"It" girl, 1924, backstage intrigue, Barbara Hambly, book review, gangsters, gossip columnists, historical fiction, Hollywood, moral crusaders, mystery, Prohibition, scholarly sleuth, studio fixers
Review: Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly
Severn, 2021. 233 pp. $27
Camille de la Rose, screen name of Kitty Flint, is the Hollywood “It” girl (a term just come into vogue) of 1924. She couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag, or so thinks her sister-in-law and personal assistant, Emma Blackstone. But that hardly matters. Wherever Kitty goes, whatever she does, her style’s inimitable, and she’s good box office, of course, both on and off the screen.
A single glance can render the sexiest men in Hollywood putty in her hands. Burning the candle at both ends, she arrives on set made up to kill, after four hours’ sleep and much alcohol — who cares about Prohibition, anyway? Trouble is, she doesn’t know when to stop, even after snagging the studio head as her lover and a half-dozen other fellows, more than one of whom might suffer from jealousy.
However, Kitty does get down to work, shooting Empress of Babylon, a cast-of-thousands extravaganza, an improbable drama, yet a fine vehicle for her skills. Unfortunately, a man who married her when she was fifteen is found shot dead in her dressing room, carrying a note from her in his pocket.
Emma — remember the sister-in-law? — believes Kitty, who swears she hasn’t seen her ex in years, though it’s just possible he’s technically not her ex, since the divorce may not have been filed. (That lapse might cause problems, considering that Kitty married someone else afterward, though he’s long gone by now.) Nevertheless, Kitty has no convincing explanation for her whereabouts at the time the murder took place, and though it’s ridiculous to accuse her on the face of it, just what she was up to provides yet another mystery.
The police, gossip columnists, and evangelicals looking to sanitize Hollywood seldom agree on anything, but they’d all love to see a star brought low, whether to nurse their resentment or advance their careers. Kitty looks trapped. Even so, a circumstance sticks out. Since the killing appears a clumsy job, almost amateurish — surely, the accusation against her couldn’t stand up in court —Emma suspects that the criminal wishes above all to embarrass Kitty, and that the amateurishness serves a purpose. But what goal could it have? And who would go to all that trouble, and why?
Scandal in Babylon makes a delightful, well-plotted mystery, with enough unexpected edges to keep you turning the pages. Chief among these is sleuth Emma, a widow because of the Great War and an intellectual among the studio Philistines. English to the teeth — several male characters call her “Duchess” — she read classics at Oxford, has a Latin quote for every occasion, and loved participating in digs with her late father, an archaeologist.
When she’s not tending Kitty’s three Pekinese or cleaning up after the star’s messes (physical or diplomatic), she’s charming thugs who might have information about the murder, rewriting scenes a day ahead of filming, and bemoaning the anachronisms the studio inflicts on history. No, she sighs to herself, imperial Roman statuary could not have appeared in ancient Babylon.
This is all great fun, as is the portrayal of the California version of Babylon, with its gangsters, private detectives, studio fixers determined to keep their employer’s reputation clean at any cost, extras, seducers and seductresses, and, at its pinnacle, the star. Here’s Kitty on the movie set, dealing with a brazen invasion by gossip columnist Thelma Turnbit:
As the journalist extended an arm to catch Dirk Silver [Kitty’s costar] by the elbow, Kitty rose with the fluid grace of a dancer and intercepted her, purring, ‘Thelma, darling!’ Her natural baby-coo transmuted seamlessly to the smoky purr of a man-eater who had, over the past four years, devoured the hearts of two dozen cinematic fools for breakfast. She slipped an arm through that of Mrs. Turnbit, and turned her radiant smile upon the approaching guard and the prop man’s assistant.… Her gesture of thanks towards the director was a miniature miracle of gratitude and stubbornness…
I’d have liked to know more about Madge, the leather-lunged director of this celluloid epic. It’s clear she’s got a story, as a woman in what was then a man’s job. I also find Zal, wizard cameraman and Emma’s love interest, too good to be true. Unlike just about every other male in Hollywood, he’s warm, open, kind, sensitive, and not even a blood corpuscle’s worth jealous or territorial. But the other characters work well enough, and the novel rests chiefly on the atmosphere, often hilarious, and the well-tuned story, in which Hambly keeps raising the stakes.
Scandal in Babylon is a hoot and a well-crafted mystery, and I enjoyed it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.