Money, sex, and silent movies

Scandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced murder mystery revolving around a rising starlet and investigated by an English fish-out-of-water.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 240

Series: Silver Screen Mysteries

Publisher: Severn House

Golden Age of Hollywood, the Silent Years

ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher: 1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow Emma Blackstone has come to love her new employer, glamorous 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.

I’ve read Barbara Hambly’s books since the 80’s, so I was thrilled to see that she has started a new series set in pre-sound Hollywood. Her fictional biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, The Emancipator’s Wife, is one I’ve recommended repeatedly, but it’s a much more serious book than this frothy and fun Hollywood mystery. Apparently Bride of the Rat God (one of Hambly’s novels I hadn’t read) has many of the same features (the dogs and the British war widow, same time period, but different names), but I can’t speak to how much overlap there is between the two.

Although the Hays Code wouldn’t come about until 1934, the specter of censorship and scandal were haunting actors in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle trial. The studios weren’t quite as affected in that all publicity was good publicity. So when the (former?) husband of Camille de la Rose, née Kitty Flint, is found shot dead in her trailer, her burgeoning career is threatened, even if she is oblivious to that threat, and her assistant, Emma Blackstone, is determined to clear her name.

The writing is clear and crisp, and the pace fast. Hambly’s ability to sketch memorable characters is at the fore, and there’s never a point where I had to suspend disbelief because of an improbable plot turn—she always does a great job of setting the groundwork so that the turns seem reasonable in the context of the story world. The characters are so believable that I had to double-check that they were all fictional (there is a Foremost Productions, but it wasn’t started until 1990). The larger context of the period, though, is dead on; every time I had a “wait a minute, is that right?” moment, Hambly had her facts in a row.

Her months in Hollywood had given her a front row seat on an astounding display of the misuse of power, and there far worse things to spend money on than fountains of bootleg champagne at one’s parties or solid gold door-handles for one’s car.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

And that accuracy is pretty important in that there is a delightful running commentary about the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood. The protagonist, Emma Blackstone, is fluent in Latin and perhaps Greek as well, having gone to Oxford and assisted her father’s research. (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a classical Greek quotation in a light-hearted murder mystery.) As a historical fiction reader who is also a fan of straight history, it tickled me to have the character roll her eyes at the Queen of Babylon going to Rome as it did in the script being filmed in the background of the story.

A wrangler passed across the square, leading four horses in what Hollywood fondly believed to be Roman saddles (meaning blankets strapped over English saddles, with anachronistic stirrups visibly dangling).

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Moreover, Emma Blackstone works well as the voice of the story, told in a close third person, as she’s not really a part of the Hollywood scene, smart enough to be useful, and open-minded enough to accept differences without losing sight of how those differences would play in Oxford. Zal Rokatansky, cameraman and love interest, is the kind of reliable, kind man that everyone needs in their life, and I was delighted to have a couple where the woman was taller than the man. The height difference is noted, but it’s not an issue, which is charming.

Zal was teaching her to wield chopsticks, one of several skills—along with mixing cocktails and tallying baseball scores—which she had not expected to learn in America.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Then there’s the ditzy Kitty Flint, sister of Blackstone’s deceased husband, who is juggling men left and right, including the rather intimidating studio chief Frank Pugh and the wealthy Ambrose Crain. Kitty is one of those people you become fond of despite yourself, as she can be thoughtless and self-absorbed, but she has a generous and kind streak that redeems her.

“But would any of them,” pursued Emma, “Actually kill a man to get you out of the way”

“Gloria Swanson,” replied Kitty promptly, “would kill a man who beat her to a taxi-cab.”

“Don’t be silly, Kitty,” put in Zal. “Swanson never takes taxis.”

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

The minor characters are fun too, particularly the foul-mouthed director Madge Burdon and the polite bootlegger Tony Cornero. Each character introduced feels well-developed and authentic rather then just fulfilling a plot point, from the Hedda Hopper type and the jealous actress trying to climb to the top over Kitty’s back.

Well, I suppose if Odysseus could get information by giving libations to the spirits in Hell, it’s no surprise it works here as well.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Readers of cozy mysteries will probably enjoy this as long as they don’t have an issue with salty language; that’s the only thing that made me rate this an R, as there was nothing particularly gory or oppressive about the novel.

His glance was like a smiling kiss, and her eyes received it like one, before she hurried down the thirty marble steps to the 2000 square feet of laboriously imported sand.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Scandal in Babylon forecasts a wonderful series from Hambly, and I can’t wait to see these characters again!

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