This slick summer novel is a vivid demonstration of what can happen when the scriptwriter's craft is applied to the bare bones of a sensational news story.
We are told in the dust jacket blurb that Norman Katkov has written four novels and a biography of Fanny Brice, but Los Angeles is where he has lived for 20 years as a "well-known film and Emmy Award-winning television screenwriter." There seems little doubt that here is a potboiler for the screen, camera ready and set to shoot.
It is based on an actual murder case of the 1930s that was defended by the great Clarence Darrow: Navy Lt. Thomas Massie and several accomplices, among them his socially prominent mother-in-law, were charged with murdering a young Hawaiian they were certain took part in an assault and gang rape of Massie's 20-year-old wife.
Katkov has written a broad tale with scores of characters, even including a descendant of the deposed Hawaiian royal family. Everyone arrives instantly developed, like pictures popping out of a Polaroid camera.
We open in the evening outside a shabby nightspot favored by naval officers from Pearl Harbor. Hester Ashley meets furtively with her lover, Lt. Bryce Partridge, to tell him she is pregnant. When Hester threatens to share this news with their respective spouses, he responds with a ferocious beating that leaves her crumpled in the dust.
Quickly, we shift to the interior of a yellow and black 1929 Ford convertible. Four young Hawaiians are joy riding when they see a woman sprawled on the ground. They want to avoid trouble, but the driver, Joe Liliuohe, says they can't let the woman die. They leave her outside a hospital and drive off, but not before they are spotted.
Doris Ashley is rushed from an elegant dinner party to her daughter's bedside. Alone together, Hester tells her mother precisely what happened. Fearful that Honolulu society will shun her once the truth is known, Doris concocts a story. They tell the police the beating was inflicted by the natives while committing gang rape. When Hester "discovers" herself pregnant several weeks down the line, it will be the result of that unspeakable night outside the Whispering Inn.
The Hawaiians are rounded up, and though persuasive, their denials are ignored. Amid mounting pressure from the naval establishment and reactionary forces on the mainland, the youths are brought to trial. But the jury splits along racial lines, and a mistrial is declared.
Hester's husband Gerald sulks and seethes. He can't erase the image of four "savages" mauling his wife. With the help of a sailor, he plans to kidnap the Hawaiians, hoping to extract confessions. Three of the boys are abducted and beaten viciously with belt buckles, all to no avail. This only infuriates Gerald more. The fourth Hawaiian, Joe Liliuohe, is captured and brought to Doris Ashley's home. There, he too refuses to confess, prompting Gerald to kill him. While trying to dispose of the body, Gerald, Doris and the sailor are stopped on a routine traffic violation.
With evidence against them so overwhelming, the most famous trial lawyer in the land, Walter Bergman, is retained. Yet once he knows the facts of the case, even Bergman recognizes the futility of a standard defense. He adopts a modified version of temporary insanity, coupled with suggestions that Gerald committed an "honor" killing.
By any standard, this is a reporter's dream of a story. To it, Katkov has added a number of twists and peripheral interests. Because his treatment is so panoramic, the only character you could consider central to most of the action is Curt Maddox, the captain of detectives who is involved in all major developments.
Though the core story has enough sex to advance any novel, the scriptwriter has whipped up two other love angles as side shows. One involves a young Hawaiian lawyer who becomes involved with the sister of the murder victim. The other is an entirely gratuituous affair that sprouts and blossoms within 48 hours, the forbidden liaison between Capt. Maddox and Lenore Bergman, the beautiful young wife of the old lawyer.
It is perhaps this love triangle involving the detective and the unfulfilled wife that best points up the major pitfall of the semifictionalized novel. The dividing line between fact and fancy is fuzzy at best, and we can never be sure what is historical and what is imaginative.
In point of fact, Darrow spent the final 35 years of his life contentedly married to the same woman. But nobody ever accused Hollywood of letting facts get in the way of a good story.