tinseltown book coverReviewed by A.D. Cole

I requested this book when I saw it being compared to The Devil In the White City by Erik Larson. It’s been a personal resolve of mine to broaden my reading horizons by picking up non-fiction once in a while. Erik Larson showed me that a well-written history can be every bit the entertaining page-turner that a novel can. I’d hoped Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood would be the same. And I was not disappointed.

Don’t know much about the age of silent movies? William J. Mann brings the setting to life before your very eyes. History, to me, is a bit of a black-and-white, flat image that reads like a textbook, until I open a book like Tinseltown. And now I see 1920’s New York with it’s ambitious men racing to build the highest skyscrapers; the emergence of the film industry from penny arcades to the full-length blockbusters of today; and a very familiar push and pull of politics and religion amidst the production of entertainment–censorship is an underlying villain throughout the book.

Ultimately, though, the story centers around a murder mystery. It opens with the discovery of film director William Desmond Taylor’s body. Following this, we go back sixteen months to witness the events leading up to the murder. Several factors come to play, including film mogul Adolph Zukor’s unending ambition and his battle against scandal and censorship; the characters of three very different young actresses, each uniquely connected to Taylor; and a Hollywood filled with secrets bubbling precariously beneath its shiny surface.

There are also Taylor’s own secrets. A wholesome façade may have been of utmost importance, but for the rich and famous then, as it is today, it wasn’t difficult to find fodder for their vices.

Tinseltown is secondarily a history of Prohibition-era Hollywood. At the end of the book, Mann is talking of one of the characters when he says, “People remembered Mary and her lacy, pipe-curled companions as saccharine and simplistic, hardly doing justice to the vibrant, passionate personalities of the era.” This is what books like this do for us. They enlighten our understanding and give us a more human connection with people from the past.

Amidst familiar names like Paramount, Mayer, Goldwyn…there were also unfamiliar names…the names of those men and women in the “heart shaped iris shots” whose identities have been buried at the bottom of a long and sensational century of history. Mann resurrects the personalities behind the images and he manages to do it without speculation, using an impressive array of primary sources.

Fans of mystery and non-fiction will enjoy this book. But I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a good read. I felt an element of that same voyeuristic curiosity that frequently has my eyes wandering to the tabloids in the grocery store aisle. Yet the book transcends sensationalism by illuminating an era of history that isn’t familiar to most of us. We can never go wrong reading something that broadens our connection to our shared past.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.