I am an unrepentant sucker for detective stories set in old Hollywood. Chandler was undoubtedly my gateway drug, before I moved on to James Ellroy, Ross MacDonald, Megan Abbott (Megan, I do really enjoy your new teen-focused novels, but if you want to write another noir feminist Hollywood mystery for old time’s sake, I’ll be first in line). Of course, when I discovered the existence of Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters novels, I was absolutely going to add him to the list. This is Hollywood detective fiction with actual movie stars and geeky film references rolled in. My kind of thing then.
But as much as I liked the first volume in this series – Bullet For A Star – I did have a pause before I picked up the follow up. The first volume had a tense scene of revelation actually take place on the set of Sam Spade’s office in The Maltese Falcon on the Warner Bros lot; while it ended with a phone call from Judy Garland asking Toby Peters to meet her at the yellow brick road. I was worried that as much as I’d liked it, it was going to turn into a smart-alecky set of books, more interested in in-jokes and star spotting than giving the reader proper detective fiction
I needn’t have fretted.
Yes, we have Garland, Clark Gable and Raymond Chandler in the cast of character, but actually we get a book here with a surprising amount of heft. It feels properly hard boiled, with tough guys, tough dames and a twisting mystery that has an undercurrent of real menace. Hollywood itself is indeed a character, but it’s a character like New York is for Mike Hammer. It doesn’t over-whelm all else. Okay, it’s easy to guess who did it, and that’s undeniably a flaw (though maybe one that’s improved upon in subsequent volumes), but this is still a damn fine thriller that feels like detective story first and Hollywood pastiche distant second.