L.A. Weekly recently conducted an online tournament to determine the greatest L.A. novel of all time. The entries and the ultimate winner make for some interesting reading, both for which books made the cut and those that didn’t get a nod. I am willing to wager that if a similar contest is held in 10 years or so, you will find one of Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender novels --- CRASHED, LITTLE ELVISES, or the newly published THE FAME THIEF --- somewhere in the running.
After reading the latest installment over the past couple of days, I found myself looking up from the page and wondering how I suddenly had been transported back to my familiar, somewhat pedestrian environs in Westerville, Ohio, as opposed to traversing the streets of Los Angeles with the competent and wisecracking Bender. Is the book that good? Absolutely!
"Read THE FAME THIEF. It’s a great book, an interesting mystery, and one of the best novels about living in Los Angeles that I’ve read in a while. I can’t give it any higher praise than that."
While Hallinan is probably better known for his exotic Poke Rafferty series set in Bangkok, the Bender novels stand tall and strong in their own right. Bender is a professional thief who works at the request and pleasure of criminals; his personality and strict moral code (yes, really) somehow make what he does seem okay, unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end of his talents. So what we have here is a guy who, in the short course of three novels, has maneuvered himself --- with some help from Hallinan, of course --- to the forefront of the pantheon of L.A. anti-heroes. This isn’t always a good thing for Bender, who at the beginning of THE FAME THIEF once again finds himself in the less-than-benevolent presence of the ancient but still-dangerous Irwin Dressler, a mob boss whose ring, among other things, is kissed by anyone desirous of making a movie that has even the slightest chance of success.
Dressler retains --- nay, commands --- Bender to solve what amounts to a 60-year-old mystery concerning a once up-and-coming starlet named Dolores La Marr. Dolly was on the cusp of major stardom when she was caught in a compromising position at a Las Vegas party full of career criminals. The resultant publicity and a stint before the Kefauver Senate committee hearings on organized crime took her film career from 60 to zero in record time. Dolly is still on this side of the veil, living on memories and what might have been, but Bender still wonders what the point of this five-finger exercise is, given that Dolly’s potential as a film actress is more than long gone and that whoever may have set her up so many decades ago is undoubtedly dead themselves.
Nevertheless, it quickly becomes clear to Bender that someone wants the past to stay buried, particularly when he narrowly escapes an incident that nearly puts the investigation --- and Bender himself --- permanently on the cooling board. Fortunately, Bender’s love interest, the very capable Veronica “Ronnie” Bigelow, is along for the ride, because he needs all the help he can get.
In addition to Dressler, a client who will not take “no” for an answer, Bender’s ex-wife is looking to sell their former home, unaware that the sale is part of a shady real estate scheme that her new boyfriend has cooked up. At the same time, a somewhat twisted hitwoman presents Bender with a matter to investigate: someone, who may or may not be her daughter, may or may not be coming to town to kill her.
Bender sorts out all of these things in due course and time, and not necessarily neatly, but a great deal of the fun here is the journey between the beginning and the end. And make no mistake about it: Hallinan is a wordsmith par excellence. A particular section of the book deals with Dolly’s background and the events leading up to the point at which she began her movie career. I was tempted to tear that portion out and paste it on the wall, as an example to all of what good --- let’s make that excellent --- writing is all about. I didn’t do that, so I’m recommending it to you instead.
Read THE FAME THIEF. It’s a great book, an interesting mystery, and one of the best novels about living in Los Angeles that I’ve read in a while. I can’t give it any higher praise than that.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 26, 2013