REVIEW: One Extra Corpse by Barbara Hambly
May, 1924. It’s been seven months since young British widow Emma Blackstone arrived in Hollywood to serve as companion to Kitty Flint: her beautiful, silent-movie star sister-in-law. Kitty is generous, kind-hearted . . . and a truly terrible actress. Not that Emma minds; she’s too busy making her academic parents turn in their graves with her new job writing painfully historically inaccurate scenarios for Foremost Studios, in between wrangling their leading lady out of the arms of her army of amorous suitors.
So when one of Kitty’s old flames, renowned film director Ernst Zapolya, calls Emma and tells her it’s imperative he meet with Kitty that morning, she’s not surprised. Until, that is, he adds that lives depend on it. Ernst sounds frightened. But what can have scared him so badly – and what on earth does cheerful, flighty Kitty have to do with it?
Only Ernst can provide the answers, and Kitty and Emma travel to the set of his extravagant new movie to find them. But the shocking discovery they make there only raises further questions . . . including: will they stay alive long enough to solve the murderous puzzle?
Dear Ms. Hambly,
Though I still miss the WTH fun of “Bride of the Rat God,” I’m just happy that there is more of Emma, Zal, and the dazzling and irrepressible Kitty being dragged into solving murders again as they did in “Scandal in Babylon” while they make silent movies in Hollywood.
Widow Emma Blackstone, whose sister-in-law the famous Hollywood actress (who really can’t act but who films beautifully) whisked her from drudgery in England after her family died of the Spanish Flu and away to golden sunlit California, is now writing scenes for movies while also taking care of Kitty and her three Pekinese dogs. Emma has met a man who is slowly awakening her heart, cameraman Zal Rokatansky. (Anyone looking for a shorter hero/taller heroine pairing need look no further).
A major director calls, begging Emma to get Kitty over to his studio that morning but by the time the two women arrive, it’s too late to discover what he needed to tell Kitty. Then after someone ends up dead, a terrified actress from the set tells the two that she’s afraid she’s going to be pinned with the blame for something she didn’t do. Then Emma notices that she’s being followed, the house has been searched, and she and Kitty might not survive long if they don’t find out what’s going on.
There’s a lot going on in the book. Emma is being wooed for a “lavender marriage” to cover the romance of a pair of Hollywood stars. Kitty is her usual ebullient self – filming all day and partying all night with Hollywood elite at glamorous places. Emma is trying to fit in rewriting scenes – having given up getting the director to realize that Julius Caesar couldn’t fight a tiger in Britain to save a young Christian girl as tigers weren’t native there and Jesus Christ wouldn’t be born until decades after Caesar was murdered – while also taking care of Black Jasmine, Buttercreme, and Chang Ming, and hauling all of Kitty’s necessities to the studio while fighting off an actor who won’t take “no” for an answer.
“You should have seen old Seth’s face when Darlene Golden told him you’d left the lot ten minutes after you said you’d “be right up”.’ Harry Garfield grasped Kitty’s hands, stared with frantic yearning into her eyes.
Kitty turned her face aside, sobbed, ‘Served the putz right for making a pass at poor Emma.’
He laid a gentle hand to her cheek, drew her gaze tenderly back to his. ‘What a chiseler!’
‘CUT!’ Larry Palmer yelled.
If anyone in Hollywood had ever heard of the Fourth Commandment, Emma reflected, they probably thought it referred to a film by Cecil B. DeMille.
There is a lot of description in the book. Places, people, how to film movies, how to get casting directors and directors to notice you if you’re a young aspiring actor – things really haven’t changed much about that part. This is also before Humane Societies, stunt coordinators, and special effects directors began overseeing filming to try and ensure that no one was harmed – because if real bullets and explosives made a scene look better, the real things would be used. Learning more about old Hollywood in the Golden Era is something I find fascinating and also horrifying. Need to keep your actors going for 18 hours of filming a day – dust the snack peanuts with cocaine. What do actors use to relax after that schedule – lots of bootleg booze and don’t worry about the cops as they’ve been paid off to allow the bootleggers to bring it in by boat. If extras have been injured or killed while filming a scene, pay ’em off and if anyone objects to working conditions, then label them Reds and Commies.
As (from the time mentioned in the blurb) only a month has elapsed since the events of “Babylon,” it’s not surprising that Emma still has a bit of “fish out of water” reactions to Hollywood and the movie studios while still missing bits and pieces of her old life in Oxford. She’s clever enough to hit upon a means to get away from the rapey actor and then devise some subtle revenge on him that has director Madge Burdon skipping with glee. Actual Hollywood actors and directors are “bit players” in the book but not just to shoehorn in famous names. Erich von Stroheim’s legendary budget issues and dictatorial directing style and a glamorous party at Pickfair (they always have the best food) serve a purpose in the plot.
“Is there a way we can delay the filming?’ asked Emma. She looked uncertainly from Kitty to Zal, visions of poisoned cameramen and Graustarkian sets in flames. (Honestly, this is what I need to be writing a scenario for, not some silly romance between Julius Caesar and a virtuous Trinovante maiden.)
‘Sure,’ said Zal cheerfully. ‘At that party tomorrow night, get hold of Willa Jesperson and convince her to get Lou to hire Erich von Stroheim to replace Zapolya as director. Goldwyn’s just merged with Metro and Louis Mayer’s outfit, and the new production chief pulled Stroheim off Greed, that he’s been working on for a year and a half. And he’s big prestige, and one of the top directors in the business. He’s also a twenty-four-karat guarantee that any production he works on is going to run months over schedule. That should give us all kinds of time to point the cops at whoever really pulled the trigger.”
Similarly to the murder mystery in “Babylon,” the clues and characters behind the killing are carefully doled out, plot threads are deftly woven in, and everything is lightly hinted at rather than used to beat readers over the head. The Reason behind the call to Kitty which sets everything off makes sense. Emma’s attempt to put together what she knows happens gradually and naturally. The final conflict is a humdinger and once again involves a businessman who specializes in supplying imported liquor with an added character who can’t resist Tootsie Rolls. Plus there are Black Jasmine, Buttercreme, and Chang Ming who will defend those they love, bark ferociously at those they suspect, and attempt to cage treats and belly rubs from just about everyone. B+
I had no idea there were more books after BRIDE OF THE RAT GOD. What great news! Thanks for the review, Jayne.
@Darlynne: Yes! The first one came out last year. Be prepared for different names for the same characters – except for the dogs. And no weird paranormal stuff.
I love Bride of the Rat God. But yikes… ebook is $19!!!
@Sandra: I’m seeing $14.99 at Amazon. Still not cheap though.
@Jayne: This was at B&N. $12.99-$14.99 seems to be the new normal for ebooks accompanying new hardcover releases. Still way too high for me. But $18.99 is ridiculous.
@Sandra: Unfortunately, this publisher usually prices new releases a bit higher. I remember when $3.99-4.99 was the usual for a new release. Sigh …
I know Zal is basically the same character as Alec, but for some reason, I don’t love him as much. I did really like the much greater insight into the less glamorous aspects of Kitty’s past in this one.
@Etv13: Zal does seem to have changed but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Less page time?
Well I think this book makes it clear that the casting couch – or desk – has been a staple in Hollywood for over a century.
@Sandra: Good news. If you have access to Hoopla through your library, all three books – Bride of the Rat God, Scandal in Babylon, and One Extra Corpse – are there.