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!

A tale of three orphans

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow two generations of orphans through their struggles, particularly two numerate women.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Late 19th/early 20th century

Giveaway: Enter to win a paperback copy of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 31st. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Australia, 1906. Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship— having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.

From a Liverpool workhouse to an Australian orphanage, and from a gold rush town to a solid municipality, this tale of three orphans brings in trauma, history, mystery, and social commentary, all within gripping and fast-moving prose. Tea Cooper’s writing illuminates and penetrates, and the plot is well-conceived.

From the water, Sydney didn’t look like much. A small, ugly town, surrounded by barren sandy coves, the trees—short and stunted—clinging to the rocks.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The three orphans are a brother and sister, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn (originally Ó Coinn), and a girl they foster, Jane Piper. Their stories are told in tandem, beginning in 1906 with nine-year-old Jane at the Maitland orphanage, whose life is covered for around a decade. The second thread covers the 1860s to 1870s, with the Quinn’s emigration from England through their life in frontier Bathurst and then to sedate Maitland.

Acumen? What was an acumen? Another A word. She hadn’t had time to look up aptitude and accountant yet, and now she had to remember acumen.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

There’s not a lot of discussion of the traumas of their disrupted families, but it’s evident in the way the characters act. Michael and Elizabeth are deliberate in their patronage of the orphanage and of individual orphans, which I read as a tacit understanding of the difficulties those young people would face. Watching the mentoring is more effective than a discussion of it.

Jane discovered there was a whole lot more to arithmetic than she thought. But most fascinating of all was Elizabeth’s abacus. Why didn’t everyone use one?

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Cooper also shows the early maturity of these kids, having the responsibility for their own survival thrust upon them early in life. It’s alway surprising to me to remember that kids in other times and/or other places have had to take on so much more than the ones in my life (or that I was).

Michael scrubbed Father MacCormick’s large white handkerchief across his face, drew in several slow breaths, and tried to remember he was a man.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Be prepared, though, if you’re sensitive: there are some fairly detailed depictions of PTSD as well. I’m not a mental health professional, but they match up to the things I’ve had psychiatrists describe (and articles out there on it). Although no one was calling it that back then, there had to be some recognition of the symptoms.

In the corner of the room, in a damp-smelling space between two cabinets, a figure huddled, knees drawn up to her chest, her hands cradling her bent head as though protecting it.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Issues of class, social norms, bigotry, and sexism are all raised by the plot and characters. In particular, both Elizabeth and Jane are numerate and trusted with accounting, which they both recognize is unusual for their sex, and Michael’s attitudes toward their abilities is contrasted by other characters, again, illuminating by example rather than discourse. Overall, the various social issues are handled sensitively.

Angry, red swollen blisters peppered her skin. His words dried in his throat. By all that was holy, something wasn’t right, and he’d be finding out what it was.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

I loved all three of these characters. Watching all of them grow and handle the challenges of their sundry lives was a pleasure. I wondered if Cooper was trying to portray Jane as neurodiverse, possibly on the spectrum, but in the historical context, no one would have termed it that way, and I’d be interested to hear if people from that community read her that way.

Numbers had a practicality, a definitive no-nonsense, no-alternatives, no-misinterpretations, black-and-white reality. She always found a certain security and comfort in the neatly lined-up columns and rows of the account ledgers.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The minor characters were also well done—the endlessly catty fellow orphan, the town gossip, the villain…well, he was a little mustache-twirly, but I enjoyed it. The backdrop of Australian history is nicely integrated as well. Despite the fact that Thomas Nelson is publishing this novel, there’s no overt Christianity aside from the cultural Catholicism of the Irish-born Quinns.

It wasn’t only Michael who disapproved of her friendship with Jing. Mr. Li thought her as much of an infidel as people believed the Celestials to be.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Tea Cooper gives a masterclass in The Girl in the Painting about how to “show rather than tell” works, and it will definitely be a book I’ll be recommending and re-reading for a long time.


