Since Nathanael West’s 1939 novel, “The Day of the Locust,” scores of writers have succumbed to the siren song of the Hollywood novel. The call is particularly alluring for crime writers, each of whom brings to the task his (or, less often, her) unique sensibilities. Of late these reflect social and cultural nuances not possible three quarters of a century before, when West’s painter-protagonist Tod Hackett was recruited from the Yale School of Fine Arts to become a costume designer and background painter in Hollywood.
Steph Cha’s heroine, 27-year-old Juniper Song, is a Yalie too. A self-described “overeducated bum,” Song worked out her fixation on Raymond Chandler mysteries in last year’s notable “Follow Her Home” — but proved to be no Philip Marlowe. Her amateur sleuthing resulted in a trail of dead bodies.
“Beware Beware” finds Song at Lindley & Flores, a Koreatown P.I. firm where she’s trying to put distance between herself and her first disastrous case by helping out on low-glamour, spouse-tailing assignments that were “quick, simple, and dirty in a way that didn’t compromise me.”
Then the boss tells Song she’s getting her own case: Daphne Freamon, a successful New York-based artist, wants Song to check up on her boyfriend, an aspiring screenwriter name Jamie Landon. Since Jamie came out West on a ghostwriting gig for Joe Tilley, an Oscar-nominated superstar, he’s been disappearing for days at a time, and Freamon is worried he may have fallen back into a cocaine addiction.
Song tails Landon to the storied Roosevelt Hotel. It’s the dark heart of a Hollywood populated by men in Spider-Man and SpongeBob SquarePants costumes who are “a picture of desolation, of crushed dreams dressed in grimy fourth-hand garments.” Song has little use for this part of town, preferring Koreatown or her apartment in Echo Park, where she’s become a big sister of sorts to a naive young woman named Lori Lim, who has attracted the attention of Winfred Park, a shady business associate of her uncle, who runs a Koreatown body shop.
Song toggles between home-cooked Korean meals with Lori and her assignment following Jamie all over the L.A. Basin. After trailing Jamie from his West Hollywood home to a mansion in Encino and various boozy brunches and cocktail parties, Song concludes he’s probably using and selling drugs to Hollywood’s shakers and fakers. Despite her misgivings, Song comes to care about Daphne, with whom she has nightly chats about Jamie’s movements and detective fiction. Song even becomes fond of Jamie, with his easygoing charm and dopey boy face. “I let them seep into my thoughts and lay claim to my emotions.” Song notes. “Never a good idea.”
Song’s fears are confirmed at the end of the second week, when Tilley is found dead in his Roosevelt Hotel bathtub, his “cold skin going waxy with its own irrelevance.” Jamie seems to be the only person in the suite after a hard night of Hollywood partying, thus becoming a person of interest in the case.
The next day, a heartbroken Daphne arrives in L.A. to stand by her man and beg Song to help find Tilley’s killer. Song can’t refuse, a noble trait she shares with Philip Marlowe. And although she’s been burned before playing Marlowe’s game, Song thinks she’s better prepared this time around and steps into the fray.
However, Daphne, like most of Cha’s female characters, has more dimensions than Chandler’s dames in distress. Sure, she looks like a skincare model and reminds Song of one of Marlowe’s lines in “Farewell, My Lovely,” about a beautiful woman laughing.
But she is also very different. Daphne’s a wealthy and successful painter of “striking, haunting, bloody and visceral” works, reminiscent of Tod Hackett’s painting in “Day of the Locust.” And she’s African American, which Song shamefully doesn’t comprehend when she first speaks with her on the phone.
“I’d heard an uninflected accent, a nonethnic name and pictured … a white girl,” she says. “I may have grown up Korean in Los Angeles, by my brain couldn’t quite shed those middle-American default settings.”
“Beware Beware” sends the intrepid Song down more diversely mean streets than the masters of noir could have imagined, with astutely limned stops in Venice Beach, Los Feliz, Beverly Hills and others.
Before this cautionary tale is over, secrets will be revealed, lies within lies told, more people injured or killed and Song’s core values compromised in ways that will have psychological reverberations for years, and books, to come. Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler would be proud.
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series.
Minotaur/St. Martin’s; 293 pages; $25.99