And Those Who Are Successful, Be Always on Your Guard*

HollywoodMany people are fascinated by movie stars. They seem to inhabit an entirely different, and much more luxurious, world than the rest of us do. When you watch them posing on the red carpet, and hear about the homes they have and so on, it’s easy to imagine that they have perfect lives. Of course, that’s not true. Any tabloid story will remind you of that. The reality is that sometimes that ‘Hollywood image’ can make a person even more vulnerable than ‘regular people’ are. Even if you couldn’t care less about movie stars, the contrast between that outer image of glamour and the sometimes tragic reality of a star’s life can be compelling. And it can make for a real source of tension and suspense in a crime novel.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) features famous star Marina Gregg, who’s just bought Gossington Hall in the village of St. Mary Mead. Yes, that Gossington Hall – the one that Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly own in The Body in the Library. Marina and her husband Jason Rudd want to make a good impression in the local community, so they plan a charity fête at the Hall. Many of the locals are excited about it, but none more than Heather Badcock, who is one of Marina Gregg’s biggest fans. On the day of the event, Heather is of course among the large group of people who are eager to see the house and meet its famous owner. She’s ecstatic when she gets the chance to speak to her idol, but everything changes when she suddenly becomes very ill. When Heather dies of what turns out to be poison, everyone assumes that her murder was accidental, since the drink that killed her was originally intended for Marina. That theory makes sense too, since more than one person had a motive to murder the movie star. When it’s shown that the drink was intended all along for Heather, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry look into Heather’s past to find out who would want to murder her. Among other things, this novel shows just how vulnerable even a famous Hollywood star can be.

Blythe Stuart and John Royle find out just how vulnerable famous Hollywood stars can be in Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. Years ago, the two had a stormy and very public affair that ended badly. Each married someone else, and each now has an adult child, but their feud never really ended. The Magna Studios executives think that the Stuart/Royle drama is bankable, so they decide to film a biopic about the couple. Ellery Queen is temporarily on retainer at Magna, and he’s tapped to work on the screenplay. Much to everyone’s surprise, both stars agree to do the film. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. It’s decided to take this decision in stride and embrace the wedding, giving it the full Hollywood treatment. The couple will be married on an airstrip and then fly off for their honeymoon. The ceremony duly takes place, and the newlyweds and their children take off. When the plane lands though, both Stuart and Royle are dead. They’ve been poisoned and at first, their children blame each other. When Queen investigates though, he finds that there’s another explanation entirely.

In Robert Crais’ Voodoo River, we meet popular Hollywood TV star Jodi Taylor. She’s an adoptee who’s in her mid-thirties and beginning to wonder about her biological heritage. She’s wondering, for instance, whether she or any children she might have are at high risk for a genetic disorder. She and her personal manager Sid Markowitz hire Elvis Cole to trace her biological parents and find out what her medical background is. They’re determined to keep this all a secret though, and Cole agrees. He travels to Louisiana, where Jodi was born. When he gets there, he finds that the legal issues involved in finding an adoptee’s biological parents are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. He runs into a local thug, a part-time investigator with his own agenda, and some murders. Oh, and a very mean snapping turtle. It turns out that Jodi is a lot more vulnerable than Cole imagined, and it’s a clear reminder that Hollywood fame is no guarantee of safety.

Certainly working on a Hollywood film set can be dangerous. Just ask production assistant Angella Barton, who’s found murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building in Michael Connelly’s Lost Light. Harry Bosch works on the case briefly, but wasn’t officially assigned to investigate. So he doesn’t follow up until four years later. He’s taken early retirement and opened his own PI office, but Angella Barton’s murder still affects him. When he finds out that the case wasn’t really solved satisfactorily, he looks into it again. This murder turns out to be related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. It’s a stark reminder that a lot goes on behind the scenes of what seem to be magical lives.

We also see that in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. The city of Brighton is to be the on-location site for the filming of the story of Maria Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Cast in the lead role is Gaia Lafayette, an entertainment superstar who’s turned her hand to acting. LA film producer Larry Brooker is counting on this film to be a hit. He’s desperate for a winner for both financial and professional reasons and he’s hoping that Gaia’s name will be the draw he needs. Then, Gaia gets a frightening note warning her not to accept the role. Not one to back down from a challenge, she doesn’t heed it. Then there’s an attempt on her life. There’s a lot at stake with this film for Brighton, and Superintendent Roy Grace is charged with protecting Gaia while she’s filming. He certainly doesn’t wish harm to come to her, but he’s got other pressing issues. An unidentified body has been found in a disused chicken shed. And Grace’s partner Cleo is about to give birth. But when the body turns out to be connected to his other case – protecting Gaia Lafayette – Grace has to pay more attention to what he’s been asked to do.

