Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book review: Silent Murders by Mary Miley, a mystery of '20s Hollywood

Mary Miley’s smart and snappy follow-up to The Impersonator draws readers back to the glory days of America’s silent film industry, when attractive starlets dreamed of their big break, illicit booze flowed freely at exclusive gatherings, almost everyone in the business feared the coming of “talkies,” and, as the observant heroine Jessie Beckett tells us, “no one but cactuses lived in remote Beverly Hills.”

In 1925, America’s blonde and petite sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and her debonair husband Douglas Fairbanks reign as queen and king of Hollywood at their jointly run studio and at their Tudor-style mansion known as Pickfair. Having wrapped up her role as a rich heiress, as told in Miley’s previous book, Jessie aims to make a new start by taking on her former character’s name for real and relocating to L.A. She can hardly believe it when she, a mere script girl, gets asked to step in as Fairbanks’ assistant and when famed director Bruno Heilmann invites her to a party (as a guest, to her amazement, not as hired help).

When Heilmann and an old friend of Jessie’s mother are found murdered the morning after in their homes, though, Jessie gets nervous. The victims have little in common besides the party and Jessie herself, but maybe they share a killer as well. Fairbanks knows that in these difficult years following the Fatty Arbuckle incident, the industry may not survive another morality scandal, so Jessie gets asked to do damage control – which leads to yet more trouble.

This is more of a traditional mystery than The Impersonator, since it lacks the suspenseful dread of discovery that Jessie endured throughout that novel. That said, there’s little that's traditional about Jessie herself, much as she’d like to pretend otherwise. Having grown up in vaudeville, her street-smarts and creative talent for deception are part of who she is. Her saucy narrative voice makes her good company, and there are two men who’d definitely agree with that – one a perceptive WWI vet who may be that rarity in corrupt L.A., an honest policeman, and the other an old flame from Portland who’s Jessie’s match in deceit and then some.

It all makes for fun entertainment, one with well-integrated appearances by both familiar and lesser-known names from the era, like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford’s two high-maintenance siblings, newcomer Gary Cooper, and his former Montana neighbor-turned-Hollywood-ingénue, Jessie’s good friend Myrna Loy.

Silent Murders was published this week by Minotaur in hardcover ($25.99/C$29.99, 311pp, incl. historical note).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.


  1. Anonymous9:28 AM

    This sounds like something I would enjoy, but will I be lost
    not having read "The Impersonator"?
    Thanks for the great review!

    1. It's possible to start with this one - it doesn't give away the solution to the first book - but I'd recommend reading The Impersonator first to learn more about Jessie and, especially, the background to her complicated relationship with the fellow she met back in Oregon.

  2. Oh I'm so jealous! I read book one and loved it. Looking forward to this one.

    1. It's a lot of fun, especially if you love the '20s (which has become my new favorite era).

  3. Kaley Arnould6:16 PM

    This book sounds really cool! Normally I don't gravitate to historical novels but the plot seems really interesting. Thanks for the review.

  4. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Thanks for the review! This novel looks really intriguing, although I think I will start with "The Impersonator", just to get the full effect of "Silent Murder".