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!

Weaving through the Crucchi

The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 320

Publisher: Severn House

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

WWII historical fiction

From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.

Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.

There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.

The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.

If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.

That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.

Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.