Death Takes a Meeting

The entertainment industry's narcotic dependence upon physical beauty and its denial of mortality have inflicted upon Southern California an obsession with youth, plastic surgery, reincarnation, even cryogenics. Los Angeles provides a unique nexus where beauty, money and death inevitably intersect - sometimes head-on. This potent combination has proven almost as mesmerizing to the American imagination as Hollywood itself. A teen idol's overdose or the murder of a starlet flatters our tabloid morality, which demands that vanity and power, youth and beauty, must and will be punished with pain, decay and death.

Predictably, a lucrative trade has sprung up catering to this ghoulish fascination: There are racks of gossip magazines packed with unflattering photographs of celebrities, along with shelves of books dedicated to Hollywood's scandals and unsolved murders, tours of locations, as well as funereal guides and Web sites that form a kind of star map of the dead. Tony Blanche (nebulously described on his book jacket as "fifth-generation Californian") and entertainment writer Brad Schreiber hope to coast into this crowded market on the stainless-steel autopsy tables of the L.A. Coroner's Department.

This seems like a smart approach, but the authors employ the Coroner's Office merely as an excuse to exhume a lot of glamour deaths, instead of as a wry counterpoint to Hollywood narcissism. Almost all of the murders and suicides discussed in Death in Paradise: An Illustrated History of the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner have been covered much more extensively - and readably - elsewhere. By now the details of how the Black Dahlia, Marilyn Monroe and Sharon Tate met their deaths are practically the stuff of jump-rope rhymes; in fact, nearly every page here vibrates with deja vu, so that, unsurprisingly, Death in Paradise's lesser-known subjects (Marion Parker, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruben Salazar) are its most interesting ones. Or rather, they should be, except that the brief passages devoted to them display the analytical depth of a baseball card.

This defiantly humorless book is also ineptly structured. The familiar preface depicts Los Angeles as a tainted mirage, then moves on to an overview of what the coroner does, emphasizing the department's respect for the dead, its compassion for victims' families and its sensitivity toward the deceased. After this, Blanche-Schreiber's repetitious, term-paper prose ("Since the dawn of civilization . . .") takes us backward in time to the beginnings of the profession. Following a cursory tour of antiquity, where the authors confide, "Around 300 B.C. . . . Alexandria, Egypt, had developed into a world-renowned center for medical reading and research, attracting scholars from around the globe," we return to Los Angeles. Blanche-Schreiber glance at a few frontier-era murders and acts of mob violence, then swing into modern times - that is to say, Hollywood: the William Desmond Taylor shooting; the fatal knifing of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner's daughter; the Robert Kennedy assassination. In almost all of these cases the reportage is marinated in suggestions of foul play and cover-up, although the authors pony up no new evidence to buttress their reflexive innuendo.

The simple fact about such "mysterious" deaths is that they become suspicious only when they involve the rich, beautiful or famous. When Joe Mugs drunkenly falls asleep in a garage with his car running, his death is seen as inevitable, but the identical asphyxiation of Thelma Todd suddenly becomes part of an eternal Hollywood mystery play involving sex and violence. It goes without saying that Blanche-Schreiber waste no space on fat, homely and old William Inge's 1973 carbon-monoxide death in the playwright's West Hollywood garage. For them, apparently, sometimes a suicide is just a suicide.

Concluding its homicidal roll call with the Simpson-Goldman murders, the book returns yet again to a lesson in the methods and good deeds of the Coroner's Office, once more stressing its employees' compassion, respect, etc. A silhouette of Dr. Thomas Noguchi is glimpsed, but the book lint-rolls the reputation of this publicity-ravenous chief coroner, while overlooking such recent departmental shenanigans as the cornea-harvesting racket, body mix-ups and Simpson-case boners. The authors evidently believe that, in return for the privilege of being able to publish a few unshocking archive photos, they are obligated to airbrush this controversial bureaucracy's record, and go so far as to list the phone number and address of its gift shop.

Blanche-Schreiber might be forgiven these shortcomings if the two appeared to have a genuine interest in their subject. Alas, they come across as a pair of indifferent docents leading us through an unfamiliar museum. The section (all 560 words of it) on the death of TV Superman George Reeves, for example, reads as though it had been dashed off on a cocktail napkin, ignoring Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger's readable, well-researched autopsy of the subject, Hollywood Kryptonite, which presents compelling evidence to suggest that Reeves was murdered. Accordingly, Blanche-Schreiber make no mention of the conspiratorial web that Kashner and Schoenberger found, potentially connecting Columbia Pictures' Eddie Mannix, LAPD Chief William Parker and Chief Coroner Theodore J. Curphey. With similar indolence, Blanche-Schreiber explain how Charles Manson and his followers escaped the gas chamber by noting that their death sentences were commuted to life "when California's laws were changed" - rather than the fact that this commutation occurred when the state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

It would be petty to harp on the occasional small mistakes that may surface in a work of historical research. Are we to dismiss an exhaustive study like Joan Mellen's Hellman and Hammett because she inadvertently moves the start of the Spanish Civil War up a year? Even the authors of Hollywood Kryptonite erroneously raised an outlandish possibility by hinting that George Reeves played Russian roulette with an automatic pistol. But needless mistakes completely permeate Death in Paradise, many of whose dates and ages are off by a year or two, leading us to suspect that the authors' research mostly consisted of strip-mining the World Wide Web and Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. For the record, Manson Family victim Steven Earl Parent was not one of Sharon Tate's friends, Kato Kaelin never wrote an O.J. Simpson book, nor did the LAPD-Symbionese Liberation Army shootout last two hours. These are only a few of the many inaccurate statements contained in Death in Paradise.

Just when the book's shoddy scholarship begins to irritate, it becomes plain that accuracy isn't an issue here because we're not really meant to read the text with any care. Mumble some tired cliches about Los Angeles being a defective dream factory, recycle someone else's thoughts about L.A. noir, then tie them together with a knowing reference to the Owens Valley, and you've got a book as thin and flat as the coffee table it's meant to cover.