Silver Screen Sleuths
Nicole Petit (Ed.)
I think one of the greatest things about being a member of the book reviewing community on social media is the support you see from publishers, authors and readers, especially in the horror and science-fiction & fantasy genres. When I was recently hospitalised (thankfully for only a handful of hours) with breathing problems brought on by the wretched Coronavirus, many people reached out to me to offer support and condolences through Twitter and Facebook. Not only that, but several publishers and authors even sent me books to read while I was stuck in self-isolation, without even the expectation that I’d review them; they simply did it out of the goodness of their hearts. I have to say that it made me quite emotional, and feel immensely valued as well. It cheered me up greatly to read these books while I was recovering, and now I’m delighted to be able to share my reviews of them with you all.
First up is a title I’ve been looking at for quite a while, but never had a chance to read until now – Silver Screen Sleuths, a collection of detective stories from the always amazing 18thWall Productions – but with a cunning and highly original twist! You see, what if instead of the fictional detectives having to solve mysteries, it was in fact the actors and actresses playing them (and other roles) that were confronted with thefts, murders and locked room conundrums? How would legendary stars like Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Shirley Temple and Ginger Rogers cope when taken away from a world of scripts and rehearsed lines? It’s a fascinating concept with endless possibilities, further enhanced by the likes of Josh Reynolds, Jon Black and CL Werner penning some of the stories within the collection, and that amazing cover art by illustrator Johannes Chazot.
The collection opens with Josh Reynolds’ Green Hell, Red Murder, which co-stars Vincent Price and Ray Mala; and while I was at least passing familiar with price, I was clueless when it came to Ray Mala. Instead of immediately reading the story, I went online and spent a fruitful and informative hour reading up on Mr Mala, one of the first Native American actors in Hollywood. I find this to be one of the greatest strengths of Reynold’s historical fiction and occult detective stories – the consistent use of lesser-known and obscure historical figures that he brings back into the limelight. For the story itself, told in the first person from Price’s point of view, we find the two men on a Los Angeles film set in 1940 sweltering in the intense heat and bemoaning their small parts in the film. Screaming from a faux-temple on the film set leads to a dead security guard, and an opportunity to play detective for a desperate film director one failure away from disgrace and the end of his career. Either find the killer, or see the film shut down and lose the money they’ll be paid for their roles. It’s certainly a motivation to investigate, and soon both men are embroiled in the grimy world of Hollywood productions, Nazi agitators and auction house thefts. Reynolds smartly uses Price’s background as an art procurer as a reason for being hired as an investigator, and brings him to life as a witty, charming and sharp-eyed sleuth. Reynolds always has a way with words, and I was particularly taken with an admittance from Price half-way through the story: “I floundered for a moment, tripped by my own erudition. I fancy that I’m terribly cultured, but sometimes I fear I’m simply cultured terribly.” Mala also makes an interesting character, both as foil to Price and as an insight into the casual racism of 1940s Hollywood, and I’d like to see another story with him, especially as the protagonist.
It is perhaps a controversial statement, but I do believe that Basil Rathbone is the best actor to have brought the role of Sherlock Holmes to cinematic life, though Jeremy Brett comes a close second, almost too close to distinguish. As such, I was delighted to see that Jon Black would be using Rathbone in his entry in the collection, entitled A Scandal in Hollywood. I was even more intrigued when the story opens with Rathbone being interviewed about his latest role as Sherlock Holmes, his twelfth film as the character; perhaps unsurprisingly, he finds himself wearying of the role while simultaneously having to defend himself from yet another fan of the Conan Doyle character. But before he can muse on it any further, he finds himself and a close actress friend the subjects of a blackmail plot involving sordid photos. This then escalates into a bizarre and multi-faceted plot involving murder, obsession and greed that had me constantly guessing as to the direction and angle of the plot until the very last pages. To my delight, there’s even a cipher that Rathbone has to decipher, in a manner reminiscent of Doyle’s classic story The Adventure of the Dancing Men, with Black showing his dedication by actually transcribing the cipher onto paper and including it in the story for us to follow alongside Rathbone.
Black obviously did his research for the story meticulously, even more so than in his previous works, as he slowly but surely develops Rathbone as both protagonist and historical personality, to the extent that it feels like we know the actor intimately by the end of this enthralling novelette. That research also extends to Hollywood during the period, from interesting little facts like the dispute over the electricity bill for the permanently-illuminated Hollywoodland sign, to depressingly insightful observations such as blackmail photos being enough to destroy an actress’ career but barely bothering that of an actor. Black also weaves a compelling view of Hollywood itself and how it began to fundamentally change mere months after the end of World War II, GI families and new highways starting to conceal some of the grimmer aspects of the city and replace them with new aspects, often just as dirty and underhanded. It all comes together to create an energetic, intricately plotted and thoroughly compelling murder-mystery that stands out as the best in the collection.
