I’ve been more than a little bit obsessed with reading classic film-related books lately, especially since I got a Kindle a while ago and now have access to the inexpensive e-editions. (Some of them even pop up in the Amazon monthly/daily deals sections. I got a Hitchcock biography for $2.99 that way! Woohoo!)
One of my first purchases on Kindle was SILENTS! by H.P. Oliver. I discovered H.P.’s work through Twitter and was very excited to finally be able to read this book, as well as his other work. (SILENTS! is also available in printed form, but the $4.95 Kindle price is a lot more comfortable for this broke college gal’s bank account.)
Here’s some of the synopsis of SILENTS! from H.P.’s website:
“Lillian Lawrence, the silent-era’s newest starlet is found shot to death in her room at the Hollywood Hotel only days after she announces plans to leave motion pictures for the less glamorous roles of wife and mother. Lillian’s many friends at the studio and her legion of fans across America are all asking the same question: Who could have done such a dastardly deed?
That is exactly what Los Angeles Police Department homicide detectives Robert Winfield and C. K. Mackie are determined to find out as we follow them down the boulevards and through the back alleys of Hollywood in search of the one person who would profit from Lillian Lawrence’s death.”
I was pretty much guaranteed to like this book for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s a crime drama/mystery — a genre which I’m a total sucker for, as you may have picked up on from many of the films I’ve reviewed. It’s also set in the silent era, smack in the middle of Hollywood. Double win, since old Hollywood and particularly Hollywood in the silent era fascinates me.
Sure enough, SILENTS! does not disappoint.
H.P. Oliver proves himself as a writer with masterful attention to historical detail in this novel. The reader becomes completely engulfed in silent-era Hollywood, so much so that we can picture every step our two detectives take. The farthest west I’ve traveled is Missouri, so it was quite a feat for this story to bring California – a place I’ve never been – so vividly to life in my mind.
For classic film fans, the characters of SILENTS! will seem quite familiar. Our heroes, Winfield and Mackie, bring to mind the detectives that we all love from hard-boiled mystery films. That’s not to say these characters are dull, familiar stereotypes, because they certainly are not; rather, I can picture actors like Humphrey Bogart or Joseph Cotten portraying them if this book had been published in the ’30s or ’40s and adapted into a screenplay.
Winfield and Mackie are a “veteran detective and new guy on the force” team who work very well together, though they don’t yet have a complete grasp on each others’ capabilities as detectives. The sense of comradery between them and the moments when they are impressed with each others’ work are nice to read.
I find that a lot of detective novels feel the need to plot detectives against each other completely, leaving them embattled in a power struggle that distracts from the meat of the plot, but there is none of that here. Winfield and Mackie seem to harbor a bit of skepticism toward each other at first, but with no animosity.
Lillian Lawrence and her best friend Mae White are reminiscent of many classic starlets, full of charm and glamour. I imagine that when Lillian was alive they would have had a fun, exciting friendship like those portrayed in the Screen Snapshots series of “life as a movie star” shorts.
From the language used in their dialogue to Oliver’s fantastic aesthetic descriptions of them, every character in this novel suits the period very well.
As for the story, SILENTS! is wholly engrossing. I would pick it up for an hour of reading and end up spending four hours wrapped up in it instead. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, another bombshell would be dropped and I would be forced back into unsure territory. I was not quickly able to decipher who would be revealed as the culprit of the murder, and in fact Oliver deliberately misleads the reader away from the truth. This works enormously in the book’s favor, because as much as I love mysteries it’s terribly easy for them to become predictable.
H.P. Oliver’s attention to detail and creativity put SILENTS! a cut above other historical mysteries. I would consider this a must-read for classic film fans or fans of mystery books in general.
Disclaimer: H.P. and I follow each other on Twitter, but I purchased this book with my own funds and my opinion has not at all been influenced by happenings in the Twitterverse. I genuinely loved this book and wanted to share it with my fellow classic film obsessors by providing a review. :)