There are of course other novels that show how vulnerable even the most successful and famous film stars can be. Maybe it’s just as well I’m not one of them…


Talking of Hollywood, I must say, you see the nicest people there.


Kerrie and Bob


As you can see, I had the chance to spend some time with Mysteries in Paradise’s very own Kerrie and her husband Bob, who made a stop in Los Angeles during their travels. We had a terrific time in Hollywood – it was a delight to see you both!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Robert Crais

30 responses to “And Those Who Are Successful, Be Always on Your Guard*

  1. I love a movie-related setting for a detective story, it’s always intriguing. Last year I read an enjoyable John Dickson Carr book set at a British film studio in the 40s, called And so to Murder. Great fun.

    • Moira – Isn’t a film set a great context for a crime novel? So much going on, and any number of possibilities of victim, murderer, motive, etc… Thanks for the mention of the Carr, too. That one definitely belonged in this post.

  2. Hi Margot. I enjoy Hollywood-based mysteries, and Marshall Karp’s Lomax and Biggs series touches on a few of the crimes committed by and against the rich and famous. Makes us glad we’re not part of that world….but reading about it is lots of fun when the investigation is carried out by these two sometimes irreverent detectives..

    • Pat – Oh, yes, indeed! I”m so glad you brought up the Lomax and Biggs novels. They’re solid mysteries, but they have a strong thread of wit, too. I’m glad you enjoy them too. And yes, that world is not one I’d want to inhabit.

  3. Another classic mystery involving British film stars can be found in Edmund Crispin’s “Frequent Hearses.” That one begins with a young starlet, quite literally an unknown, with a bit role in a movie, committing suicide. But then other people working on that movie begin to die – and quite clearly have been murdered. Among the potential victims are the star and the director of that movie, and other rich and famous people. It’s quite good – a little more sombre than some of Crispin’s other books, but definitely worth the read.

    • Les – Trust Crispin to do a solid mystery involving acting! And that’s an excellent example of the kind of thing I had in mind here. It really doesn’t matter how wealthy and successful a Hollywood star is, murder can still happen…

  4. Uncanny timing, Margot: I read your post this morning just after hearing the sad news of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an excellent actor in the prime of his career. In real life as in fiction, people we call stars are all too human.

    • Angela – His death is a very sad loss. And what’s odd is, I wrote and planned this before I knew of his death. Timing… As you say, star status doesn’t protect people from tragedy.

  5. That’s a great photo Margot and the Christie example is just perfect because the plot about Marina Gregg was in fact based on a real Hollywood tragedy that befell Gene Tierney.

    • Sergo – Thanks – if I may say so I was rather proud of that ‘photo. And I’d forgotten when I wrote this post about what happened to Gene Tierney. She really did have such sadness in her life didn’t she? Another reminder that stardom doesn’t protect people from tragedy.

  6. Yup fame’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Get it? 😉 (sorry)

  7. Katy McCoy

    I am just the opposite of others who have commented. I avoid any book with movie stars, parts in movies, movies coming to town to film, detective going to Hollywood. Yuck! They’re so fake-y. When Carolyn Haines sent Sarah Booth Delaney to Hollywood, the whole series crumpled like a wet paper bag. Same with book clubs getting caught up in a mystery. And housekeepers – although I make an exception for the Shakespeare mysteries by Charlaine Harris. Sorry – ask me what I really think!

    • Katy – So, what do you really think? 😉 In all seriousness, you have every right to your opinion of course. And you’re right that there are some series and books that really do not ring true at all. And it doesn’t matter what the theme is, if the story doesn’t hold up and seem authentic, it’s not interesting.

  8. Margot: it has never been safe being around a movie mogul anymore but it can be lucrative for defence lawyers. Most recently, Mickey Haller, in The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly, takes over the defence of mogul, Walter Elliott, facing double murder charges.

    When Hollywood gets around to sidewalk stars for mystery bloggers you and Kerrie will be among the first to be given stars.

    • Bill – *blush* Thank you. And thanks for mentioning The Brass Verdict. I came close to mentioning that one, so since I didn’t, I’m glad that you filled that gap. And of course you’re right that the film business is a gold mine for attorneys. In real life and in crime fiction, all sorts of aspects of the film business involve contracts and other legal matters. As I’m sure you know, entertainment law is a very big part of a lot of Southern California law firms’ work.

