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by Suzanne Gates
Kensington, November 2017
303 pages
ISBN: 1496708121

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Suzanne Gates's debut novel, THE GLAMOROUS DEAD, is a compelling mix of contradictions. It masquerades as a whodunit, but is so attentive to the various forms of corruption and graft that pervade Los Angeles and to the back stories of the central characters that the final revelation of the murderer seems more tacked on than punchily essential. It has an unlikely detective, who is a haplessly lame investigator at the best of times; but because she has trouble keeping her thoughts to herself, mostly in the presence of all the wrong people, she nevertheless manages (barely) to work out the identity of the killer. And it has a potentially glamourous setting—the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1940s' Paramount Studios, complete with guest appearances by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, who are working on the set of Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve—but presents that glamour through the perspective of the nameless, generic extras and wannabes who populate the studio lots. Gates emphasizes the prosaic, day-in-day-out grind of those so far below stardom that they are careful, in their open competition with one another, to acknowledge each other only by their roles: "Career Girl" and "Wallflower," by film-shooting days; and "Cree," Cherokee," and "Apache," by dancers working nights as the dinner entertainment at the Zanzibar, both jobs enabling them to scrape together just enough to pay for their crowded rooms at the studio-owned Florentine Gardens dormitory.

What Gates captures is, consequently, not the LA noir of Chandler or Ellroy, the latter of whose The Black Dhalia traces similar tropes of starlets and studio power. Instead, she imagines forms of namelessness and powerlessness in the unsung sub-culture of the always-replaceable hopefuls. The unearthed body of budding starlet, Rosemary Brown, the protagonist Penny Harp's best friend, causes barely a ripple in the smooth anonymity of Paramount's stockade of extras. Penny, who is first accused of the murder, then determined to ask awkward questions, because no one else seems remotely interested in Rosemary's death, learns just how much the police, coroners, abortion doctors, lawyers, and screen stars themselves are in bed with the studios, complicit with whatever self-serving spin they give to unwelcome events. What she knows to be murder becomes, with a sprinkle of Hollywood magic and a heavy wallop of studio muscle, an official suicide in one case and an accidental fall in another.

Despite her lack of the wits (or snarky offensiveness) of the conventional noir detective, Penny is nevertheless beaten, harassed imprisoned, and offerred bribes laced with threats. All of which are ironic overkill, because Penny is no investigator. Short on rudimentary sleuthing skills and long on intuition, she only gains an insight into the crime by imagining—as it turns out, reasonably accurately—what her friend Rosemary might have done in a given situation. Unlike Rosemary or Madge, her fellow extra friend, Penny is not even a plucky heroine: her moxy, when it appears, is limp and anxiety-filled, and her hysterical and indiscreet accusations are unerringly aimed at the wrong people.

Oddly, and despite all those apparent strikes against it, THE GLAMOROUS DEAD is still an absorbing novel. Gates is clearly more interested in gradually revealing the small-town crimes and transgressions—what poignantly haunts Penny and Rosemary, and what drives them to come to Hollywood from rural Buena Park in the first place—than she is in exposing the blunt economic imperative that propels Hollywood (to murder, rob, cover over, and falsely accuse in order to climb, or stay on top of, the food chain). Gates doesn't quite get the balance right between Penny and Rosemary's traumatic motives for escaping their "Farm Girl" (a film-extra role they play that is almost laughably divergent from their actual experience) lives and the plot of Rosemary's murder; and she draws so many parallels between Buena Park and Hollywood that she risks minimizing her convincing portrait of the latter as a unique universe. But Gates gets enough right, especially around the studio bottom feeders, to pique and reward our interest.

§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal.

Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, November 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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