Timothy Hallinan’s new character, Junior Bender, is a thief who finds himself acting as a private eye for other criminals. In the latest, The Fame Thief, an influential mobster has him look into a sixty year old scheme that brought down a starlet he loved. It’s a funny, hard boiled, yet, in the end, poignant look at Hollywood both past and present. We talked to Timothy about the The Fame Thief, show biz, the series, and writing in general.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: I remember you talking about The Fame Thief and how excited you were working on it. That sense of fun really came across on the page. What did you find so fun about it?
TIMOTHY HALLINAN: Something happened to me in this book; I realized I could take it anywhere without losing control of it. The 1940s? No problem. A cast of really elderly suspects? No problem. A ghost? No problem. Something about the material in this book opened itself up to me and said, essentially, “Do with me what you will.” In my experience the material usually wants to make more rules than that. (In the fourth Junior, Herbie’s Game, which I’ve just finished, it certainly did.)
Second, I was more comfortable than ever with Junior’s tone. His tone basically dictates the kinds of stories he tells and how he tells them. I can essentially sit back and let him take me wherever he wants, and I’m usually laughing. I know it’s probably difficult to understand for some people who don’t write, but I never see a joke coming until it’s on the page, and then, usually, I laugh at it, and hope the reader will, too. The Fame Thief was simply the most fun I’ve ever had writing.
MP: We seem to share the same fascination with the intersection of organized crime and show business. What do you think the allure is?
TH: Everybody loves show business (even if they say they don’t), and one of the more comic aspects of fandom is that crooks are fans, too. Especially in the 1940s and ’50s, the mob and Hollywood were inextricably tied, and, of course, the mob moved heavily into the music business, too. They went after show business partly because it was a money magnet, but it was also where the stars were, especially the female stars. And the attraction worked both ways. Poor Dolores La Marr is far from bring the only female star who was enamored of mob guys. Like show business, organized crime traded in a kind of glamor, and Hollywood gave some of the most flamboyant mob guys an opportunity to strut their stuff in a way that wouldn’t have been tolerated back in Chicago; Bugsy Seigel, Mickey Cohen, and some of the other Hollywood gangsters were almost movie characters in their own right. And I was fascinated by the idea that one mob guy, Sidney Korshak, the real-life model for Irwin Dressler, represented both the studios and the unions. When there was a labor dispute, Louis B. Mayer said, “Sidney sits alone in a room for half an hour and talks to himself.” I just love that.
One more thing that’s worth remembering is that the early studio heads and the top guys in the Chicago mob had a lot in common. They were refugees from an area Eastern Europe where, on occasion, Jews were killed for sport. They came here and built themselves a ladder to climb out of poverty and powerlessness, and then they protected it. These guys understood each other.
MP: What was one the most fascinating things you discovered in your research of 1950s Hollywood?
TH: The studio system, now long gone, is endlessly fascinating to me. What staggers my imagination is that in about ten years at the beginning of the 20th century a bunch of artists and businessmen—very different people—in the dry hills of Southern California created both an art form and a business model, and they created them simultaneously. There they were, these immigrants from persecution and starvation, and suddenly they were in control of something entirely new: dream palaces. The question was, how to keep the pump flowing, and the studio system, with all its glories and inequities, was the answer. And then, in the ‘6os, talent took over, which actually meant that agents did, and the whole business got dryer, greedier, more expensive, and, therefore, safer.
MP: Thematically, this book has echoes of your first Junior book, Crashed, in the way the film business treats women. What did you want to explore about it in this book?
TH: I think it’s summed up in the scene between Junior and Doug Trent. Trent is no angel; he’s married six actresses, and when Junior asks what that was like, he says it was like being married to one of them. He remembers Dolores as well as he does primarily because of the spectacular way her career was destroyed soon after their film was released, but he doesn’t remember who her friends were, or much of anything personal about her other than that she wasn’t a nightmare to work with, like her costar Olivia DuPont. In the end, he says she was just “one more girl.” Junior asks was that really all she was, and Trent says, “Honey, there are thousands of them. They’re the fuel Hollywood burns.”
Dolores herself has no illusions about the glamor of being in the movies. She makes a point of distinguishing herself and other working actresses from the women who (like her) slept with executives but (unlike her) never got through the studio gates. “We were a meritocracy of sorts,” she says, “even if it was a whorish meritocracy.”
And while I don’t think times have changed, I’d argue that youthful beauty is really the fuel Hollywood burns, female or male. It briefly turns it into money and then, with very few exceptions, tosses it away. On the other hand, they do that with writers, too.
MP: I really enjoy Junior’s relationship with his daughter Rina. What does she provide for Junior?
TH: I’m ashamed to admit that she began as a calculated addition to the cast—someone to make Junior, who is, after all, a professional thief—a little more human and sympathetic. I did the same thing in the Poke Rafferty books; he’s a Western man, living in Bangkok, which automatically raises some eyebrows, but the first time we ever see him, he’s holding his daughter’s hand, following his wife on a shopping trip.
It was important to me to make sure the reader understood from the beginning that these characters, Poke and Junior, were in healthy, loving relationships. That said, Miaow, Poke’s daughter, and Rina function quite differently in the two series—at least, so far. Miaow is a former street child, rescued from the sidewalk while Rina is a middle-class (perhaps upper-middle-class) American kid who’s never endured want, if you don’t count her unhappiness about her mother and father’s divorce. Rina is also dead center in Junior’s guilty conscience. His wife, Kathy, said, essentially, straighten up or move out, and he moved out. So he’s continually aware that he chose to follow a life of crime in preference to keeping his family intact.
So he not only loves her to distraction, but she’s also a little scar on his soul. And he comes face to face with this in the next book, Herbie’s Game.
MP: In both the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty series you have your heroes in a circle of friends composed of people society either ignores or shuns. What should a writer know about those who are outsiders?
TH: Outsiders are the most dependable assets of fiction. There’s not much interesting writing—although there’s some great writing—about absolutely, resolutely normal life: people who get up in the morning and do their best and try to go to bed at night with a clear conscience so they can get up and do it again. When these characters are written, it’s often for the express purpose of bringing them up against an outsider, by which I mean someone who lives outside the rules: could be a crook or a psychopath or a fantasist or a serial adulterer or someone who accumulates power, as some business executives seem to, in order to see how much that power can be abused.
Film provides a great example of the tendency to focus on “normal” people primarily as characters in stories where they come into contact with outsiders, who are often threatening. Over the first 50-60 years of the medium, Americans filmed practically every kind of story, but it wasn’t until we saw some foreign movies in the 50s and early 60s—I’m thinking specifically of Ozu—that we realized it was possible to tell riveting stories about everyday people, doing their best, to whom not much happens—no Events with a capital E. In Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” an older couple comes to Tokyo from the country to spend a few days with their children, who are bored by them and who don’t really have time for them. The older couple goes back home, and a little later the wife dies. The end. Great art. Tragedy, comedy, and endurance of the commonplace. I’d give my eye teeth (and my wisdom teeth, too, all of which I’ve still got) to be able to write that.
But to return to your question, I think any writer can conjure up virtually any kind of outsider by remembering a time when he or she didn’t fit in or was rejected, and then imagining some of the ways that situation could be dealt with by different kinds of people. Some people turn to crime, some to murder, some to self-reinvention or self-deception and the deception of others. Some turn to writing books. We’ve all got embryonic versions inside us of virtually every kind of outsider. Imagination does the rest.
Timothy Hallinan will join Marcia Clark, Josh Stallings, and Jesse Sublett for our L.A. themed Noir At The Bar this Saturday, July 20th at 7pm at Opal Divine’s (6031 South Congress).