REVIEW: Scandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly
“You shall never have a penny of my money. Leave me alone or I will shoot you dead!”
1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow Emma Blackstone has come to love her new employer, glamourous movie-star Kitty Flint – even if her late husband’s sister is one of the worst actresses she’s ever seen. Looking after Kitty and her three adorable Pekinese dogs isn’t work Emma dreamed of, but Kitty rescued her when she was all alone in the world. Now, the worst thing academically-minded Emma has to worry about is the shocking historical inaccuracies of the films Kitty stars in.
Until, that is, Rex Festraw – Kitty’s first husband, to whom she may or may not still be married – turns up dead in her dressing room, a threatening letter seemingly from Kitty in his pocket.
Emma’s certain her flighty but kind-hearted sister-in-law has been framed. But who by? And why? From spiteful rivals to jealous boyfriends, the suspects are numerous. But as Emma investigates, she begins to untangle a deadly plot – and there’s something Kitty’s not telling her . . .
CW – one anti-Jewish slur is recounted that a villain said. Past sexual abuse against a tertiary character is mentioned. Past domestic violence is briefly hinted at.
Dear Ms. Hambly,
Ever since I read and adored “Bride of the Rat God, I’ve hoped you’d revisit this time, this place, and this set of characters. To my delight, last year I discovered that Castle of Horror, a follow up novella was available. But still I yearned for more. Now, I’ve got more.
I will admit when I saw this arc was available and read “1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow …” I jumped to request it, not bothering to read more of the blurb than this. It was clearly going to be some kind of sequel to “Bride,” it was by you, and that’s all I needed to know. There was squealing and, yes it’s true, Kermit arm flailing in my house when I got the notification that I’d been approved. When I began to read it, I noticed immediately that something was slightly off. The names had (almost) all been changed and there wasn’t a trace of anything supernatural. Hmmm, okay. The characters were obviously the same as in “Bride” but … under new management? Well, I didn’t waste too much time on it but settled in to read.
Once again the Golden Age of Hollywood comes to life as dutiful Emma looks after her sister-in-law’s darling and pampered Pekes – Buttercreme, Chang Ming, and Black Jasmine. Along with that, Emma picks up after Kitty, helps rewrite scenes needed for the constant changes to the films Kitty stars in, has a budding romance with cameraman Zal Rokatansky, and still (at times) dreams of the life and family she lost in England due to the war and influenza. It’s not that Emma doesn’t love her sister-in-law (flighty and slightly self-centered though Kitty may be) and find Hollywood bizarrely fascinating but at times she desperately misses what she knew and feeling totally at home. She is still a bit of a stranger in a strange land.
When someone from Kitty’s past appears who could blackmail Kitty (after all, he knows how old Kitty really is) while the American public is voting for which actress will be named Screen Stories’ “Goddess of the Silver Screen,” Emma springs into damage control action but not quickly enough to avert what could be a public scandal. Oh wait, we’re talking about Hollywood where studio heads dole out massive bribes to dictate to the police what will be investigated and how.
Suddenly Emma is looking at everyone around Kitty with suspicion. Lots of people might have a reason they’d be happy to see Kitty – sorry, Miss Camille de la Rose – toppled as a fan favorite … or worse. As clues and suspects pile up, nothing quite fits together. Elaborate care was taken and much money spent to set some things up but then other clues left at a scene were unbelievably clumsy. Emma has managed to get her sister-in-law to stop using (ubiquitous in Hollywood) cocaine but Kitty still slings back bootlegged booze. Yet a well mannered, silk-suited (though clearly from his accent raised in the poorer section of Brooklyn) businessman who specializes in supplying imported liquor denies any reason to want Kitty arrested. And there’s something that Kitty refuses to disclose despite the fact that it involves the time frame during which the murder took place.
Emma is doing more investigative work than the LAPD and positive that there’s something just beyond the “sight line” (the cut off point on a film stage that the camera won’t cover) that she’s missing. She’s also wrestling with a sudden chance to regain some of what she lost in England. Is there enough in “Hollywood Babylon” to keep her there or could she turn her back on Kitty, not knowing who is behind a murder?
After finishing this book I would love to have seen Hollywood in its silent screen heyday. It’s not just the wild antics of the film stars who were paid enormous salaries but also under tremendous pressure that would be fun to watch. It’s also glimpsing the little pockets of suburbanization still surrounded by orange groves and bean fields which smell of dust and sage. I want to see the sleek Packards and Pierce Arrows, gorgeous beaded dresses, homes with telephone niches, trolley cars, and lunch counters with blue plate specials and wooden phone booths at the end.
Emma’s impeccable manners as well as her early training in the classics by her father stand her in good stead as she deals with gangsters and potential witnesses all while trying to slide all the puzzle pieces into place and make sense of what she knows. I was happy to see Emma’s grief for her past life and family gently blended into her character. Kitty might not be able to act her way out of a paper bag but there’s no denying she’s got “It” – that magical quality that lights up a screen – as well as a fine sense of which actresses in the film are after her job. But the dark places of Kitty’s past still haunt her at times. Zal is a quiet presence ready to set up camera angles as well as rush to Emma’s aid yet still not press her for more. Though a fantastic beta hero, I’d like to see him be a bit more assertive in the future. The pekes are – well they’re Pekinese and described to a “T” as to how they act, think (food!) and move. I was so glad that they, at least, retained their names.
The investigation proceeds in a mannered pace with clues being gathered and events taking place but nothing gets Pointed Out or Hammered Home. Everything needed to discover who dunnit and why is included but astute readers will have to pay close attention. I will freely admit that as the plot rounded the turn for home and began racing down the backstretch, I still hadn’t quite grasped the solution. Yet when Emma began to put it all together, I thought “Of course! It all makes sense.” And yay that there’s nothing Out of the Blue or any villain monologuing required to understand motives. Whew.
I do hope that there will be further adventures for Emma, Zal, Kitty, and the Pekes – among others as I had a blast revisiting them (despite the new names) and this fascinating era of silent movie making when actors could say anything while filming since title cards conveyed what was (supposedly) being said.
‘Get the fuck out of my dungeon, bitch!’ shouted the saintly Christian Demetrius, wrenching at his bonds, and Valerna raised her hands like claws.
‘Fool!’ she cried. ‘I’m going to screw you senseless!’
The title cards for this interchange, Emma recalled, would read: “Begone, harlot!” And “Yield to the embraces of the Goddess of Love!”
One can only hope there are no lip-readers in the audience …
There are also several wonderful new characters such as Madge Burdon, the director of Kitty’s current picture “Temptress of Babylon” who gives on point stage directions to her actors.
“All right, you guys,’ yelled Madge. ‘Remember you’re pagans! You hate these goddam Christians! They tried to murder the empress who’s frikkin’ paying you! She gets killed, and you’ll all be suckin’ sidewalk!”
Given the hedonism abounding and opportunities for Emma to discover more than a corrupt police force can, I have my fingers crossed. B+