Nicole Petit and James Bojaciuk give us an all-star cast for Nice Work If You Can Get It, bringing in no less than four major Hollywood stars: Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda for a stylish crime caper that uses a line from Ginger Roger’s memoirs as a springboard. Dinner for the foursome at a local restaurant turns into an impromptu murder investigation, when an attempt to charm a famous director leads to a corpse on the dance floor. It’s a unique tale on the locked room concept, with no-one allowed to leave the restaurant while the death is investigated. Having a death pinned on the four young stars makes it imperative that they prove their innocence, leading to a tense series of questions and confrontations around the front and back of the restaurant. Petit and Bojaciuk have a real knack for writing snappy, witty dialogue that makes the narrative flow smoothly, with a healthy dose of wry and sly humour that makes it fun to follow along with. In addition, the friendship between the four stars really comes across as authentic and natural, and is one of the best parts of the story. Add in a cracking mystery with an unexpected twist, and you have a first-rate noir murder mystery.
CL Werner gives us The Unfilmable, starring George Zucco, and opens with a bucket ful of gore, as the actor and associated cast and crew find the shredded remains of a script writer in a lonely, isolated wooden shack. It’s a opening that makes a hell of an impression on the reader, especially when its revealed that the setting for the tale is an old abandoned Western film set, re-used decades later for a budget film shoot, which adds an atmosphere of decay and mystery. Unlike the other stories, where the stars are in their prime, that constant state of decay is echoed in the characters and plot: Zucco is past the zenith of his career, as are many of his co-stars, with the film run by a second-rate director, and Werner develops an air of quiet desperation and ennui as the story progresses. I have to give Werner credit – while I thought I knew where the story was going, he threw in some highly unexpected twists that I never would have seen coming, creating a fascinating blend of post-war B-Movie production, ruminations on the costs of the decline of an actor’s career, and even cult-like obsession; it’s one of the strangest stories I’ve ever read in the detective genre, yet also one of the most appealing.
Shirley Temple is the subject of Screen Time by M.H. Norris, the author providing us with a welcome change of location by setting the story in Cold War Berlin at the end of the 1940s. Although quite a short story, certainly compared to others in the collection, it’s a highly entertaining one, as Norris brings Temple into contact with some highly experimental communications technology which appears to be so advanced it’s surely fictional; yet it is in fact entirely historically accurate, and acts as the spur for a robbery that Temple finds herself entangled with. Trying to help a lost child leads to technological espionage, Cold War hostility, the legacy of the Third Reich, and the possibility of a very different end to the superpower conflict if Temple can’t solve the mystery. It’s a fun and surprisingly tense romp, and I’d love to see more such tales from Norris in the future.
Ghost’s Don’t Leave Footprints by William J. Martin features swashbuckler Errol Flynn as its protagonist, and on e again takes a different angle to its predecessors, Flynn being confronted by a mysterious woman in his changing room, claiming his life is in danger. While at first refusing to believe the warning with characteristic arrogance, Flynn soon finds himself in danger from a group of deranged cultists who try to kidnap him for unnatural purposes, only to be unexpectedly rescued in an amusing set piece that puts him firmly in the damsel-in-distress role. From there, cuts between Flynn and his rescuer, and the shadowy band of cultists, culminate in a desperate attempt to disrupt a deeply bizarre occult ceremony. Martin has composed a vibrant, fast-paced and action-packed story that reflects the qualities of its protagonist, yet also leavened it with an eerie, surreal atmosphere that’s thoroughly entrancing, and which stayed with me for quite some time after finishing the collection.
To close out the collection, we have John Linwood Grant’s Death Among The Marigolds, starring Margaret Rutherford and set in wartime London. While Rutherford’s professional life is rocked by bombs hitting her theatre, her personal life is rocked by the appearance of a young girl claiming only she can help her with her problem. The girl’s older sister is trying to talk to her and warn her of something – the only catch is that the sister is deceased. The girl believes that Rutherford is psychically sensitive, like in a recent film, and believes the actress can come to her isolated manor and aid her. It’s a fantastic set-up, and one that Grant pulls off flawlessly, leading to an atmospheric mystery in a dilapidated country house as Rutherford attempts to puzzle out just what is behind these seemingly spectral messages. As she does, we’re treated to some fantastic character sketches as the family living in the manor are examined, one by one, and their fraught and tense relationships are revealed. Grant has an amazing way with words, and brings the house and its inhabitants to life in a manner I’ve never quite seen before in a story, detective or otherwise. It all comes together in a wartime mystery with a supremely satisfying ending that acts as the perfect ending to the collection as a whole.
Silver Screen Sleuths is a spectacular success for 18thWall Productions, with editor Nicole Petit gathering together an impressive array of stories that perfectly encapsulate the inventive and original premise of the collection. Some of the greatest stars of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s are reimagined by each author as willing or unwilling detectives, forced out of their privileged A-List lives into mundane reality in order to solve the sort of mysteries, murders and kidnappings that would usually form part of their films. All of the stories in Silver Screen Sleuths are first-rate, high-quality tales well worth your time, but two in particular stand out: Jon Black’s A Scandal In Hollywood, and CL Werner’s The Unfilmable, these two entries alone making the collection worth seeking out for your bookshelf. Both leave themselves open to sequels, and I would love to see continuations in a follow-up collection at some point in the future.