I’d been meaning to read J.I. Baker’s The Empty Glass for some time, even though I’ve never been interested in the conspiracy of Marilyn Monroe’s death. It had received glowing reviews and a heartfelt endorsement from one of my favorite authors, Megan Abbott. I finally picked it up after it came out in paperback. If you haven’t read it yet, get it now.
Baker locks you into his narrator, Ben Fitzgerald, from the start. Ben’s an LA deputy coroner, separated from his wife after a possibly trumped up scandal. When called to Marilyn Monroe’s modest home, everything looks out of place to him. He definitely knows it is not a suicide, the way his superiors want it ruled. With the help of a gossip columnist and Monroes’ Little Red Book diary he stole, he goes looking for the truth.
That truth leads to a hellish descent in the City Of Angels. He becomes discredited, his family is threatened, and he gets roughed up by criminal and cop alike (you’ll never look at a cucumber the same way again). Some historical figures, like Sinatra and “patriotic” gangster Johnny Roselli, figure into the crime. As you’d suspect, so do the Kennedys, but the way they do is a kicker.
Baker’s style fits perfectly to the story and character. It is spare, but not terse, giving a rich flow to a period and place more as a state of mind. He occasionally breaks the fourth wall, with Ben talking to the reader (or someone), which makes him a less than reliable narrator while still keeping a strong narrative drive. In a subtle way, it presents more possibilities for the plot as we doubt Fitzgerald’s sanity.
Baker uses the Marilyn Monroe conspiracy, then transcends it. He gives us such a strong point of view that it becomes more about Fitzgerald’s life and downfall. Even the Monroe diary passages seem more of Ben’s perception of her writing than her actual words. He also uses the setting to look at an LA that is losing the classic glamor it has relied on for so many years.
The Empty Glass is a fresh take on historical noir. It finds the moody, downward spiral of it’s subject matter and brings it to a full, dark bloom. When J.I. Baker’s next novel comes out, I won’t be waiting for the paperback.
Copies of The Empty Glass are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.