Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Stuart Kaminsky was both prolific and highly influential, particularly among those who read and write PI novels. It’s more than about time this feature included one of his books, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Bullet For a Star, the first of his long-running Toby Peters series.
Peters is a PI in early 1940’s Hollywood (this novel takes place in 1940). He’s a former security officer at Warner Brothers studio, but was fired four years earlier. Still, he’s a known quantity. That’s one reason for which producer Sid Adelman calls him when he discovers that film star Errol Flynn is being blackmailed. Someone apparently has a picture of Flynn with a very young girl and is threatening to release it to the press and public. Adelman doesn’t know if the picture is real or faked, but it’s been decided to pay the blackmailer and get the negative and print as a sort of ‘damage control’ because Flynn is bankable.
Peters agrees to make the exchange, but as he’s doing so, someone attacks him, steals his gun, and shoots the blackmailer. The negative and print are stolen, too. Now, Peters has two major problems. First, he’s a suspect in the blackmailer’s murder, since his gun was used. Second, the negative and print are now missing.
Only a small group of people were aware of the blackmail and of the plan to exchange money for the photograph and negative. This means a relatively small pool of suspects, and Peters starts with those people. As he follows each lead, there’s mounting pressure on him. For one thing, Adelman wants this problem solved quickly. For another, the killer knows that Peters is after the negative and print, and that presents its own dangers. And then there’s the fact that Peters has been linked with the killing. His brother Phil is a police detective, which helps to an extent, but even Phil has his job to do.
As Peters slowly gets to the truth about the photograph, the blackmailing and the murder, he also uncovers some seamy secrets that some of the characters have been keeping. He also learns that several people know more than they’ve told him about what really happened. In the end, though, and after another murder, Peters finds out the truth.
This story takes place mostly in Hollywood, so readers get a real sense of the film world and life at a major studio during those years. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and, of course, Errol Flynn, are just a few of the stars who make appearances in the novel. And I can say without spoiling the story that Peters even gets a call from Judy Garland, who wants him to solve another case. Readers who enjoy films from that era, and who like reading about Hollywood during those years, will be pleased.
That said, though, Kaminsky doesn’t glorify Hollywood. Here, for instance, is what Flynn has to say about himself:
‘‘I am thirty years old and getting very wealthy. I am a product, a voice, a face, a body. I make three or four pictures a year to get as much out of that product as possible before it wears out.’’
There aren’t really any illusions about what the ‘star life’ is like, and that’s in keeping with the novel’s ‘hardboiled’ feel.
Because this is a ‘hardboiled’ PI novel, there’s plenty of violence, and some sex, too. There’s also a car chase, among other things. The story is also ‘hardboiled’ in other ways. The story behind the photograph is not a pleasant one, and the secrets Peters uncovers aren’t any nicer. Several of the characters are not who they seem to be, and there’s more than one who can’t be trusted. The quick pace of the story reflects the ‘hardboiled’ tradition, too.
The physical setting is an important element in the story, too. As Peters follows leads and tracks down information, readers get a sense of the Hollywood section of greater Los Angeles. Peters himself doesn’t live in a rich area, but he spends his share of time in Beverly Hills as well as in more modest sections of town.
Peters himself is the ‘rough and tumble’ kind. He’s been down and out, barely eking out a living as a private detective. Still, he’s neither stupid nor slow. He also has a certain wit. For example, here’s his description of Adelman’s new secretary:
‘Her hair, over her painted eyebrows, was a lacquered, brittle tower of dark yellow. I wondered how she could sleep without breaking it and decided from the blank look on her face that it was probably her biggest worry.’
That wit keeps the story from falling completely into what you’d call the noir category.
Although Peters isn’t exactly what you’d call rich, he does know his job. As he follows the trail, readers get a look at how PIs found out information in the decades before computers. Peters uses his share of telephone books (and public telephones), newspapers and so on. His car gets a workout, too.
The solution to the mystery is a logical one. There is one piece of information, though, that readers don’t learn until later in the story. It isn’t exactly a last-second surprise; at the same time, readers who want all the facts early on will notice this. And one of the final scenes requires a little willingness to put aside disbelief. This is, after all, Hollywood.
Bullet For a Star is a Hollywood story – Hollywood during part of its Golden Era. It takes a cynical and sometimes-witty behind-the-scenes look at life during that time, and features a PI who has no illusions about the people who hire him. He doesn’t really have any about himself, either. But what’s your view? Have you read Bullet For a Star? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 22 February/Tuesday, 23 February – The Lying Down Room – Anna Jaquiery
Monday, 29 February/Tuesday, 1 March – The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty
Monday, 7 March/Tuesday 8 March – A Perfect Match – Jill McGown