In Thomas Gifford's "Hollywood Gothic," an autograph party for a new mystery goes bad when the author gets drunk and misbehaves. "He started signing other writers' names to his book . . . Raymond Chandler, Earl Derr Biggers," the hostess recounts. "It was a problem." Gifford has put his own name on this story of violence and scandal in movie country, but his appropriation of Chandler's signatural devices -- the harsh, fatalistic observations; the expectorant dialogue, and especially the idea of Los Angeles as a semi-real laboratory for a doomed human condition -- is a problem indeed, if only because Gifford's use of them is so often as broad and pedestrian as Chandler's was scrupulous and vivid.
"Gothic" tells of Toby Challis, a screenwriter convicted of using his Oscar as the blunt instrument in the murder of his adulterous wife Goldie, a descendant of the dynasty that has run Maximus Studios for a couple of generations. Challis and another prisoner are being transported to the pen in a small plane; the plane crashes in the mountains outside L.A. and Challis is the only survivor. Revived and befriended by a camping party of boys from a school for the retarded, he leads them to the mountain cabin of Morgan Dyer, a young mystery buff whose father directed some pictures at Maximus. Challis and Dyer contrive a plan: Challis will disguise himself by shaving off his beard, return to L.A. and, detective-like, find his wife's real murderer.
The book's rhythm thereafter will be familiar to readers of Chandler and Ross McDonald: a tour of the offices and homes of those with motives and information, and the progressive revelation of an obscured family history, with a proliferation of discovered connections that extend from Challis, Dyer and Goldie to a magazine publisher, some survivors of the Old Hollywood and a garnish of Mafiosi.
Along the way, there is a full complement of stock epigrams on L.A.: "Perhaps it was just the Los Angeles syndrome, the belief that a false front was as good as the real thing"; "Life out here is like a big movie with a single cast, a closely monitored, tightly contained world with its own laws, natural and otherwise"; "There ain't no such thing as solid in this town . . . we cover our tracks all the time." There is also extravagant overworking of Challis' one bit of character business, a tendency to confuse reality with his favorite movie scenes.
Worse, and in notable contrast to Chandler and McDonald, Challis' procedure of discovery is without twists or significant obstacles: He finds all the people who know anything, gets in to see them all and hears with a minimum of prompting the sordid shaggy dog stories that lead to the truth. Farewell, my lovely dramatic tension. The whole thing takes place in the rain, with houses sliding down muddy hillsides for bonus metaphor points.
Steve Krantz's "Laurel Canyon" is possessed of an even simpler plot: a woman who is nearly ruined by a debauched movie star cleans herself up, rises to success as an agent, is present when the star causes a producer's daughter to overdose and die, and undertakes to subvert a cover-up of the crime and thus ruin the star. True to the sub-literary genre from which it oozes -- the novel as gossip column -- "Laurel Canyon" tries to titillate by presenting recognizable stars in thin disguises and outfitting them with generous rations of sexual and pharmacological kinks, rendering the latter deadpan in hopes that the reader's jaw will drop commensurately.
Krantz especially likes to trade in the usual trivia bout Ma Maison, the Beverly Hills Hotel (whose very name must be giving the phrase "creamy thighs" a run for its money when it comes to frequency of appearance in books of this sort) and other local landmarks. Of the Polo Lounge: "If you were truly important, you would get the same table each time you came, the waitress would bring you hot coffee as soon as you sat down, and the hostess would deliver a phone to your table at the same time she announced that there was a call for you." Equally fascinating: "The mark of a regular at Schwab's was that you didn't get a parking check for your car."
Krantz seems to think that these top secrets will compensate for the hoariest of imagery ("Ginny's heavy sensuality was like the pungent aroma of cheap perfume") and the clumsiest of exposition ("This was Stevie's first meeting with a man destined to play a crucial role in her life"). Like Gifford, Krantz imagines Los Angeles as a limitless well of venality and sexual indiscretion, a movie-and-music company town (Aero-space? Agribusiness? Never heard of 'em), and a place of such universal fascination that a breathless public waits to hear every restaurant name invoked and to see a finger put on every detail. When the finger is attached to such a heavy hand, the results can only be comic. "Oh, Morgan," Krantz's heroine says at a typical juncture, "I don't know what I'm talking about. I've never felt so little and vulnerable before. I'm scared to death . . . and Morgan, please take me into that bedroom to that unmade bed covered with scripts and make love to me. I'll be good for you . . ."
People do not talk to each other that way, not even Out Here.