Monday, August 18, 2008

Hope and Terror: Denise Hamilton Hit My Literary Radar

"Genre fiction is addictive," so wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her introduction to Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (P.S.). This simple maxim explains why so many fans of SF and Fantasy have piles upon piles of books that they will never read. It also explains why I didn't know who Denise Hamilton was when I saw this blog entry on the excellent LA Observed this morning, and why the name seemed hauntingly familiar. Five books down on my "noir pile," just under The Dain Curse, lies a book with the simple title Los Angeles Noir (Akashic Noir) edited by -- you guessed it -- Denise Hamilton.

If not for that aforementioned blog entry, the name may never have become a highlighted name in my mind. Her introduction in LOS ANGELES NOIR -- as well as her story -- are quite good, but neither would have left me gasping for more by this local modern noir author. But the blog entry had me rushing over to my local independent bookstore, The Village Bookshop, in the hopes of picking up her latest novel The Last Embrace. And it wasn't because of the time travel restaurant tour the author went on with the blogger at EATING LA. Which isn't to say I wouldn't like to do such a tour, just that a restaurant tour isn't going to get me to buy a book...unless it's a restaurant tour book.

What struck me was the phrase, from the EATING LA post quoted in the Observed piece, "But she also incorporated a fascinating plotline about stop-motion animation, inspired by the work of Ray Harryhausen." I re-read that sentence no fewer than five times. I am a huge Harryhausen fan, as anyone who read my November 2005 post stocking-stuffers or this comment on stop motion animation knows. So hearing that a book, taking place in 1949, featured a plotline involving stop-motion animation instantly set my interest-o-meter over 9000. (It's posts like this Hamilton piece that make LA Observed the first place I look for news about Los Angeles.)

Denise Hamilton's most recent book, the one discussed in the blog entries, is THE LAST EMBRACE. The author's official website describes the book as follows:

Lily Kessler, a former stenographer and spy for the OSS, is asked by her late fiance's mother to find out what happened to his sister Kitty, an actress who has been missing from her Hollywood boarding house. Although the aspiring starlets at the house insist that Kitty is off somewhere furthering her career, the next day her body is found in a ravine below the Hollywood sign. Unimpressed with the local police, Lily investigates on her own. As she delves further into Kitty's life, she encounters fiercely competitive actors, gangsters, an eccentric special-effects genius, exotic denizens of Hollywood's nightclubs and a homicide detective who might distract her from her quest for justice.

By this description alone I would likely have eventually stumbled onto the novel. I like reading Noir stories about the city in which I live. I have made a trip to the Glendale train station merely see the depot from the film version of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. In my eight years in the Los Angeles area, I have come to love this most noir of cities -- okay...if you're a die hard Hammett fan it might be San Francisco, or Butte if you think all Hammett except RED HARVEST is trivial -- and I am constantly looking for more fiction that points me into the "shadows created by the Hollywood sign." Or to put it like Denise Hamilton did in her introduction to LOS ANGELES NOIR, "Writers like James Cain, Dorothy B. Hughes, Nathanael West, Chester Himes, and Raymond Chandler understood both the hope and the terror that Los Angeles inspires." I might even have picked the book up at some time during the next few months to place on the bottom of the pile of books I mentioned earlier. But after reading her website's description of the things that inspired the book, it's going right on top. I'll be reading it as soon as I finish NIGHTMARE TOWN. Reading the inspirations was like seeing a collage of many of my favorite obsessions.

  1. Then one day while researching Hollywood's Golden Age, I ran across an L.A. Times story by Cecilia Rasmussen about Jean Spangler, a Hollywood starlet who vanished without a trace in October of 1949. (Who that loves LA stories doesn't like tales of vanished starlets?)
  2. She'd partied in Palm Springs with two associates of LA gangster Mickey Cohen who also disappeared mysteriously that fall. (Gotta have that local mob connection)
  3. It soon emerged that Jean had just filmed a movie with Kirk Douglas.(Star of ACE IN THE HOLE, a noir classic)
  4. I had the great good fortune, around this time, to meet the legendary Ray Harryhausen. With his mentor Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen pioneered stop motion animation. Harryhausen was 86 and hale and hearty when I interviewed him at Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank and learned what the special effects world was like in 1949, the year "Mighty Joe Young" came out.(I had to read this sentence twice...interviewing Harryhausen over food? How cool is that?)
  5. Thanks to the generosity of Chiodo Brothers Productions, especially Stephen Chiodo, I also toured an animation studio and watched stop-motion in progress and was greatly impressed by the painstaking detail, dedication and artistry involved.(I would certainly do a happy dance if I were able to watch the animators of the stop motion animated sequence in ELF at work...oh and they are also working on the sequel to the amazing LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA entitled THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN.)

This perfect storm of interests made this a must read for me. I only hope the book can live up to the hype my sub-conscious has produced. The reviews of the book have been positive, though Booklist asks the absurd question "Ellroy meets women's fiction? Why not?" Has the reviewer at Booklist never heard of Leigh Brackett -- co-author of the screenplays to THE BIG SLEEP and RIO BRAVO and author of the screenplay to THE LONG GOODBYE, not to mention quite the pulp writer herself.

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