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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

ARC Book Review: Tinseltown by William J. Mann

The full title of this book is Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. It centres on the murder of William Desmond Taylor in 1922, examining all available material to try and pin down the culprits after all this time. More than that, though, this book serves as a portal into the early world of Hollywood. Other people discussed at length include actresses Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter and Virginia Gibson along with Adolph Zukor, the ambitious founder of Paramount. This book attempts to uncover the 'real' Hollywood of the early 20s and, for the most part, it succeeds.

While the murder investigation does form the centrepiece of the book, it certainly isn't the only strand. I liked the fact that it begins with the day of the murder then flips back to document how the main players got to that point. Although I knew the murder was coming, sometimes I got so engrossed with the power plays of various people that I forgot about it. As a consequence, it came upon me as a bit of a shock, mainly because by this point I was emotionally attached - not so much to Taylor himself but to Mabel Normand. Mann's portrayal of Normand is nothing short of exquisite and, out of all the names who touch these pages, for me, the representation of Normand lingers most strongly.

Mann's style may not be to everyone's taste but it certainly works. He has painstakingly recreated as much of that period as possible using, as he explains in a note at the end, as many primary sources as he could get his hands on but, beyond that, he has immersed himself and his reader in the possible thoughts of his primary protagonists. This kind of speculation is just that but it works because of Mann's level of research: there is always the sense that his speculation stems from deep involvement in his subject and his use of photographs and weather reports to visualise what a street would've looked like from the view of one of his protagonists works extremely well. Similarly, the use of very short chapters, flicking around from person to person is something I enjoyed once I accustomed myself to it. Mann uses enough markers and reminders to satisfy his most forgetful readers and keeping all the major players in the air is a shrewd move for maintaining interest.

The book claims to offer the solution to the mystery that has foxed film buffs for ninety years. Do I think the conclusions are plausible? Yes, I do. Mann doesn't manipulate the evidence to fit his theory. He presents it all, including that for other suspects. In the end, though, the circumstantial evidence accumulated via Mann's diligent recreation of the Hollywood milieu swings it for me.

Tinseltown isn't only a gripping read but an excellent depiction of a world long gone. If you're interested in the early days of Hollywood and the power plays of the era then this book is highly recommended.

I received an ARC of this book direct from the publishers, HarperCollinsPublishers. And here's a nifty trailer for it:

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