CITY OF FALLEN ANGELS by Howard Engel (Cormorant), 226 pages, $20 paper. Rating: NN
The latest Howard Engel mystery is both terrific and awful. As an evocation of Hollywood just before the U.S. entered the Second World War, it's very entertaining. As a whodunnit, it's deadly dull.
Foreign correspondent Mike Ward is a committed journalist who's covered key conflicts all over the world. But now the Canadian wire service has sent him to cover L.A.'s star-obsessed culture, and he's out of his depth - literally. He doesn't know what to do with Tinseltown's shallowness, and it's taking him forever to get acclimatized.
When heavy-hitting studio producer Mark Norman is found dead, Ward's newspaperman instincts tell him not to believe the suicide scenario that other media have fallen for. His attempts to dig further make him persona non grata to the studios and the police they've bought off, and a target for... that's a key plot point.
Engel uses the pre-war Hollywood setting skilfully. Everyone's talking about the war in Europe and whether the U.S. should join in, and his recreations of famous celebrities are a big fun. He turns John Barrymore into a fading though erudite boozehound with a silver tongue, F. Scott Fitzgerald comes across as bitter and dissolute, and two expert makeup artists come in very handy when Ward needs to disguise his identity at a funeral.
But the main character is a bit of snooze, much less relatable than Engel's more famous protagonist, the endearing Benny Cooperman.
And the mystery itself is a mess. Coincidences are eye-rollingly spectacular. Major players keep changing their attitudes toward Ward for reasons unknown, and Engel has his man heading off to destinations without giving us a clue why he's going there or why the people he visits are giving him the time of day. The deceased producer's studio has already threatened Ward. Why would they let him in the door?
Worse, there's almost zero tension until the last 10 pages.
Despite those savvy celebrity characterizations, there aren't many thrills in this thriller.