WP BOOKSTORE In "Stardust," Joseph Kanon does a noir take on a noir time and place: Hollywood in the late '40s. There's an image-within-an-image effect here that evokes the hall-of-mirrors shoot...">
By Gerald Bartell
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 5, 2009
By Joseph Kanon
Atria. 516 pp. $27.99
In "Stardust," Joseph Kanon does a noir take on a noir time and place: Hollywood in the late '40s. There's an image-within-an-image effect here that evokes the hall-of-mirrors shootout in "The Lady From Shanghai." The threat of TV, of anti-communist witch hunts and of legislation that will divorce the studios from their coffer-filling theaters have Tinseltown on edge. So frightened, treacherous people make films about frightened, treacherous people. It's delectable stuff, and Kanon, best-known for his novel "The Good German," renders it in sharp prose that's punched up by lines worthy of Bogart or Mitchum. "At night," Kanon writes, "the thin sound of a radio playing downstairs came in through the window, like smoke."
The labyrinthine plot begins as two men board noir's favored form of travel, a passenger train. Ben Collier, on leave from the U.S. Signal Corps, meets Sol Lasner, head of Continental Pictures. They're not quite strangers -- they met once in Europe -- but what happens after they team up on the Hollywood-bound Super Chief sets their lives spinning. Ben pitches a documentary about the concentration camps using footage he captured on assignment. Eager to burnish Continental's B-plus image, Lasner greenlights the project.
But Ben's more urgent mission in Hollywood is to reach his brother Danny's hospital bedside. A director at Republic Pictures, Danny lies near death after falling from the balcony of the Cherokee Hotel. Soon after Ben arrives, Danny dies.
Did Danny jump? That's what the police report states. But Ben insists that Danny would never have committed suicide, and indeed he later learns that the report covered up the truth: Danny had been pushed. Soon after, Ben hears another disturbing piece of news: Danny, who had helped Jews escape Hitler's forces, had been informing on colleagues the FBI suspected were communists. Perhaps someone fearing exposure entered the hotel and killed him?
Determined to know his brother's true nature, Ben descends into a "peephole world he'd never imagined." He combs Danny's hotel room for clues and pores over police photos of the accident scene. To find out whom Danny might have spied on, Ben agrees to ferret out suspected communists for California Congressman Ken Minot, who is spoiling to expose reds in the film industry. And after an affair with Danny's widow, Liesl, Ben spies her having a hot poolside tryst with the co-star of her first film. Her ardor with the actor seems as passionate as it was with him and as it appears on-screen. Ben realizes he's been sprinkled with stardust.
Ben's quest is earnest, and that describes him as a character, too. His lack of dimension and the absence until near the end of any clear physical threat mean that "Stardust" moves more like a local than an express. It doesn't help that Liesl is a stock femme fatale. In thrillers, can women with German accents ever be trusted?
Kanon also slows the story's momentum by giving a lot of time to the Jewish emigrants who fled to Hollywood at the onset of World War II. There's a poignant moment when they seek out the dark end of a long living room, more evocative of Europe, Kanon observes, than the other end, which looks onto the sunny Pacific. But the portentous theme they raise -- that the imminent witch hunts mean a new war is coming -- lacks force. However tragic, the consequences of the McCarthy era did not equal the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Fortunately, strong supporting characters spike interest. Real-life stars add color as extras -- Paulette Goddard deals cards on the Super Chief, and Greer Garson holds down a front table at Chasen's. Lasner fires off some good punch lines. And Brian "Bunny" Jenkins, once a child star, now a flippant studio lackey, gets a strong close-up moment when his boyfriend dies. Bunny lets his hair down in tough-but-morose Bette Davis style. Many readers will want to light his cigarette.
Several good action set pieces also keep things moving. One of them -- straight from Hitchcock's top drawer -- follows Ben as he tries to lift some files from Minot's office after hours and hears the congressman in the hallway talking to a watchman. Minot says he forgot something; he must get back into his office. The door opens . . .
"Stardust" might not keep you up all night, but it's got enough going for it to hold you till midnight.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer who lives in Manhattan.