This is the type of book that makes for good reading on a long trip or at a beach somewhere with lazy, sun-drenched days to enjoy. The cocktail served up by Denise Hamilton in "The Last Embrace" is a mix of characters with concealed agendas, mysterious actions challenging to follow at times and the overripe post-World War II atmosphere of pre-Rat Pack Los Angeles.
It is late 1949, almost three years after the infamous, unsolved Black Dahlia murder covered in a speculative novel by James Elroy and the 2002 Brian De Palma film of the same name. Lilly Kessler, a former OSS staff member, arrives in her former hometown to locate her deceased fiancé's sister, Doreen Croggan, now known by her film name, Kitty Hayden. But she discovers the little sister has also just ceased. In need of a mission Lilly promises the mother that she will find out who killed Kitty.
Before long - actually in a matter of hours - Lilly is living in Kitty's former apartment with other would-be starlets, a curious landlady and various characters on the make or prowl. Passing references to Frank Sinatra, Gene Tierney, Kirk Douglas, Al Viola (remember his guitar?) are mixed in with familiar neighborhood, street and product brand names from the time to add authenticity. The West Hollywood landmark, Formosa Cafe, seen in the Academy Award winning movie, "LA Confidential," makes a cameo appearance as well as the Jack Dragna-Mickey Cohen rival gang members, including Lana Turner's favorite, Johnny Stompanato. The requisite cynical members of the local constabulary also make their presence known and, before long, the bodies are piling up at a lively clip under Max Sennett's pre-restoration "Hollywood" stunt sign. Newspapers are covering the action and dub the unsolved murders as the work of "The Scarlet Sandal" murderer, homage to the Black Dahlia case.
Ms. Hamilton has done a fair amount of homework about the period and details - even a reference to a "cornflower blue" dress, a Raymond Chandler favorite expression for the eyes of his femmes fatales. And, while some details can be nitpicked such as Kitty's OSS background (a former real OSS file clerk, Julia Child, is probably spinning at the liberties taken), a certain leeway has to be allowed for the character and plot line to work within the period. The real challenge at times is the overdone descriptions of the Los Angeles (and its satellite town) environments. It seems hard to bring in the lush life when the noir genre was so spare and hardboiled. The seaminess was in the characters, less the surrounds, such as depicted in the much under-rated 1947 noir movie, "The Lady from Shanghai," with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.
So sit back, take a sip of your favorite beverage and slip into something comfortable like the pages of this tale.
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