As this is posted, it’s 126 years since Thomas Edison built the world’s first film studio. Since that time, of course, films have become integral to many cultures. And the film industry is a lucrative one. Little wonder millions of people dream of being film stars or film executives.
But film sets and film studios are not always the happy, dream-world places they might seem to be. If you look at crime fiction, at least, you find that there’s plenty of mayhem on set. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the disparate (and sometimes clashing) personalities, all of the money involved, and so on.
For instance, Carter Dickson’s (AKA John Dickson Carr) And So to Murder features Pineham Studios, where author Monica Stanton has been hired to work with bestselling author William Cartwright on an adaptation of his latest novel for Albion Films. In the meantime, megastar Frances Fleur is working on her own new film for Albion, so the company has plenty at stake. It’s a dream job for Monica, but things soon go wrong. For one thing, she and Cartwright don’t get along. For another, soon after she starts work, there are two attempts on her life. Why would someone want to kill an up-and-coming novelist who’s just beginning a career as a scriptwriter? Cartwright gets Sir Henry Merrivale involved in the case, and he works out who’s behind it all.
In one of Ellery Queen’s ‘Hollywood’ novels, The Four of Hearts, Queen has been hired to work as a scriptwriter for Magna Studios. The project is to be a biopic of the lives of major stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The couple had a stormy, very public, love affair that ended years ago. They both married other people, and each had a child. At first, the studio isn’t sure that the stars will consent to work on the film, but to everyone’s surprise, they do. In fact, they re-kindle their romance, and decide to marry again. That wasn’t the story that Magna Studios had envisioned, but it’s decided to make the best of the situation and turn the wedding into a Hollywood affair. The couple marry on an airstrip, with great fanfare, and then take off for their honeymoon, with Stuart’s daughter and Royle’s son in tow. When the plan lands, the couple is found dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, it looks as though one of the adult children might be responsible, but Queen looks into the matter and finds that these murders have their roots in the past.
One of Stuart Kaminsky’s series features Los Angeles PI Toby Peters. Before he became a private investigator, Peters worked for a few years as a security guard for Warner Brothers Studio. So, he’s familiar with the way studios work, and he still has several contacts in the film industry. His cases frequently involve Hollywood stars, too. And the historical context (1940s) of the series means that Peters encounters some of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ starts, such as Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, and Peter Lorre.
There’s also B.C. Stone’s Kay Francis novels, Murder at the Belmar and Midnight in Valhalla. These novels feature the famous star as the protagonist. So, readers go ‘behind the scenes’ of what happens on Hollywood sets and within the Hollywood community.
Even if you’re not a star, working on a film set can be dangerous. For example, Michael Connelly’s Lost Light is in part the story of the murder of Angella Barton, who is found murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building. At the time of the murder, LAPD detective Harry Bosch works a little on the case, but isn’t officially assigned to it. Four years later, it still haunts Bosch, but he hasn’t been able to follow up. By that time, though, he’s taken early retirement and started his own PI business. He decides to look into the matter again when he finds that the case wasn’t solved satisfactorily. Bosch learns that this murder is related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. That link allows Bosch to solve the case.
And then there’s Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood. Khan himself has been a Bollywood script writer and actor, and is the son of noted Bollywood star, Amjad Khan. So, he’s familiar with the ins and outs of life in the Bollywood community. In this novel, Nikhil Kapoor, Bollywood’s top director, is found dead in his writing studio. Not many hours later, his wife, famous actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies, of what looks like a tragic drug overdose. There’s pressure to label both of these deaths as accidents, but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan sees little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. With the support of his boss, Khan looks into the matter more deeply. As he does, readers get to know what life is like in a Bollywood studio, and how integrally related that community is into the culture of Mumbai and of India in general.
Studios and film sets have come a long way since Edison’s time. But they’re still fascinating places, and anything can happen on a film set. So, it’s little wonder we see them in crime fiction.
ps. The ‘photo is of a ‘green screen,’ of the sort that’s used in many films.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Yes.