My friend Ruth lauds Sheila York’s first novel, Star Struck Dead, as one of the best latter day evocations of Raymond Chandler’s California noir. I, ashamed to admit, haven’t read Chandler, but I’ve seen three of the better screen adaptations: Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, and The Blue Dahlia. I can honestly say that reading the first novel in York’s Lauren Atwill series inspired recollections in me of the cinematic California scene where smart, sharp-tongued, irreverent detectives and women with experience went up against shady cops, politicians, crooks, and aristocrats, trying to save their skins, angling to uncover and nail down the truth, and looking for a rough if not official justice. All in a world where chrome; marble; diamonds; lush red lips; and sleek satin, silk, and furs couldn’t hide the corruption of searing summer, peeling stucco, shabby boarding houses, tawdry bars and brothels, and warrens of mean, dark, shadowed streets. And don’t forget the allure and the danger of “ritzy dames in bungalows” (The Blue Dahlia). Whew! I need a stiff one after those sentences. Will Clare Trevor slink through in a minute? Anyway, York’s Lauren Atwill is smart enough to pull together disparate clues, use her own screen-writing research to get her out of tough jams (sometimes get her into them), and make her knowledge of the studio system work to her advantage in her investigations, as well as tough enough to hold her own against some fierce mental as well as physical assaults. She’s made mistakes, and she’s learned from them. She’s tougher on herself than on the people around her who don’t. York really knows the 1940s studio system, so her screen-writer heroine moves through a world of glamor, intrigue, and scandal that rings true. York’s private eye vis-a-vis for Atwill is strong and rough around the edges, but he has class––though he wouldn’t give himself the credit he deserves. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to indulge my burning desire to watch The Blue Dahlia.
The next three novels in the series are good, but the first of the four is still the strongest. A Good Knife’s Work is a bit overcomplicated and over-populated; nevertheless, it’s still a nifty read. The mystery has an interesting background in radio-program writing and production, but California is a better métier for York’s talent than the NYC of this novel. Certainly, the atmosphere is not bad, but her California settings better convey her magic. Death in Her Face and No Broken Hearts bring us back to the not-so-sunshiney state, and York’s expertise with recreating the old studio system makes her writing shine brighter. Lead character Lauren Atwill’s relationship with P.I. Peter Winslow continues to develop, and we learn some deeper secrets from the past eating away at Lauren’s conscience. Sheila York’s supporting casts are strong and intriguing as she continues to capture the rank whiff of corruption in studio, city, and police politics that Atwill precariously navigates. The latter two novels have some characters vaguely based on real Hollywood and NYC denizens that give the books flavor. These qualities, coupled with Lauren’s refusal to faint in the face of adversity––short of being shot––make me look forward to the next installment of this smart-talking, lock-picking gal’s next adventure. Click on Sheila York to connect with her official web site, where you can read about her and order her books.
Front cover illustration Mark Thomas © 2003
This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 295335. See https://catalog.archives.gov/id/295335.