Friday, June 17, 2016

Black Is the Fashion for Dying (Jonathan Latimer, 1959)

Starts very promising. Without going into details, let me just quote the ending of the first chapter:

"A choking sound rose from his throat. Outside of a silver crucifix, suspended between two firm, pink-tipped breasts, Miss Omaha was stark naked."

Naked babes, Hollywood... oh yeah - bring it on!

But then it just starts to build up a classical whodunit. Page after page of a pretty monotone narrative is spent on establishing the cast, the setup and our first victim. But with not exactly subtle hints like "“...that’s Hollywood’s favorite pastime...planning how to kill Caresse", it's not much of a surprise when poor Caresse is killed. True to the formula, murder happens on a set during a movie shoot, and again we can see it happening a few pages beforehand (a bit naive stuff with pistols and bullets as the props). But just in case we still didn't get it, Mr Latimer reminds us that we are now in a locked-room type of a mystery:

“You know those locked-room murders they’re always putting in books?”
They nodded again.
“Well, this baby, if something don’t give, could make all of ’em look like kindergarten riddles.”

Oh, well. I nothing against the good old fashioned mystery every once in a while. Only this one turns into an amateur detective type which is really not my cup of tea. And to make matters worse, it turns into two(!) amateur detectives type with Gordon directing Blake from his hospital bed, so the damn thing becomes reminiscent of Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin cosy mystery. To make it an even bigger mess, a bit of The Fugitive is thrown in. For no good (or at least credible) reason, our amateur sleuth #1 decides to run and hide from the police chase only to appear the next day in a big surprise (huh) revelation scene that takes place nowhere else but at the Oscar awards ceremony! I kid you fucking not. So much for that famous "warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse" search. But then again - cops don't play any significant role in this one. They are just observers of the "backward school of detection" method copyrighted by Gordon and practised by Blake.

Wanted to like this one so Mr Latimer would have a more favourable opening entry on this blog but was struggling to get over the line. It just dragged on and on... Not noir-ish, not hard-boiled, not even decently suspenseful. It felt like all the effort was spent creating an authentic H'Wood novel with a convincing atmosphere around the movie-making industry and its eccentric people. And that aspect definitely works well, but unfortunately, it is the only one that works.

And one last thing before I finish. You wonder what happened to that naked beauty from the opening chapter? Hate to disappoint you, but nothing much really - she disappears and is later found dead. Turns out that her sole purpose was to distract our writer hero so that the bad guy could sneak into his house to take a peek at the scene he had just written... Surely there are easier ways to get a dude away from his typewriter for a minute?



From the "Cast of Characters" section:

Richard Blake—An up-and-coming young Hollywood writer, he worked hard to revise the ending of his script, but it didn’t come off exactly as he’d planned

Josh Gordon—A quick-witted, outspoken young director, he was forced to improvise and he managed to supply a most unexpected ending


Body count
A bit hard to do a proper count. Definitely a couple that I have already mentioned, which, together with a culprit's death, makes it 3. There's also a poet (and occasional screenplay writer) who died in the past (but it's not explained whether it was a violent death) and an actor who committed suicide. Irene, too is excluded from the grand total since she only dies momentarily when hearing some shocking news over the phone ("The phone was dead. And so was she.")

Object of desire: 
Some ledgers proving that Fabro stole his Oscar-winning screenplay. 

Mysterious blonde looking "like a child playing grown-up in her mother’s clothes":
About as cute as they came. A real doll, but probably older than she looked. They were almost always older than they looked.

And of course, Caresse: "...conniving, murderous, lying bitch, a jet-age Lucretia Borgia.":
Forty-five, if she was a day. A star for nearly thirty years. Five marriages, a telephone book of lovers, scandals, disasters, triumphs, and she still made carhops of the Mansfields and Monroes.

Hot metal grazed his head. Back of his eyes a skyrocket exploded, sent out millions of red stars. The stars flew upwards, became dancing motes of pinkish light that vanished into outer space. Something soft pressed his cheek. It was the rug. 

Caresse's last lines of the "Tiger in the Night".


The eBook comes with a pretty dull cover, so I took one of the old paperbacks. Not sure about its author.

Cool lines
It was going to be one of those days when it hailed frogs in Nebraska, when bats committed wholesale suicide against the Empire State Building, when a five-year-old in Peru gave birth to a three-headed baby.

“She’s really dead?”
“Even deader than her last picture.”

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