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Book Review: ‘The Starlet’ by Mary McNamara

Consider the cover of Mary McNamara’s new novel, “The Starlet,” which features a lithe young woman sporting a backless red dress, a Rihanna-esque shower-of-stars tattoo, and what looks like an alcohol-monitoring bracelet. Drawn in broad, fashion illustration-type strokes, the girl holds a finger to her lips, like she’s keeping a secret — or pointing a gun. In the background are palm trees and a klieg light. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Jackie Collins meets Agatha Christie, or maybe Gigi Levangie Grazer meets Janet Evanovich. But first impressions are often deceptive — a truism that applies both to this surprising novel, and to its winning title character.

That would be the young, hot, Lindsay Lohan-esque Mercy Talbot, who flips out when her leading man, the hunky, Heath Ledger-esque Lloyd Watson, hangs himself in his Rome hotel room during an ill-fated location shoot. Hysterical, Mercy flees the set and winds up — drunk, naked and high on cocaine — atop a Florentine fountain, from which she takes a dive only to be saved by Juliette Greyson, vacationing PR person for the Four Seasons Beverly Hills-esque Pinnacle hotel. Juliette decides to play starlet-whisperer and whisks Mercy off to her family’s 200-acre farm estate to detox, a plan that goes south when Mercy’s mother shows up, along with the leading member of her entourage, a proprietor of a rehab facility in Malibu — not to mention the movie’s entire cast and crew, who collectively decide Cerreta is as good a place as any to resume shooting the misbegotten film, which Mercy wryly describes as “sort of like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ only with flashbacks.”

As a veteran entertainment writer, and currently a television critic for The Times, McNamara is bespoke-suited to pen a frothy roman à clef about the excesses of young Hollywood. And indeed, “The Starlet” is peppered with mouthwatering tidbits about barely disguised marquee names, with much fun to be had guessing which factoids might be true (I’m absolutely buying that carbs are the only real drug in Hollywood) and who exactly is who. But playing hide-and-seek with Star, Us Weekly and “Entertainment Tonight” is clearly not the extent of McNamara’s ambitions. “The Starlet” is also a mystery, and Lloyd Watson — who may or may not have OD’d, may or may not have succumbed to autoerotic asphyxiation and may or may not have been murdered —- turns out to be only the first of the dead bodies.

Where there are dead bodies, there is often an amateur sleuth — ill-prepared, but ever-game to right wrongs, defend the weak and blithely confront criminals in deserted alleyways, or in this case, dark corners of abandoned medieval castellos. In “The Starlet,” that character is Juliette, whom we first encountered in 2008’s “Oscar Season,” in which McNamara demonstrated her knowledge of the ins and outs of the chick-lit mystery. But here, even as McNamara deploys the familiar tropes, the whole winds up being less than the sum of its parts — the murders pro forma, the bad guys cartoonish and, most importantly, Juliette far too skittish, self-involved and damaged a person to function as anybody’s heroine. All of which, ironically, is exactly what makes her such a fascinating character, one whose complicated inner life certainly merits a novel of its own. The same can be said of the proprietor of Cerreta, Juliette’s prickly cousin, Gabe Delfino, who has traded his alcohol-, crack- and heroin-filled past for abstinence and organic farming, as well as the drug-addled yet charming Mercy, who is anything but a tabloid-ready caricature.

Working within the strictures of genre can be liberating for some, confining for others. I suspect McNamara needs more breathing room, not only for the dark characters she so beautifully delineates, but also for her mordant observations about the industry she knows like the back of her hand. Take the following about location work: “On a film set, everything and everyone was rented by the hour; no matter how complicated the contracts might be, it had the same basic economics of a back-alley tryst, which could explain why it so often turned into just that.” Or this, about Hollywood’s unreality effect: “The danger of Hollywood … was that if you spent too much time around it, everything seemed like a movie.” Sounds less like Jackie Collins and more like Michael Tolkin, Bret Easton Ellis or Bruce Wagner — and what a welcome prospect it would be to have a female writer, especially one as talented as McNamara, infiltrate that particular boys’ club.

Susan Kandel’s latest mystery novel is “Dial H for Hitchcock.”


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