Not offered the job, she sits in her car on Vermont steeped in self-pity. “At that moment, I wanted a chiliburger almost as much as I wanted world peace.” With three dollars and change to her name, an empty belly, and an empty gas tank, she spots a beacon on the hill, in this case a billboard on Vermont — a plea for information on the August 18 hit-and-run murder of Haley Joseph, tip hotline and reward included.
Kellye Garrett, a former Cold Case writer, brings an industry-informed eye to the workings and fringes of Hollywood and L.A. geography. Her Los Angeles is less about gritty reality and more about aspirations for reality TV, like the dreams of Dayna’s friend Sienna. In Garrett’s Los Angeles, the mean streets are replaced by the menace posed by narrow roads found around the old parts of the city: “The planners of yesteryear hadn’t anticipated a world of SUVs and minivans. … If another car was coming in the opposite direction, you had to play chicken and hope for the best.”
Our narrator’s wry asides and commentary on entertainment comings, goings, aspirations, and insecurities form an engaging parallel narrative alongside Dayna’s pursuit of the murderer:
Hollywood is high school with prettier clothes and better lunch options. You study scripts, not textbooks. Try out for roles, not varsity. Take screen tests, not math exams. And you vote for Oscars, not prom king. Movie premieres are like a school dance, an excuse to dress up and take pictures, except you don’t have a school dance every week. You do have a premiere.
Dayna’s last dollars — as well as a few thousand borrowed from Sienna — have been spent on an honorable cause: to save her parents’ home in Florida from foreclosure. Except the handler that she paid handily pocketed the funds for himself. Our now impoverished reluctant amateur sleuth decides to investigate the hit-and-run death for the not-so-Hollywood sum of $15,000. She knows she’ll need the help of her Greek chorus cluster of close friends, embodying different aspects of the Hollywood experience.
Her crew includes: Sienna, size double zero to Dayna’s size 10, who has rescued Dayna from near homelessness by offering her shelter in her “bloset,” a walk-in closet stuffed with thousands of dollars’ worth of designer shoes. Preening at premieres, Sienna hopes to parlay an ironic spotlight in a gossip columnist’s blog into the pinnacle and embodiment of 21st-century success: her own reality show.
There’s the former child star who renounced acting at age five. Emme is a towering blonde, and identical twin to two-time Oscar nominee Toni. A complete gamer geek, at home she is multiply plugged in (game, multi-gamer, online spying) and slinks around in a T-shirt emblazoned with: “The Princess Saves Herself.” Emme’s online sleuthing skills provide Dayna with necessary information throughout the novel.
Then there’s Omari Grant, tapped to star as Jamal Fine in a cop series, the love interest that haunts our heroine and has her displaying intense interest and attraction by using that old standby: ignoring him completely. (I personally would like to have a better sense of just what this fine young actor looks like, to enhance my vicarious thrill of Dayna’s crush.)
As Dayna scrutinizes the billboard, she realizes that all four of them were together the night of the hit and run, and that Omari’s phone may even hold a vital clue. Dayna has a great sense of humor, but at times little sense of urgency. When she finally dives in and begins investigating, she finds her way to Clothes Encounters, where Haley Joseph worked. There she is trailed by Victory, Haley’s ex, and startled by Aubrey S. Adams-Parker, a professional investigator. In fact, Dayna is plagued by the appearance of Adams-Parker at nearly each turn as she hunts for clues. He delivers withering words of sleuthing advice while Dayna wonders if he’s a competitor or a potential collaborator.
Throughout the novel our narrator remains offhandedly and unexpectedly funny. Once again mistaken for someone else, she opines, “[T]here is at least one black person everywhere. Folks all seem to think that lone integrationist is me.” Later while on a stakeout she and Sienna spot a possible suspect who “was dressed to the nines. Unfortunately she was a three at the most.” Upon meeting another suspect she thinks, “His teeth were whiter than a Klan rally.” And before a premiere, she describes the Cinerama Dome, “which looked like a giant dirty golf ball wedged halfway into the ground.”
Pinched and pressed for funds on all sides, at least she has the support of her best friend. Dayna thinks Sienna could be one of many ethnicities, but decides Sienna is black:
I think. […] You only really have a three-month window to ask those sorts of things and I’d missed it. So I resorted to context clues. She said weave, not extensions. Ashy, not dry. Thick, not plus-sized. And last Thanksgiving she made the most amazing sweet potato — not pumpkin — pie.
While race in this stridently racist world is not a central component of the novel, we see deft knowing moments of shared heritage, particularly between Dayna and her love interest Omari, as well as the waitress at their favorite home-style diner who has a few carnal thoughts about Omari herself.
One of the joys of this novel is the perspective of a contemporary sleuth, immersed in the contemporary zeitgeist (texting acronyms are translated for the less-than-au-courant readers), along with enjoyable use of cultural markers and identities. A subplot involves a group of thieves referred to as the Rack Pack, similar to the Bling Ring, who break into the homes of celebrities to take clothing and accessories.
Garrett is playful with the setting as well as with Hollywood tropes. Clothes Encounters, a vintage and consignment clothing store on Vermont stars prominently, as Dayna and her crew tease out the connection — Hayley was killed on the street nearby, and what does that mean? At other moments, the action takes place in a high-end restaurant or a looming Hollywood house on a hill. The gated mansion that belongs to Toni, Emme’s twin sister has its necessary close-up. And what’s the point of having one of a set of twins as a friend, unless you can parlay an impersonation into potentially outing the killer?
Each time Dayna thinks she and her posse are narrowing in on the murderer, and the reward money and the ability to rescue her parents from foreclosure, the plot twists, the killer scrambles free, and the solution remains in the hazy distance.
A few quibbles: The dialogue is great and funny, and the setting is vivid, but at times the supporting cast members are represented by only their name next to their dialogue. Visual details would have helped me keep track of the many briefly appearing cast members, and underlined the multihued cast Garrett has created. The multiple twists and turns toward the end are involving, but drawn out, and I wondered if a little nip and tuck would have tightened the narrative and heightened the reader’s sense of suspense.
As a whole the novel is quick paced, utterly beguiling, and enjoyable. Set in a world not known for either its prudery or censorship, our heroine is refreshingly, sweetly PG rated, with curse words ranging from “fudge” to “fudge.” Full of California jokes and Hollywood jabs, Garrett takes the reader through an easy-reading romp filled with switchbacks and humor along the way. Like listening to an entertaining and exasperating friend, you affectionately and happily read to the Hollywood Homicide ending.