Midway through Stardust, Joseph Kanon's elegant, noir-inspired novel of old Hollywood, a studio operative named Bunny Jenkins peers wistfully through the open door of a sound stage, watching the action on a movie set. A former child star once famous for playing "everybody's waif," Bunny has grown up, lost his hair, and resigned himself to a life on the margins. Asked whether he misses his time in the spotlight, Bunny offers a sudden, heartfelt reminiscence:
"Remember Castaway? My first picture. A hundred years ago. We opened at the Pantages. My first time. I'd never seen anything like it before—the flashbulbs, people yelling your name. I was on the radio. And I thought, well, this is all right, this is it. But it wasn't. This was it," he said, looking at the set. "You can get things right. Perfect, sometimes. A perfect take. You can never get things right out here." He looked at his watch. "Still, here we are."
Bunny's moment of reflection captures the wistful, valedictory spirit of Kanon's story. Set in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the novel kicks off on the 20th Century Limited, a train speeding from New York to Chicago (to connect with the Super Chief to Los Angeles). Aboard the train is Ben Collier, a GI returning from active duty overseas, and he is pitching a documentary on the concentration camps—using captured footage—to Sol Lasner, a roughhewn but kindly studio boss.
Kanon has a sensational ear for dialogue, and as Collier and Lasner take each other's measure, we get everything we need to know in a few short strokes:
"Don't push me on this. We'll talk. In an office. We make a picture if it makes sense to make a picture. Not just someone tells me it's good for the Jews. Anyway, what kind of name is Collier?"
Ben smiled. "From Kohler. My father. It means the same thing."
"So why change it? Who changes names? Actors."
"My mother. After the divorce, we went to England. She wanted us to have English names. My father stayed in Germany."
"He was a Mischling. Half."
"And that saved him?"
"He thought it would."
Lasner looked away. "I'm sorry."
As it happens, Collier's proposed documentary is something of a MacGuffin—Alfred Hitchcock's famous term for a plot element that helps kick off the action. The real reason Ben is rushing to Los Angeles is to reach the deathbed of his brother, Danny, who has fallen from a hotel balcony under suspicious circumstances. When Danny dies shortly after Ben's arrival, the local police render a hasty verdict of accidental death.
Ben suspects murder—and investigates accordingly. His inquiry stretches from the lot of Lasner's Continental Pictures, where the backstage intrigue rivals anything in front of the camera, to the German émigré community of Los Angeles, centering on a distinguished group of writers and artists struggling to gain a toehold in America.
Ben, a Californian by birth, discovers that politics in Los Angeles have taken a dark turn during his years abroad. Though the film industry has yet to grasp the full horror of the war in Europe, a fresh theater of operations has opened on the home front: a redbaiting congressman appears bent on starting a witch-hunt, sending both studio executives and box-office stars scrambling for cover. Ben's dead brother seems to have been at the center of it all.
Kanon, author of The Good German and Los Alamos, works his beat with uncommon skill, deftly leading us through such Hollywood rituals as lunch at Chasen's and sneak-peek screenings in Glendale. He gives cameos to golden-age notables such as Paulette Goddard and Greer Garson, whose names are big enough to lend a certain glamour, but not so dazzling as to overshadow the main players.
Kanon also has great fun with the insiders at Continental Pictures, among them technician Hal Jasper, whose immersion in the world of movies is so complete that he views everything—even his own broken nose—in cinematic terms: "We never get blood right," he muses, examining his bloody handkerchief. "It processes too red." Later, while screening the footage that Ben brought over from liberated concentration camps, Jasper even uses the language of film to try to make sense of the Holocaust:
"For the opening?" he said, framing his hands. "There wasn't enough in the Dachau reel, but if you add some of the other material—Belsen, I guess, right?—you can go in just the way a GI would. The fence, the gates, everything. First time you see it. Walk in, looking around. What the hell happened here? Let it sink in. The faces. You don't say a word. Just look. Put a big chalk mark on the floor."
"A crime story," Ben said.
"It's the way in. I mean, if you see it that way."
In the argot of a Hollywood pitch meeting, Kanon's novel is The Big Sleep meets The Player, with a bit of All About Eve tossed in for good measure. However you spin it, Stardust is a gripping performance, and a canny updating of the classic Hollywood crime story. As Bunny Jenkins might have said, it's a perfect take.
Daniel Stashower is a two-time Edgar-winning author. His most recent book is The Beautiful Cigar Girl. He previously reviewed U Is for Undertow for AARP The Magazine Online.
Read more Web-exclusive book reviews