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. 

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