Many 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.
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.