REVIEW: The Last Embrace by Denise Hamilton
Dear Ms. Hamilton,
The “noir” style seems to be hot right now. Or maybe I’ve just stumbled across a few lately. The title of your latest book, “The Last Embrace,” certainly fits the profile being both slightly sexual and slightly dangerous. Not having read many of the classic authors of the style, I had to do a little research to briefly familiarize myself with the subgenre.
Dreamlike, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel – yep got ’em. Much of the action occurs at night, or in the shadows or surrounded by fog and the Santa Ana winds. The dream factory of Hollywood fame and fortune was an inspired choice that covers the beauty of the wannabe starlets, the strangeness of the world they willingly step into to follow their ambitions and the sexual favors sometimes traded to get a big break. Mysteries that remain unsolved for the reader until the end by necessity need red herrings to maintain the uncertainty of who did the crime. And the heartless people in charge of making the fantasies watched on movie screens was well established by then.
I like how you took an actual unsolved case and blurred the details enough to make it fit your book. I’d never heard of Jean Spangler before but did know of the other infamous murder case you had the female characters talk about in reference to their safety – the Black Dahlia. I can well imagine that the details of that one would still be front and center in the mind of any woman in the area.
As well, the prevailing post war attitude towards women is explored in the reactions of the male characters towards Lily. Okay, she had her uses in the war but that’s over now and it’s time for her to return to her natural place in the secretarial pool or better yet, get married and pregnant. The aspiring actresses who lived with the murder victim don’t welcome her as a rival, the cops are annoyed that she won’t stop sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong and the studio people look at her as a doable dame first and never mind if she has any brains.
Lily’s promise to her dead fiance’s mother to find her missing daughter seemed like it was going to be a piece of cake. After all, Lily survived the black nightmare of war in Europe. How dangerous can her hometown of LA be? I liked that you show us the LA Lily knew as well as the new, expanding place it’s becoming in the suburbia boom. The freeway sprawl isn’t there yet but the signs all point to what will be.
One of the things that interested me in this book was the fact that Lily had been a spy. Here was a way for the heroine to be believably strong and historically correct. But I have to say that Lily’s OSS techniques must have lapsed a bit since she got back from Europe. People sneak up on her (at boarding house and the studio) and catch her at things (eavesdropping and talking on the phone). She gets riled into revealing personal information about herself and the case. She doesn’t always have a cover story. For all the details mentioned about how good she was at this during the war, she slips up a lot. I hated the point where Lily decides she “just knows” she can trust a certain person. Then I laughed when she discovered maybe she couldn’t. And her vaunted skill at deciding who to believe plays her false at the end.
The different points of view add to what we know about the case and the people. Yet, by the end, I found the number to be disconcerting. Also there were a few changes made in the middle of scenes with no cutaway, breaks or other indication of the switch. I’ve seen this before and though it annoyed me then as now, with most of the other books, I could immediately tell the switch had been done. Here I read a few lines still thinking I was in one character’s head only to get confused until it was clear what had happened.
The setting (post WWII) Hollywood was another factor that attracted me to the book. Yeah, I enjoyed “LA Confidential.” The attention detail is great and for the most part adds tremendously to the book. However, some of the information was awkwardly inserted and felt clunky. There were some scenes that, though interesting, added little to the plot and felt out of place. I would end them wondering why you had included them, what was the reason for them and how soon would the action get back to something that mattered.
The dialogue for certain characters, especially the gangsters, felt like something from a bad Hollywood script. Perhaps that’s exactly what you intended. Or maybe it was done for humor. The last new person in the story couldn’t have sounded more like she’d just fallen off a turnip truck if we’d seen the event actually occur. The differences in the way these characters spoke did set them apart but in a too jarring fashion. I was also annoyed by the repeated use of telling instead of actual dialogue. Again, it ended up feeling stiff and awkward.
Lily comes back from postwar Europe first to the American Heartland then out to LA. This is her hometown and of course she feels more at ease here because of that. You made a point of mentioning it in the post book stuff. Plus the contrast to her of what seems like sunny, safe LA and the war torn places in which she’d risked her life. At the beginning she has no reason to fear for her safety. She goes where she wants, speaks to whomever she wants and, beyond the precautions all women take, she acts normally. But soon, that carefree assumption is challenged. Shadows are now where there was sunshine, danger obviously lurks when the bodies begin to pile up. Yet Lily heads off into what could be dangerous situations with blatant disregard. She thinks it could be suspicious, she knows a killer is out there, she doesn’t know some of the people she follows or buildings that she’s going to enter but by God she goes right on in. More than once, I muttered, “You idiot!” under my breath.
Why did we get all the stuff about Pico’s grandfather and why was it so drawn out? You told us about the same amount of information on Lily’s past yet managed to do it in 2 pages, which was plenty. What was the point of showing Magruder and the chicken? What gives with that? You had already ensured that I disliked the man enough without that sequence of scenes.
There was one scene that was just so deus ex machina to me yet I found myself laughing out loud at the way Lily handled the young man involved and used the growing “Red” scare to avoid too many questions. Poor Bob, I bet he dined out for years on his tale of thwarting the Russian spies.
You deluged us with tons of red herrings and deliberate missteps. By the end, I wasn’t sure what to believe or who had “dunnit.” But I gotta say that there weren’t huge plot holes. And I like that a lot in a mystery. There was some information not revealed until the end but most of it just seemed to be extending what we did know about certain characters. The ending scenes were great though, real pulse pounding excitement. That’s where I truly saw Lily and her OSS skills in action. Just like Lily, I honestly wasn’t sure who to trust.
“The Last Embrace” finishes with an ambivalent ending. What will happen to Lily and her sometime beau? We see she’s going to stay in LA but doing what, since women aren’t allowed on the LAPD. Are there more stories in ahead for her or will we be left to wonder how she’s going to find her place in this gritty, sunny world? Finally the mention of your Dorothy O’Hara dress caught my eye. And since I love to head off on internet searches, I just had to find some examples. OMG, they’re gorgeous and just the visual image to take from the book. B-