  9. Nice picture, Margot! That’s fun that you got to meet up with some online friends.

    I do tend to really enjoy some of the plots where actors and actresses are mixed into the mystery. Adds an element of fun…and sometimes those characters have a tendency toward melodrama, which also adds to the fun.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks; I have to say I was happy with the way that ‘photo came out. And it really was a lot of fun to meet up with Kerrie and Bob; they’re great people.
      I hadn’t thought about it when I was putting this post together, but you have a point about Hollywood stars and melodrama. They do just kind of go together don’t they? And that extra tension and suspense (to say nothing of the potential for suspects!) can add to a story.

  10. Hollywood-based themes for murder mysteries do draw us in. On the surface it’s hard for us to believe that anything bad could happen to these people who seemingly have it all. There can be so much going on ‘behind-the-scenes’ so to speak. Great post.

    • Mason – Thank you. And that’s exactly it. On the surface, it seems like people that rich and famous should have nothing to complain about. But we don’t know what their lives are like when the cameras are turned off. And with the incredible amounts of money involved, it’s easy to see motives for murder.

  11. I think the reality is that the movie stars have more to them in their private lives behind the camera and sometimes it’s sad and tragic, but they do present a certain image if themselves front of camera and strive so hard to project it that I find much of what I read, real or fictional, just sugary and feel that it’s spun again for a purpose. It’s the actors life I suppose …

    • Rebecca – Image is really important, especially to a star and the people around that start. After all, it’s a hugely lucrative business. So anything that threatens that cash cow is a big problem. Little wonder as you say that so many of them work so hard to keep up that image. And as you say, that can hide (sometimes lead to) private tragedy. It may indeed be part of the actor’s lot in life.

  12. Movies or theater in a book always attract me. Which was why the Ngaio Marsh’s books were real favorites.

    • Patti – There really is something about a movie or theatre setting for a murder isn’t there? All of those disparate people, many of whom have very strong personalities,can make for some fascinating conflict. And that’s not to mention the glamour, the drama (yes, pun intended 😉 ), the whole thing. And you’re right; Marsh captured that brilliantly.

  13. vickie L

    Watching “A Star is Born” 1954 with Judy Garland last night it came to me the realization that the film could mirror any celebz rise to stardom. How crazy did the crowd go at the the funeral? So sad but true with the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman it was my opinion that people really stood to pay attention when the negative aspects of his passing were made public. Clebrities are not super human though they may play them and their super star status is glamorized by much of time how much negative press they receive. As long as there is an appetite for this in the publics tummy the writers will write and the films will be made. Keeping that “positive” cash flow in the “negative”! Positively speaking of course!

    • Vickie – Judy Garland’s life is so reflective of exactly what I had in mind when I wrote this post. She had so many challenges in her life. Some she brought on herself, and some she didn’t Either way it made for tragedy. And A Star is Born does chronicle that kind of thing very well doesn’t it?
      I think one of the most telling points you make is that someone has to be interested in the details about stars’ lives, because if it wasn’t profitable, the media wouldn’t play it up. As it is though, there is a real appetite for celebrity doings. And it’s interesting how people are just as ghoulishly interested in the tragedies, mistakes and so on that happen to stars as they are in the good things and successes.

  14. kathy d.

    J.K. Rowling/Richard Galbraith’s novel The Cuckoo’s Calling goes behind the world of the rich and famous when its protagonist, Cormoran Strike, investigates the murder of a supermodel. The facade of the glamorous life is taken down and the world of drugs, superficial human relations, opulent wealth and extravagant expenses are exposed.
    It’s always interesting to see how writers use the world of celebrity in which to place their murders and investigations.
    Extremely sad about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death; a loss of a brilliant, talented actor and also the father of three young children, which makes it ever sadder. The drug epidemic among the rich and famous is a crisis to be dealt with seriously.
    And last, but not least, the photo of Kerrie and Bob is so nice. How fortunate that you were able to spend time with one of the best crime fiction bloggers ever.

    • Kathy – Kerrie is indeed a fabulous blogger and she and her husband are terrific people too. Thanks for mentioning The Cuckoo’s Calling. That’s one I’ve not (yet) read, but it certainly shows how the surface-level life of a famous person can mask a lot. You’re right too about the prevalence of drug use among Hollywood types. Not all of them of course, but it seems to be take so many Hollywood lives. That’s an interesting (and extremely sad) psychological phenomenon in and of itself.

  15. Col

    Nothing much to add, only than I loved the Crais book when I read iy last year.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s