In an imaginative caper set in 1935, a dimwitted assistant consul for cultural affairs in Italy devises a plan to kidnap child superstar Shirley Temple.
Durham (Unforeseen Complications, 2017, etc.) and Smith (The Gatekeeper, 2016, etc.) join forces to meld their respective areas of interest—old-Hollywood-based mystery writing and the life of Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand, the private secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this novel, Missy and her assistant, Grace Tully, are vacationing in California while the president is away on a fishing trip. They’ve arranged to tour the Twentieth Century Fox studios, where they meet the irrepressible Shirley. Missy, Grace, and Gertrude Temple, Shirley’s mother, decide that it would be fun to go on a trip together to San Francisco aboard the new Coast Daylight train. When Shirley learns that the forces of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini have invaded Ethiopia, she says, “Why doesn’t somebody tell Mussolini to stop?” Her comment winds up in Louella Parsons’s gossip column, inciting Il Duce’s fury, and he orders San Francisco–based Italian consul Cosimo Palladino to respond to the insult. Fausto Trevisano, a wannabe movie star, is working at the consulate, and he assures Palladino that he has a solution. Fausto contacts Shirley’s acquaintance, struggling stuntman Andy Archie, and they arrange to kidnap the child from the train. Joan Roswell, who’s trying to make it as a Hollywood reporter, unwittingly becomes an accessory to the kidnapping. This smoothly flowing story is set against a serious backdrop—the lead-up to World War II and Roosevelt’s attempt to keep Mussolini from aligning with German chancellor Adolf Hitler—but the mystery plot is mostly a lark. It’s ably carried by a substantial ensemble cast, which includes an important performance by film director Darryl F. Zanuck and a few cameo appearances by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It’s also loaded with insider-y moviemaking details, and it even offers a few peeks into the personal side of the White House. The scenes aboard the Coast Daylight will make readers yearn for the days of pre-jet travel, and quirky bad guys add a surprise twist to the well-paced mayhem.
Fluid prose enhances this light, enjoyable visit to the 1930s.