A solid mystery that takes intriguing liberties with historical events.
Russell’s (The Natural Selection, 2008, etc.) novel tells the further adventures of court officer and sleuth Sarah Kaufman, who gets caught up in a business scandal and a murder investigation in 1928 Los Angeles. She initially comes to LA to watch the men who swindled her in a shady oil deal get their comeuppance at trial. She then encounters an upset woman named Rita Bradford, the Hispanic wife of the wealthy Phillip Bradford. Rita asks Sarah for help, insisting that she knows her, but then she runs away. The next day, Rita is found dead of a supposed heart attack. Sarah, still shaken by Rita’s pleas for help, believes she was murdered. Meanwhile, Carlos Martinez, who’d been having an affair with Rita, begins a dalliance with Sarah. He promises to help Sarah in her investigation, but he also pursues his own revolutionary goals. After another woman is killed, it becomes clear that Carlos and Sarah are intimately connected in more ways than one, and finding Rita’s killer becomes more and more complicated. Although the novel might have benefited from a tighter edit, its overall plot is compelling. Russell intertwines fictional and nonfictional events in an engaging manner, weaving both the peculiar charms of early Hollywood and the real-life Julian Petroleum scandal into her murder mystery. LA landmarks, such as the Brown Derby and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, become the settings for Sarah’s exploits, and real figures, ranging from author Ayn Rand to Russell’s own father, Marvin “Marvy” Kantor, populate the city. The author also explores difficult matters of race and religion, contrasting the experiences of her Jewish protagonist with those of the Chicano characters she meets. Although these comparisons are occasionally heavy-handed, they effectively show that identity and oppression are far from simple issues, and that the same person can be both a victim and a victimizer.
An entertaining whodunit with a striking protagonist and a compelling cultural backdrop.