Keith Moody's lucky year just might be 1941. He's plucked from the ranks of B-western screenwriters at Empire Studios and promised a prestige assignment on a new war film--if only he can persuade Russell Keys, the flying ace who just happens to be his cousin, to sign the rights to his life's story over to Empire. Fat chance, thinks Moody, who's never gotten along with Russell. But Russell signs without a murmur, and Moody starts finding out just how bad 1941 can be. Item: Russell's Thunderbolt crashes in a Kansas field, with no sign of the pilot, throwing the fate of China Skies into doubt. Item: unsavory Tony White demands a $50,000 blackmail for keeping secret about the ace's relationship with a murdered dwarf prostitute in China--news that could send China Skies into the deep freeze. Items: After a routine payoff, Tony gets himself killed just outside Moody's view; then the detective Moody's put on the case gets killed; then Tony's killer gets killed, along with his wife; then three more people get killed, two of them as Moody watches. Through it all, seedy Empire head Marvin Margolis plots around each new wrinkle with devious obtuseness to keep the production afloat, even when his leads join the endangered list. This first mystery from Matthews (The Wisdom of Stones, 1994, etc.) has a bouncy way with studio types, from self- promoting stars to nubile researchers, that keeps the parade moving along smartly till the halfway point, when cast members start to arm themselves and blast away at each other as indiscriminately as postal employees.