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Girl, Interrupted: Denise Hamilton's The Last Embrace 

Wednesday, Jul 23 2008

In 2001, an editor at Scribner sent me the manuscript of a first novel called TheJasmine Trade by a Los Angeles Times reporter named Denise Hamilton. It was an intriguing, contemporary story built around some Asian teenagers whose parents left them on their own in San Marino mansions while they returned to distant countries to run their businesses. I wrote an enthusiastic endorsement. Since then, there have been four more well-received novels and an anthology called Los Angeles Noir. So I didn’t open Hamilton’s new book, The LastEmbrace,without expectations.

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In it, Hamilton resuscitates one of the great, enduring fictional situations, the one in which a lone, mysterious stranger shows up in a small town and begins asking questions about a missing person. It’s the plot of Bad Day at Black Rock and of High Plains Drifter. Only in Hamilton’s rendition, both the stranger and the victim are beautiful young women, and the corrupt, cowardly little town is Hollywood.

It’s October 1949. After the long trip from Champaign, Illinois, Lily Kessler steps off a train at Union Station, looking like one of the legion of pretty, naive newcomers seeking an acting career. She’s actually something else, a woman who spent the war in Europe spying for the OSS, and she has the skills of an investigator, the persistence of a termite and a sacred trust to fulfill. The mother of her fiancé, an OSS officer killed in Europe, has asked her to find her only remaining child, an actress called Kitty Hayden, who left her boarding house one night and didn’t return.

The 1949 Los Angeles Lily steps into has hard, clear edges, and it feels right. Hamilton the former reporter is respectful of facts. She knows which building occupied what plot of land, and gives us an authentic sense of the way the city looked, sounded and smelled. Any book set in another time challenges the reader to look for anachronisms and slip-ups, but here they’ll find only the trivial. The worst, I think, is a passenger on a trolley listening to a transistor radio that wouldn’t be mass-produced until 1954.

But Hamilton is after something better than a time-travelogue of 1949 L.A. Lily’s first stop is the Wilcox Boardinghouse for Young Ladies, where she meets the group of aspiring actresses who are Kitty Hayden’s friends and housemates. The atmosphere begins to darken with the introductions. “My fiancé got blown up by a mine on the Loire,” Red said. “Just think. I could have had three squalling brats and a house in Burbank by now.” Another actress, Fumiko, spent the war in an internment camp. Everybody’s life has been interrupted or destroyed by the war, and the bravado that propels these women into show business has about it the desperation of last chances. None of them knows where Kitty might be, but there is a growing fear among them that the news can’t be good.

The women still have the Black Dahlia murder on their minds. “It could have been me,” Kitty Hayden thinks in the opening chapter. “It could have been so many young women I know.”

And before long, Lily finds that something like it has happened to Kitty. Her strangled body, with one shoe missing, is found beneath the Hollywood sign. Lily’s mission changes to a hunt for Kitty’s killer. She goes about it by talking — interviewing everybody who knew Kitty, and everybody who might have reason to know anything about her death. Each day, she attracts the attention of frightening people — at the studios, on the police force and elsewhere — who have reasons to want her to stop.

1949 L.A. is a dangerous, ugly place. Gangsters Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna are fighting a war over it, occasionally picking off members of the opposite faction in public places. The police department is full of corruption carried out in the casual, routine way characteristic of some Third World countries. The police chief and his deputy are both already under indictment, and the D.A.’s office is reputed to be worse. In a nice scene, we see one of Lily’s informants, a photographer named Harry Jack, turned down for a job at the L.A. Times by a drunken editor who delivers an anti-Semitic rant before Harry knocks him over, breaking the bottle in the editor’s back pocket. The movie studios ruthlessly control both their employees’ private lives and the news about them. The city is an inescapable enclosure where cops, actors, gangsters, studio executives, and reporters are tangled in a complicated system of reciprocal favors, bribery, blackmail, greed and fear.

But young women have the most to fear: This Hollywood is a place where actors, directors and studio executives sexually exploit the hordes who think they’ll be stars if only some powerful man gives them a chance. Women are patronized without being protected. They’re used to being called — and calling themselves — “gals.” And the term fits. All of these women, even the ones who were independent and held vital positions during the war, are now detained in a perpetual girlhood, living at the mercy of the men who run everything. The door that opened briefly during the national emergency has now been closed.

And more murders occur — young, pretty women. One victim is Florence Kwitney, who lost her job at Hughes Aircraft after V-day, and lost her fiancé in the South Pacific. The next is Louise, the girl who first reported Kitty missing. The victims have little in common other than gender and age. All any young woman has to do to place herself in danger is to be alone on the street, where a man can throw her in a car and take her away. Hamilton has constructed a convincing, suspenseful feminist nightmare. Life is scary for these women, and it shows every sign of getting worse — more constricting, more threatening, more dangerous.

As in nightmares, the way evil takes women in The Last Embrace is a pursuit. As a man chases her, the woman tries to run away wearing high heels that catch on things, come off or sink into sand. The few passersby don’t seem to notice, and when she screams for help, all the attacker has to say is, “She’s my wife, and she’s been drinking,” and they go away. And even if she can make it to the safety of a passing car, the driver just might turn out to be a second attacker.

Fighting this pervading evil are two people. One is Lily, who won’t go away and won’t stop asking questions. Lily is watched, chased, stalked, nearly raped, kidnapped and shot at with a submachine gun, but she won’t give up until she knows the truth. The other is her lover, Detective Stephen Pico, who detests the corruption around him and, fortunately, carries the badge and gun that, in this time and place, Lily lacks. The couple’s victory is realistically limited. In the real world, the good guys never vanquish evil. They only put one or two bad people away. But this time they do a fine, entertaining job of it.

THE LAST EMBRACE | By DENISE HAMILTON | Scribner | 400 pages | $15 softcover

Thomas Perry is the author of 16 novels, including, most recently, Fidelity.

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