Thursday, November 6, 2014

William Desmond Taylor – then and now

Back in the 1940s, Marie Rodell was the editor of the Regional Murder series, a number of books containing essays regarding true crime cases. I was introduced to The LA Murders and The Chicago Murders through my biography of Craig Rice. Rice had contributed to the Chicago edition with an essay and helped to edit LA.

In The LA Murders, I found an essay by Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason series, on William Desmond Taylor, a fascinating unsolved murder case. Taylor was a famous actor and director who was fatally shot one night at his home in LA. It was obvious from early on that many people did not want the crime solved and did their best to obstruct the investigation. The piece, "The Case of the Movie Murder", was a recount of the story developed mainly from newspaper accounts of what had happened. 
Of course, being Rice, she wanted a more sensationalistic approach to the topic and wanted Gardner to name the killer, similar to how Perry Mason solves the crime in the last pages of the book. Gardner, ever the lawyer, refused. Many of the primary suspects were still alive in 1946, and Gardner was worried about a libel suit from one person in particular (Mrs. Shelby.) His work was cautious, but the astute reader could see that Mrs. Shelby was the person Gardner suspected most of the crimes. 
Flash forward 70 years, and William Mann has written Tinseltown, a book regarding the same case. The first thing I noticed as I read this fascinating book was that Mann had added valuable context to the case. No longer does the reader have to wonder why people wanted to shut down the investigation. He discusses the overdoses of several celebrities and the Fatty Arbuckle case all of which tainted the Hollywood brand in the first decades of the new century. 

Each of the many suspects is discussed at length in chapters that alternate. Mann paints such a vivid image of each of the actresses and studio heads that there is never any confusion about the wide variety of people that Taylor knew. 
With the passage of over 90 years now, Mann does have a distinct advantage over Gardner. He is able to speculate on the case as all of the primary suspects have now passed away. This makes for a better book in that Mann does draw some distinct conclusions about the murderer and the solution. I won’t share these – I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of reading this book. 
I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries, true crime or Hollywood. The William Desmond Taylor case offers all three of these and Mann has used all three deftly. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Puzzle for Wantons

In my last blog post, I mentioned my favorite Quentin, A Puzzle for Wantons, and I thought today I’d discuss my reasons for that. First, the book is the fourth in the Puzzle series that features Iris and Peter Duluth.

The couple met in A Puzzle for Fools, then married in A Puzzle for Players and reunited when Peter returned home from the war in A Puzzle for Puppets. The first three books are thoroughly enjoyable, but as detective stories they fall short of what I hope for. Fool and Players uses a third party (Dr. Lenz, the psychiatrist) to solve the crimes at the last minute, which reduces the part of the main characters from sleuths to merely pawns. Puppets has a wonderful first half where the Duluths are trying to solve a series of crimes, but then takes the entire second half of the book to explain the solution.

Which brings the reader to Wantons. Iris, who is now a nationally known actress and her husband visit Reno as the guests of Lorraine Pleygel, an insanely wealthy woman who has invited a number of couples to her mansion. With the exception of the Duluths and Pleygel (who has recently fallen for a man) and the unaptly named “Lover and Mimi, all the other couples are in the throes of divorce.
One by one, the women in these failed relationships begin to die. Dorothy, who ran through her husband’s money while he was off at war, is the first to go by way of a poisoned gambling chip. Then Janet is killed as well.

This is the only book in the series that the Duluths are not presented with the solution. Both together and separately they hunt for the clues that will lead them to the answer to a particularly twisted ending. I can’t talk about the ending without spoilers, but it’s as delicious as the rest of the book.
There would be four more books in the series, two more Puzzle books and two books where Lt. Trant begins to become the lead character for the series. The remaining Puzzle books were Fiend, which was more thriller than detective novel, and Pilgrim, which was just frankly depressing.

There were paperback reprints of these novels in the 1980s, but nothing since then. Since they were the joint collaboration of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, I have no idea what the estate would look like for getting these books digitally published.