Death Was In The Picture is the second in Linda L. Richards’ series of mysteries, set in Depression-era Los Angeles and featuring Kitty Pangborn, a debutante fallen on tough times and now working as secretary to an alcoholic private eye, Dexter J. Theroux.
As the title suggests, this novel focuses on Hollywood, and more specifically the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral guidelines relating to movies – specifically their depiction of sex and violence – devised by a Catholic priest, and implemented by Will Hays, a former Postmaster General.
This book is set in 1931, when pressure from church groups was gaining ground, but censorship was not yet universal. Many films of the early 30s are surprisingly frank and explicit, but within a few years they would become much more conservative.
The Code’s influence spread beyond movies to the private conduct of actors. A series of scandals in the 1920s – most infamously, the death of starlet Virginia Rappe at a ‘wild party’ hosted by comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – led to speculation that Hollywood’s growing influence on the public was a corrosive one.
Death Was In The Picture focuses on a fictitious scandal, when an actress dies at a party, alone in a bedroom with a matinee idol, Laird Wyndham. One of the guests is Kitty’s boss, Dex, invited by a client, Xander Dean, with the instruction to report back on Wyndham. Dex is unsure of Dean’s motives: ‘The ‘group of concerned citizens’. That kind of thing gives me the heebie-jeebies…’
After Wyndham is charged with murder, Dex is asked to investigate the case for him. Despite the conflict of interest, Dean refuses to let his prior contract go. But Dex has other ideas, and Kitty is thrilled, at first, to meet her favourite star.
Kitty’s wide-eyed admiration for Wyndham may seem out of character for a hard-boiled sleuth, but reflects the seductive power of Hollywood’s escapism in grim times. She is quite bewildered that the seemingly heroic actor could be accused of such a sordid crime. ‘I loved him for what he helped me to believe…that golden light he helped shine on humanity.’
Richards intersperses real events and people into her plot. Dex and Kitty are invited to attend another party, The Masquers Ball. Though the ball is imaginary, the Masquers Club did exist, and still stands today – an association of actors, paving the way for the Screen Actors Guild.
There Kitty meets Joseph Breen, Will Hays’ West Coast enforcer, who would ultimately replace Hays in 1934. Breen was a prominent figure in Hollywood, and was recently played by Edward Herrmann in The Aviator, Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning biopic of Howard Hughes. Richards portrays Breen as a ruthless man, given to anti-Semitic outbursts (as documented by Breen’s biographer, Thomas Doherty.)
Moreover, in Richards’ narrative Breen is a hypocrite – flirting with starlets, while condemning the immorality of others. To be fair, Breen certainly appeared to be a highly respectable, family man, and his influence on the film industry went beyond censorship – he briefly headed RKO, and later received an honorary Oscar.
Richards makes a persuasive argument for scandals such as befell Laird Wyndham (and perhaps Arbuckle) being at least partly a result of intimidation, and ‘honey-traps’ laid by supporters of the Code, in order to discredit stars who became too rich, and too popular.
The shadowy presence of a ‘Chicago connection’ hints at rumoured links between Hollywood and organised crime, which peaked after World War II. But Richards’ take on this era is more complex than one of kneejerk liberalism – she illustrates the decadence of Hollywood in stark contrast to the poverty suffered by many Americans during the 1930s.
When Dex gives Kitty fifty dollars to buy a ballgown, her excitement is palpable. ‘I could take a steamship to Hawaii. I could buy groceries for the whole house for a year…With the fifty bucks in my hand, I could do almost anything.’ At the ball, Kitty, who is constantly hungry, hits the luxurious buffet with gusto. ‘Seeing all that food made me a little sad…It was so beautiful. Almost too beautiful to eat…’
Richards’ take on Hollywood, then in its much-vaunted ‘Golden Age’, is measured. Wyndham turns out to be rather less noble than the characters he plays on screen, and Kitty slowly realises that what she thought she knew about him, from movies and magazines, may be no more than a well-spun illusion. The women she meets along the way are would-be actresses, their looks on the slide, or careers stalled by the transition to sound.
As in her previous book, Death Was The Other Woman, Richards tells the story from Kitty’s viewpoint, and she often seems to be a keener, if less experienced, detective than her frequently sozzled boss. The contradictions in Kitty’s character – prim and proper, yet also bold and resilient – mirror her circumstances, and enforced transformation from society belle to overworked secretary. When she suggests that Dex should hire a junior detective, he retorts, ‘You come cheaper.’
The banter between Kitty and Dex is sharp and funny, and Richards has a deft grasp of slang and adds period detail with ease. The murder mystery itself seems a little predictable, though perhaps this is a result of reading the past from a contemporary, more jaded perspective.
Dex compares the backlash against Hollywood to Prohibition: ‘See what a bad idea that turned out to be…people shoving their noses in where they don’t belong and a lot of telling people what to do.’ Kitty dismisses his theory as ‘hooey’, but she is younger than Dex and unable to see the historical precedent.
Whether censorship really stymied creativity in Hollywood is debatable. Mae West, queen of innuendo, once quipped, ‘I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.’ But Mae had abandoned movies altogether by the 1940s. While some films were undoubtedly weakened by censorship – particularly in prudishness towards sex – it may also have spurred filmmakers to be more imaginative.
Like its predecessor, Death Was In The Picture boasts a stunning cover image by Richie Fahey. His art evokes the story, and the era wonderfully, and it could easily pass for a vintage pulp novel.
Linda L. Richards has the wit and style to make this more than an exercise in nostalgia. When she writes about the excesses of the twenties, and the harsh economic realities of the Depression, it is hard not to be reminded of what a similar situation we find ourselves in now, almost a century later.
‘This is what I wonder,’ Richards writes, as Kitty. ‘Had the stock market not crashed in 1929, where would it have gone? Because, for a time leading up to 1929, money seemed to breed; seemed to grow unaided…The wild imaginings of the jazz age – the sky’s the limit, forget the cost – were relics. New realities affected every aspect of our lives.’
Whether we will learn anything of lasting value from the hardships endured by Kitty Pangborn’s generation remains to be seen.