Denise Hamilton takes the reader back to Los Angeles, in the heyday of Hollywood, for two violent weeks in 1949 in her first standalone, The Last Embrace. The reader sees the city, and its dangers, through the fresh eyes of Lily Kessler. Her impressions bring the story to life.
Lily was a stenographer and spy for the OSS in Europe. Following the war, she found herself without a job, as so many women were as the men returned. She lost her fiancé, her job, and doesn't have a home. When she visits the woman who would have been her mother-in-law, Mrs. Croggan asks her to go to LA to look for her daughter, a starlet who took the name of Kitty Hayden, and disappeared. But, almost as soon as Lily arrives in town, and goes to the boardinghouse where Kitty lives, the young woman's body is found by the Hollywood sign. Lily feels she owes it to her fiancé's memory to find out what happened. And, once she meets the two detectives in charge of the case, she's even more determined to investigate. Lily doesn't trust the cops to find the truth. She'll keep probing, and upsetting people, until she upsets a few too many people. Two more bodies are found, as Lily continues to push herself deeper and deeper into a dark world.
Los Angeles in 1949 wasn't all glamour. The girls staying in the boardinghouse were wannabe actresses with stars in their eyes. They saw Frank Sinatra singing, fancy restaurants, movies and glamour. But, Lily saw a city of crooked cops on the take where rival gangsters were at war, a world where the movie studios paid off the cops, the newspapers, and abortion doctors. She encountered a city where men could be hounded to their deaths by cops and media, where cover-ups were likely.
Los Angeles became a dangerous city for Lily Kessler, although she falls for a cop, and finds a photographer friend. She discovers that murder investigation isn't quite the same as the spy business. Since she never knows who to trust, she might be heading down the same track as another bright girl, Kitty Hayden.
Hamilton's book has a couple problems. Lily's character is well-developed, but one of the other characters, Harry Jack, almost seems to be dropped midstream. Lily seems to be the only living character against a backdrop of stereotypes. The varying viewpoints sometimes makes the story feel disjointed. However, The Last Embrace vividly shows the contrast between the historic past of a small town, and the growth, with crime, power and ambition. Despite the character issue, this is a meaty crime novel with a great deal that could be used for a book discussion. I can't even touch on all of the topics - the roles of women, the history of LA, crime and the movie studios. In the end, Lily grows to accept LA, in all its dirty history and glamour. If some of the characters are weak, the city of Los Angeles itself is a strong character, in all its grit and glory. The Last Embrace is a crime novel, the story of a time and place, with all its flaws, portrayed with love by Denise Hamilton.
Denise Hamilton's website is www.denisehamilton.com
The Last Embrace by Denise Hamilton. Scribner, ©2008. ISBN 9780743296731 (paperback), 384p.