This book starts out fast. It’s maybe even riveting: a Hollywood film producer is murdered in his own home. There’s unrequited love. Three suspicious women are implicated. We’ve got narcotics, homosexuality, lots of secrets, cover-ups, conspiracies and, naturally, corrupt LA cops. Then there’s silent film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle caught up in a wild drunken sex party in San Francisco and a woman is killed, or murdered; who knows? Three trials, two hung juries and one acquittal later he’s blacklisted from ever working again. On top of all that, running in the background, but conspicuously “in-your-face”, is the motion picture industry as it was in the 1920s: monopolies, alleged anti-trust violations, censorship, Christian moral vigilantes, prohibition, sex, drugs, hot jazz, more sex and even more drugs. And then came the Great Depression, political spin, Wall Street and government regulation. And this is all in the first half of the book!
Unfortunately, after that, the story-telling gets old and slows down in the mud. The narrative takes a turn for the worse, much like the loose morals of Max Sennett’s Hollywood. There’s only so much that can be written about an unsolved murder. The story begins to drag along in the minutia of, albeit interesting, but generally unrelated crimes of people stranded on the outside of the industry looking in on the success of others more lucky than they are. So the violence against poor Billy Taylor gets lost in clouds of cigar smoke from movie moguls making backroom deals, and chain-smoking nicotine addicts who are little more than small-time thugs trying to fleece the rich.
But it’s all marginal to the murder “who-done-it” of Taylor. For example, the legal battles between a couple of New York film tycoons have nothing to do with the murder itself, nor do strong-arm tactics of blackmailers and hustlers guilty of trying to make ends meet at the expense of innocent people, that is, if anyone in this book can be said to be truly innocent, including the alleged victims. Regrettably, the author uses up a lot of time and space writing about this story in typical tabloid style. (It’s a fairly big book, 483 pages, with a few b&w pictures). If I had to characterize the book it would be “true-detective-meets-dark-noir-meets-Hollywood-meets-the-Inquirer”. I’d recommend it for anyone having equal parts mild interest and time to waste.