Tuesday, August 6, 2013

At the Intersection of Hollywood and Crime: Robert Weibezahl

Today I welcome my friend author/editor Robert Weibezahl. Robert Weibezahl is the author of two crime novels featuring screenwriter-sleuth Billy Winnetka -- The Wicked and the Dead and The Dead Don't Forget -- and a number of short stories, including the Derringer Award finalist "Identity Theft," which appears in the anthology Deadly by the Dozen. His two literary cookbooks/anthologies--A Taste of Murder and A Second Helping of Murder, co-edited with Jo Grossman, were both finalists for the Agatha and Macavity Awards. A columnist for "BookPage" since 2002, his work has also appeared in the "Los Angeles Daily News," "Los Angeles Reader," "Ventura County Star, "Mystery Readers Journal," "Bikini," "Irish America," and many other national and regional publications.

Robert Weibezahl:
At the Intersection of Hollywood and Crime 

Hollywood has a notorious love affair with crime – not only on screen, but off. Soon after the film industry settled in Los Angeles, high profile crimes and misdemeanors began to capture the public’s imagination. The list of not-quite-resolved cases involving murder and mayhem seems endless. In the 1920s, director William Desmond Taylor was found shot in the back in his bungalow, his murderer never found; actor Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted of rape and manslaughter, the final verdict a ruined career; Thomas H. Ince died aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, allegedly of a heart attack, but many believe Hearst killed him in a jealous rage over actress Marian Davies. The cold cases continue through the decades: actors Thelma Todd and George Reeves—official suicides, but perhaps murders? Bob Crane was bludgeoned to death, the weapon and the killer who wielded it never found. Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson were the only viable suspects in the murders of their respective wives, but both walked away free men (and, under similar circumstances, Phil Spector nearly did as well). The official investigation into Natalie Wood’s mysterious death was recently reopened some thirty years after the fact. Even the Tinseltown murders where the culprits are known—the deaths of Phil Hartman, Sharon Tate, Rebecca Schaeffer, Dorothy Stratten, and Sal Mineo come to mind—continue to carry a peculiar taint, marred by unseemly details.

While the murders in my mystery series featuring screenwriter cum amateur sleuth Billy Winnetka are wholly inventions, I confess that I probably tap into the thirst we all seem to have for celebrity crime. The first book in the series, The Wicked and the Dead, found Billy searching for the killer behind a series of (at first) seemingly unrelated deaths. The newly published second installment, The Dead Don’t Forget, involves death threats aimed at a mostly forgotten actress from an earlier era. Who would wish to harm a seemingly harmless old woman? Well, in Hollywood, grudges run deep. Beyond the murders that drive my plots, the books aim to capture some of peculiarities of the film industry, in which I once worked. The company-town mentality that can motivate much of what happens behind the scenes in Hollywood is very specific to the town and the business. In a world where appearances are everything, and nearly every man or woman is out for him/herself, crime can take on an ugly flavor all its own.

The series is also very much of its place – Los Angeles: its car culture, with choked freeways and secret surface street short cuts, its soundtrack provided by the car radio; a diverse population where class is often divided along ethnic lines; a flawed paradise where dreamers come and sometimes find spectacular success, yet more often do not. How much is “Hollywood” an accurate reflection of the real L.A.? To a wider culture that grants celebrity primacy of place, L.A. can seem like a fictional version of a major American metropolis. But, for folks like Billy, who live and work there, it is a real place, not a painted backdrop. True, after decades of literally being used as just such a backdrop in countless films and television show, the idea of L.A. is hard to cast off. And some of those same movies and shows have, for better or worse, had an impact on crime – how we perceive it, solve it, prosecute it, and, perhaps, even how we perpetrate it. Let’s not forget that the term noir first came from the movies. 


Kim Fay said...

Love this piece - L.A. has so many dimensions to it, and I'm looking forward to digging into your books to see how you explore them!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I enjoyed reading your post. L.A. noir is a wonderful mystery/crime genre. Glad that you are continuing it!

Sally Carpenter said...

Hi Robert, what's funny is most residents in and around LA live fairly ordinary lives much like everyone else. The Hollywood community is small in comparison but gets all the headlines. Good luck with your book!