Undoubtedly, it’s because I read too much Raymond Chandler when I was young, before moving on to read too much James Ellroy, but the sub-genre I love most is probably the Hollywood-set murder mystery/thriller.
What I find so fascinating is the mixture of that impossible Technicolor glamour, with tawdry and brutal crime. It’s the tearing down of that wonderful façade – the sound stages, the beautiful women made-up and coiffured to look more incredible than anyone ever had before – to reveal something more far more fragile and damaged underneath. But of course, it being Hollywood you just put the painted backdrop back up, reapply the luscious lipstick to your leading lady (or new leading lady, if the old one was an unfortunate victim) and carry on. No matter how many murders take place, the pretence always wins.
Of course, it helps that I imagine all these stories with noir lighting, but actually ANGEL IN THE ABYSS doesn’t have a 1940s segment. Instead it’s the tale of a film restorer of today leaving the comfort of his projector in Boston to restore a legendary silent film in L.A., and finding dead bodies piling up around him. It’s entertaining stuff, with ‘poor nobody suddenly finding himself out of the depth on the mean streets’ being such a Hollywood cliché itself, that of course it can be played around with in fiction. Here we even have two nobodies out of their depth, taking turns at the investigation, and such are the conventions of this kind of story that you don’t even mind when they both get suddenly quite good at the hard-ass stuff.
The film to be restored is a legendary lost silent classic called (of course) ‘Angel of the Abyss’, and the action in the present alternates with flashbacks to the 1920’s making of the film. This though is where the novel isn’t on such sure footing. Kurtz never quite convinces in the 1920’s milieu like he does in the current day, and there’s an artificiality to these chapters. But then maybe I’m being too harsh, as the characters here are actors and directors and producers filming in front of painted backdrops, and so maybe that artificiality is fitting. It’s a story that hinges on trying to create something real out of the phoniness of Tinsel-Town and so, even though it takes a little getting used to, the artificiality might actually work to its benefit.
ANGEL OF THE ABYSS isn’t Chandler or Ellroy. It isn’t Megan Abbot. It also lacks the playfulness of a Stuart Kaminsky. But actually this is a good, gritty and unassuming thriller written by a man who clearly loves old films.
I love old films myself – and adore this kind of novel – so I enjoyed the hell out it.