Weak postwar thriller highlights Hollywood celebs
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It's 1945. The war is over, and filmmaker Ben Collier, still in the U.S. Army, is returning from Europe to Hollywood, to settle family matters.
Atria Books ($27.95)
It seems his brother Daniel, a successful film producer, has been killed in an "accidental" fall from the balcony of an apartment he ostensibly rented to use for extramarital encounters.
On the train from New York, Ben meets movie mogul Sol Lasner, who suffers a heart attack on board. When Ben saves Sol's life, he's hired at the fictional Continental Studio to make a documentary about the death camps -- horrors which everyone else is trying to cover up.
Thus begins the latest historical fiction by Joseph Kanon, who centers his thrillers in the World War II era.
Staying temporarily at his brother's house, Ben learns that Daniel's marriage had been one of convenience, an act that enabled his German-Jewish wife Liesl to escape from the Nazis.
The facts of Daniel's death don't add up to an accident, however, and before long Ben is embroiled in investigating what really happened. It's also not long before he and Liesl are having a sizzling affair.
Their affair is not without guilt, and the mystery of who killed Daniel becomes only a minor part of the complicated, overwritten plot that unfolds too slowly to maintain interest for its 504 pages.
There are too many subplots and loose ends to be resolved before the unspectacular, too-predicable ending. What matters more is the political environment that sprang out of World War II. Everyone connected with filmmaking here seems to be a communist, an ex-Nazi, a spy for one or the other side or a double agent.
Add to the mix union riots, the FBI and an ambitious right-wing congressman running trials that foreshadow the congressional 1947 assault on Hollywood, and you still have only a few threads of Kanon's labyrinthine scenario.
Kanon's depiction of the politics of hate and fear, hostility toward unions and corruption among all those in power has a decidedly modern ring. Somewhere in the midst of all this the original mystery hardly matters.
It's fun, however, to watch the way the author joins real-life personalities of the time -- Bertolt Brecht, Paulette Goddard, Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann, even Jack Warner -- with the characters of his imagined tale. At times, though, they use 21st-century lingo that doesn't ring true.
Curiously enough, the story, too, lacks a ring of truth, even though Kanon takes only minimal artistic license with actual historical events.
First Published October 25, 2009 12:00 am