The Last Embrace
Scribner: 392 pp., $15 paper
As unsolved crimes go in post-World War II Los Angeles, the Black Dahlia murder gets the most ink, but Jean Spangler’s disappearance arguably haunts even more. A former model with bit parts in such films as “Young Man With a Horn,” Spangler left her Park La Brea home and vanished on Oct. 7, 1949. Her ripped purse, found in Griffith Park with a note to a mysterious “Kirk,” is the only clue to her whereabouts.
Denise Hamilton, author of the bestselling Eve Diamond series, uses the Spangler case as a template for her first stand-alone mystery but quickly veers off in a unique direction. Spangler is recast as would-be siren Kitty Hayden (nee Doreen Croggan), whose disappearance is investigated at her mother’s behest by one Lily Kessler. The cover story Lily uses is true enough -- her late fiancé was Kitty’s brother, and she used to be a stenographer -- but it also hides a gumshoe acumen forged overseas as a U.S. spy. That experience proves vital when Kitty turns up dead, and the task of finding the killer takes Lily from shabby boarding houses and seamy streets to bustling movie sets and glamorous parties. But Hollywood proves a formidable opponent for this resilient heroine.
Tucked within the narrative of Lily’s search for Kitty and her killer is a subtler examination of how America expected women to revert to their traditional pre-World War II roles. From the outset, when police detectives are nonplused at Lily’s insistence that she be kept in the investigative loop, she surmises that “they had pegged her as just another uppity ex-WAVE or WAC who’d picked up a hotshot boyfriend during the war and some fancy lingo to go along with it” -- and skillfully uses their underestimation to gain access to relevant information.
Even though one detective, Stephen Pico, evolves from surly antagonist to thoughtful figure (and proves a worthy love interest for Lily), he too struggles to accept her forthright personality and her “masculine brain.” He parrots the notion that women do not belong on the police force because “if you want to catch rats, you’ve got to swim in the sewer and that’s no job for a girl. You’d lose your sense of wonder and goodness about the world, and we can’t have that.” Lily’s counterpunch is immediate: “We’re not helpless simpering creatures that have to be protected. We’ve held down jobs, traveled the world. Seen people die. Nobody’s innocent anymore.”
That line is both truth and lie for Lily; her espionage experience allows her to handle dangerous situations with aplomb, but she is a veritable naif when dropped into the splintered, blinkered world of Kitty’s aspiring actress housemates. Whether it’s simmering jealousy over another’s successful screen test, the spiteful contempt David O. Selznick’s (fictional) secretary betrays toward Lily when she pretends to be another wannabe starlet or the cavalier attitude toward the casting-couch advances, Hamilton makes Lily’s awkwardness clear as she clashes with Hollywood’s hyper-existence, a world even more outsized and pressure-cooked than the war zones she knows best.
“The Last Embrace” also shines a fascinating light on the inner workings of stop-motion animation but takes care not to overwhelm the reader with unnecessary details. It’s enough to know that special-effects wizard Max Vranizan, Kitty’s confidant and spurned suitor, needs “twelve hours of shooting to do a few seconds of screen time” for the eponymous “Mighty Joe Young,” because it offers insight into Max’s character: “I play each scene in my head, figuring out what I need for the next frame. At night I can’t wait for the rushes, to see if I’ve caught it on film. It’s thrilling when that happens. You could say I have a Zeus complex. I want to control all the little creatures in my world.” Because Max pines not-so-subtly for his lost friend Kitty, insight becomes a potential menace; stop-motion a possible prelude to darker misdeeds.
With so much subtext and incidental detail embedded in the story, it seems ironic that the novel’s biggest flaw lies at the surface. Hamilton has taken the strengths of her Eve Diamond novels -- the depiction of outlying parts of Los Angeles, the quiet toughness of the protagonist and a narrative approach that drives hard but has room to breathe -- and buffed them to a fine polish. But in choosing smooth storytelling and more traditional plotting, she sacrifices the margins and doesn’t push enough to show the contrast between idealized Hollywood and the underlying grime. Although direct comparisons to Megan Abbott’s 2007 novel “The Song Is You” aren’t justified -- because Abbott’s treatment of the Spangler case bears little resemblance to Hamilton’s in content and format -- that novel plumbs the sleazy depths of Hollywood in a way that would have made “The Last Embrace” a stellar reading experience instead of being merely very good.
But “The Last Embrace” has enough literary stretch to suggest that Hamilton has found a natural home in semihistorical fiction. Perhaps one of Lily’s declarations applies equally to the author’s future projects: “Women are natural spies. . . . We’re taught from childhood to be quiet and listen. We’re patient, and we’re good plotters. It’s bred into us. For centuries we’ve had to use subterfuge to get our way.” The combination of patience and plotting should allow Hamilton to get her way for the foreseeable future. *
Sarah Weinman writes Dark Passages, an online monthly mystery and suspense column, at www.latimes.com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com.