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L.A. Lawbreakers

  Death by Hollywood
Steven Bochco
Fawcett/Random House, 2003
Rating: 4.1

Posted: March 19, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's a common theme in fictions about Hollywood: The town is a den of amoral, bandwagon-hopping weasels, frothing at the mouth for a chance to tear into the flesh of the innocent and idealistic -- not to mention one another. The idea that our show-biz capital is a cesspool of vanity and venality beneath the glossy veneer is a popular one, a conceit that's proven as captivating for creators as it is for audiences; movies like Robert Altman's The Player, for example -- not to mention Get Shorty, adapted from the book by Elmore Leonard -- don't make themselves, after all.

To be sure, there's rich symbolism in the image of our Dream Factory, the projector of our fantasies and mythologies, being run by flawed, self-serving and even evil human beings. But the end result of this fascination with showcasing Hollywood's seamier side is that the joke has been run into the ground -- as has our whole schadenfreude culture, which takes a malicious delight in building up idols just to tear them down. So one could be excused for viewing Death by Hollywood, the debut novel by noted television producer Steven Bochco (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), with some trepidation. Oh, great, I can hear you muttering. Another show business titan indulging in L.A.'s narcissistic obsession with telling us how corrupt and vile everyone there is. But it turns out the guy who created the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues deserves a little credit.

To be sure, Death by Hollywood concerns itself with the sordid doings of industry players and hangers-on. The book centers on Bobby Newman, a veteran screenwriter who's lost his mojo and whose marriage to a cute, supportive aspiring actress named Vee is on the skids. The plot, as told to us in an at-times too conversational style by Bobby's agent Eddie Jelko, revolves around Bobby witnessing, through a high-powered telescope, the murder of a Latin lothario named Ramon Montevideo by a well-built actress (and trophy wife to a rich, disgusting slob of a producer).

Bobby, at rock-bottom because his wife and Jelko have both left him (although the latter has a quick change of heart), considers calling the cops -- the sensible thing to do when one is witness to a murder -- but opts instead to manipulate the event for his own ends: that is, to get close to the principal players in the case and write a blockbuster screenplay about the whole thing. So he goes down to the crime scene, where he discovers that Ramon surreptitiously caught his own murder on tape. Ramon had a habit of videotaping his sexual conquests, one of whom, Bobby's not too surprised to learn, was Vee. Bobby pockets the videotape of Ramon's murder (and the one of Ramon and Vee in action), and is soon writing at a furious clip, in the hopes that his screenplay will catapult him back into the good graces of his industry (and hopefully his wife).

Toward this end he befriends both Linda Paulson, the attractive, congenial actress who inadvertently killed Ramon, and Dennis Farentino, the tough but likable detective assigned to the case. Trouble is, in the course of his investigation, Dennis takes a liking to Vee, and the feeling's mutual. Bobby's taken a mutual liking to Linda, as well, but his goal is still to reconcile with Vee -- until she tells him flatly that this is out of the question, at which point he loses his traction and begins spiraling back downward. Dennis, meanwhile, has figured out that Bobby is the key to cracking his case, and begins working toward goals of his own.

Out of all this, Bochco spins an engaging page-turner, plotted with a craftsman's skill and written in an ingratiating voice that coaxes us, a little against our will, into his well-developed world. As a lightweight crime novel -- as a beach read on the level of Get Shorty -- Death by Hollywood is terribly efficient, and sports a sturdy twist or two. But Bochco manages to humanize the machinations of everyone involved, even when those machinations spin into unforeseen directions. Yes, the principals all have their own agendas, but Bochco, without perhaps being conscious of it, upends the clichéd notion that all of his players are, well, players, each trying to win at a cutthroat game. His characters move along lines that further the plot, while never becoming mere cardboard-cutout plot points, and thus prove relatable, some of them in spite of their actions. Sometimes we sympathize with the schemer or the gold-digging trophy wife; sometimes someone we like and admire turns out to be an opportunistic heel.

None of which is to suggest that Death by Hollywood brilliantly reinvents the genre, or that a veteran of such thrillers won't see its twists coming before they arrive. It's a solidly written, likable book; nothing more. Well, maybe a little bit more: Bochco's fiction debut is all the more likable for its casual but knowing moral relativism, its acknowledgment that in life, the unscrupulous and the upright exist in each of us, and rarely do we ever get the balance exactly right.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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