stylistic choice than a gaffe. Fitzgerald as The Naked City's Don Taylor and Jo as Vivien Leigh just sound like good casting choices to me:
My one complaint about the novel was that in placing it in 1962 Los Angeles, Baker did not do an altogether convincing job of selling the 30's and 40's Hollywood feel, sound, and locations of the novel as happening in the mid century. He did, again and again, explain that even though the characters were at Ciro's, or Romanoff's, or the Savoy, that it was a ruined, sixties' version of a formerly chic nightspot, but other than that, I had to keep checking myself to remind my reading brain that it was 1962 and not 1942. Which was disorienting. But altogether, it's very Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, and I think that's the highest praise you can toss at a modern day crime writer writing in the style of a bygone era.
I was surprised to get to work today and read a scathing review of the novel by The Onion's A.V. Club-- a usually dead-on source for decent assessments of new releases. I wouldn't read anything into the actual theories and hypothetical motivations behind a lot of the more titillating portions of the book-- while some people might find the final section as degrading-to-Monroe's-memory, and well, degrading-to-readers-of-the-book...I thought it was a smart move on Baker's part to highlight the very down-and-out, "lostness" of MM's last days. One thing that always strikes me about a skid row story, where someone has just bottomed out, is how low, how far past low, you have to go to get to completely down-and-out. Baker's refusal to become committed to that idea, I guess, was a weak point. MM gets mixed up in some insane, dark, weird stuff, some of it connecting to her family's history of schizophrenia, some of it connecting to her own prescription pill abuse, and some of it thrust upon her by being horribly used and abused by men of power...but I never thought it was quite "oh my God, that is ridiculous, why would they even say that" about it. Can be confusing, but! The spiraling claustrophobia of the main character's relentless pursuit of the truth, however, reminds me of some of the best dime-novel crime dramas; what more are you really asking for?
What surprised me in this particular blurb was that reviewer's emphasis on the Kennedy/Monroe parts of the book as wooden or artificial... one aspect that appealed to me was the cardboard characterization of those iconic figures. Think about how Fitzgerald would see either character-- as a psychologist and with a humoring, kind eye towards them as complex, emotional beings? Or as pawns and chess pieces in a much larger game? He's not concerned with the people at all-- he's concerned with the story. And in terms of that, I think he hook-lines-and-sinks this one. But! You don't have to take my word for it. Pick up a copy of The Empty Glass from your library and you tell me what you think!
In the meantime, have you read any great Hollywood books or thrillers lately? What's on your to-do or to-don't list as far as recent releases? Let a girl know!
I'm all tuckered out from conspiracy theories...I'll see you guys tomorrow!