Tom Collins is a former cop. He has been persuaded by an American Irish compatriot to give up the blue uniform and night stick and move to Los Angeles where, in 1922, the burgeoning movie industry can use a guy who is handy with his fists and can be a reassuring and intimidating presence around stars besieged by reporters and other opportunists.
After a bright start working for the Famous Players-Lasky outfit, Collins has blotted his copybook and been sacked. He is now picking up scraps, albeit those dropped by the king of movie comedy, Mack Sennett. Sennett is not alone in his adoration of actress Mabel Normand, and when she is implicated in the sensational murder of top director William Desmond Taylor, he sets Collins the near-impossible task of solving Taylor’s shooting.
The most intriguing feature of this novel – and there are many – is the way O’Donovan drops us into the real life Hollywood of 1922. I knew something about the demise of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, was aware of Mack Sennett and, of course, the names Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford resonate with people of my generation who are reasonably well-read. But I had neither heard of – nor seen pictures of – Mabel Normand and, thanks to the wonders of Google, I could see instantly how she was able to mesmerise a generation of movie goers and readers of magazines. Those eyes! Tom Collins tells us about them quite early in the book.
“She was an odd-looking creature, with those huge, half-hooded eyes. Beautiful, no doubt about it, with that little-girl ringlety innocence so favored by the movie-going public. Once, at a party, he saw her light up a room with her laughter.”
Collins is stranded in a Hollywood sea full of different kinds of sharks, but all of them deadly.The local cops figure him for the shooting of a Shorty Madden, a drug dealer who has been supplying cocaine, but they are minnows compared with the repulsive and vindictive Aloysius Divine, who was busted for corruption when serving with Collins back in New York. He blames Collins for his downfall, and has sworn vengeance. Now, Divine is in The City of Angels working as a customs officer; he smells blood, and it belongs to Collins. Even more vindictive and remorseless is mob boss Tony Cornero. His business has been seriously compromised by the death of Madden, and he wants either the actual killer’s head – or that of Collins – on a plate.
This is a cracker of a book. To the casual observer, looking on from the safe distance of the best part of a century, Hollywood in the 1920s appears innocent and other-worldly. We might smile at the fluttering eyelashes and coy gestures of the female stars, and the black-and-white (both figuratively and literally) lack of ambiguity of the male heroes and villains but in reality the movie world was just as venal, corrupt and hard nosed as it is today. Gerard O’Donovan (right) lifts the stone from the ground and we see all manner of unpleasant – and deadly – creatures scurrying around in the unwelcome light. The first pages of the book might suggest that Tom Collins has told us all that he has to say, but I hope this is not the case. The Long Silence is published by Severn House, is available now in hardback and will be available as a Kindle on 1 May.