I’d like to introduce Sheila York who is our Guest Blogger today on Author Expressions. After a long career in radio and TV, Sheila York began writing novels combining her love of history, mysteries and the movies. Set in glamorous, dangerous post-war
, her series features
screenwriter/reluctant heiress/amateur sleuth Lauren Atwill (and her lover,
private detective Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the Great Golden Age of
Film. You can read or listen to more about Lauren and No Broken Hearts, the fourth
book in the Lauren Atwill mystery series, at www.sheilayork.com. Hollywood
Okay, here’s Sheila!
School for Scandal
I love scandals. When I hear or read about one, I have three thoughts: “Could I use this in a book?” “Would it work in the 1940s?” and “How could I make what happened even worse?”
Bear in mind, I mean a good scandal. I don’t mean modern-day celebrity gossip: Doping, divorcing, gaining 10 pounds. There are rarely dramatic possibilities in the predictable.
‘Novel’, after all, didn’t come from the Latin for ‘heard that one before.’
Three of my four Lauren Atwill mysteries were inspired by scandals, even if by the time I finished, you wouldn’t recognize the source.
For NO BROKEN HEARTS, I had a (really) vague idea that the story would involve Lauren’s being loaned out to a second-rate studio by Marathon, the major studio with which she’d just signed a contract. During the period of the ‘studio system’, studios produced films on their own lots using talent under often long-term contracts. Those contracts permitted the studios to loan out the talent, who’d have no say in the matter. They could refuse, but then they’d be suspended without pay. Or sued. Or both. Studios could keep their stars in line – even to the extent of making them get married or break up with lovers the studios deemed inappropriate – by threatening to loan them to second- and even third-tier studios.
My amateur sleuth’s screenwriting talents have for years been relegated to script-doctoring because she compromised a promising career trying to save her marriage to a philandering star. Promised her first screen credit in years, Lauren would be rightly furious about being loaned out. And then immediately scared that somebody’d noticed that recently when she signs on to ‘doctor’ a film, somebody dies. Those kinds of whispers could kill a career in a hurry, especially a struggling one. There is no place more superstitious than Lauren’s Hollywood.
It was a start, but I’d need a murder.
Hollywood took care of its own with a singular intensity in the Golden Age, the studios having so much invested in their stars. Studio publicity teams crafted stories to fit movie fans’ fantasies and handed them to reporters and magazine writers, who mostly played along. There wasn’t as much profit in humiliation back then. Not that reporters were higher minded. And not that there weren’t magazines that wallowed in tawdry sex stories (we meet one of these photographers in NO BROKEN HEARTS). But for mainstream publications, writers (and their editors) knew which side they wanted their bread buttered on, and it wasn’t the side that hit the carpet. For those who cooperated, the perks were substantial – cash; invitations to premieres, parties and yachts; exclusive stories; being welcomed as a friend by he-man stars and beautiful women. (Note the blurb for the story inside about Gene Tierney’s ‘Switch to Sex’. It’s not likely to deliver the implied steam. By the way, the actress on the cover is Dorothy Lamour.)
The scandal that inspired me to NO BROKEN HEARTS is a Hollywood rumor from the Golden Age of Film that a legendary star (whose name I won’t repeat because I doubt this story) once killed someone in a hit and run. Because there was a crushed fender and witnesses with a license number, one version of the story goes, the star’s studio forced an underling to confess to being behind the wheel and to serve manslaughter time by giving him money, promising him future employment, and making clear they’d make sure he never got another job in Hollywood if he didn’t. And the star let them do it.
How could I make all that even worse?
Well, first off, it wouldn’t be a hit and run. It would be murder. Premeditated, brutal murder. And the studio would cover it up. Lauren would of course find the body. And be threatened to keep her mouth shut. But being Lauren, she wouldn’t cover up for a killer. Soooooo, there’d have to be a reason she couldn’t go to the police. What if the star were not only someone she adores, but also someone she believes is innocent? What if he claims he didn’t do it, and she saw things at the crime scene that make her think he’s telling the truth? If she talks, at best, she’d ruin him and end her own career as well. At worst, she could end up sending an innocent man to the gas chamber.
What if she couldn’t trust the police? Could they be involved in the cover-up? Police corruption was endemic in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Film. Payoffs, cover-ups, frame-ups. And Hollywood was awash in bribe money. (While the scandal pictured in this headline isn’t Hollywood-related, it’s one of my favorites. It turned out cops planted the bomb because the guy was investigating police corruption for a private citizen. Fortunately, they failed to kill him.)
What could be worse than knowing a killer is out there, but you’d never work again if you opened your month and you might ruin an innocent man, and you couldn’t trust the cops to find the killer? The killer could decide the best way to save himself is to kill the witness. That had possibilities.
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Comments or questions for Sheila are welcome.