The making of the Queen of Mystery

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read a solution to the historical mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

WWI and Interwar Period

From the publisher: In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her World War I veteran husband and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.

David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for 25 years, presciently expressed how I feel about this book in the 2014 documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie:

When I first heard about Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, I immediately flashed back to a different documentary, which I cannot now find. I couldn’t remember any of the details except that Agatha Christie had disappeared for a short period of time, and that it had never satisfactorily been explained. This wonderful novel gives the explanation I craved; whether it is truly the reason why is irrelevant, because it’s great storytelling. (And much better than the Doctor Who version, although I enjoyed it at the time.)(Warning: Possible spoilers.)

The first section of the book is split between past and the present of 1926, with the past being first person from Agatha Christie, and the present being a third person close from her husband’s POV. The technique works very well, with the past informing the present. Although the chapters from the past have the title “Manuscript” on each, it wasn’t until I reached the second part of the book that I realized those sections were supposed to be from a manuscript written by Christie.

In truth, the only time I felt like myself was when I was writing. No matter how I tried to anticipate his needs, I couldn’t please Archie, and all the qualities he used to admire—my spontaneity, my love of drama and adventure, and my desire to discuss feelings and events with him—now irritated him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Both Agatha and Archie are well drawn, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how WWI changed Archie’s personality. It’s implied that he suffers from PTSD, not exactly a reach for a man who served in combat (as evidenced by the award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1918). PTSD can cause longterm personality changes, but I would have liked a little more explicit discussion of that process. Perhaps any overt mention was omitted to avoid making him sympathetic; he isn’t very.

Archie walks alone, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to link hands with these regular folks, not in his current predicament.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

One of the factors that comes between them, it seems, is the difference in class. Agatha went to finishing school in France and is well-schooled in the etiquette of the upper class. It’s not exactly clear what Archie’s status is, but he is shown to flagrantly violate the established norms early on in the relationship. What is crystal clear that Agatha’s mother thinks Archie is a terrible match for Agatha.

No matter what happened in the future, I didn’t want her disliking Archie any more than she already did. And nothing had more significance to Mummy than a man acting like a gentleman and a woman acting her part as a lady in turn.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The other characters in the story are also memorable. Agatha’s mother, the investigator Kenward, their daughter Rosalind, Agatha’s sister Madge, and Rosalind’s nanny (and Agatha’s part time secretary) Charlotte each contribute to the story line and are easy to imagine. The interaction of Agatha with all of these characters, and her husband, as well as the lingering remembrance of financial woes when her father died, move Agatha inexorably to being the author of legend.

Madge exhaled cigarette smoke as she reclined on the sofa even further, ever assuming the pose of the confident older sister and first daughter.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

A couple of themes in the book that I quite liked were that of what are the duties of a wife and the role of the unreliable narrator. The first was a well considered review of what women were taught for a good deal of Anglo-American history, as enunciated by Agatha’s mother, which basically were to ensure that you caught and kept a man to keep your status. The arc of Agatha’s view on this advice is captivating, and I could hear echoes of what I was told by my grandmother and mother in what she was told; indeed, some women are still given the same kind of advice even today.

A wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The saddest application of marital advice was to Agatha’s relationship to her daughter, Rosalind. Archie’s fear of being displaced and her mother’s admonitions to always defer to her husband’s wishes lead Agatha to distance herself from Rosalind in her babyhood. That decision seems tragic for them both.

Perhaps this was mankind’s fate—to learn that none of our paths were as straight as we believed they would be.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The unreliable narrator was a lovely touch, as it referenced Christie’s groundbreaking use of the same in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which arguably was what propelled her into the front ranks of her field. The observation that we are unreliable narrators of our own stories has a double application: it’s simply an interesting idea about our personal blindspots and also a commentary on the story itself.

As I reread it for a final time, it occurred to me that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict has created a marvelous solution to an enduring mystery that even Agatha herself would have appreciated (if she hadn’t been so set on keeping it secret).