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by Robert S. Levinson
Five Star, February 2013
358 pages
ISBN: 1432826794

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Hollywood's Golden Age has always been a prime venue for crime fiction, both on the printed page and on the silver screen, with its aging starlets, resourceful private investigators, and ambitious artists looking for their big breaks; the stakes of Hollywood during this era seems tailor made for noir fiction. Accordingly, author Robert S Levinson opens PHONY TINSEL with the familiar, yet compelling, story of a down on his luck screenwriter falling prey to the manipulation and the schemes of an aging screen actress and the men that she's indebted to.

As PHONY TINSEL begins, we meet Charlie Dickens, a hapless and struggling screenwriter who is dropped by his agent, and whose last desperate effort to get his script produced is leaving it at the doorstep of Hollywood titan Cecil B. DeMille, but instead finds himself at the doorstep of movie mogul Max Moonglow and his elegant, but aging, wife: famous actress Sarah Darling. Sarah checks all the boxes one would normally associate with a femme fatale, and quickly seduces and manipulates Charlie into thinking her interest in him is about his B-movie script, not realizing that her ultimate goal is to frame Charlie for her eventual murder of her husband. Sarah Darling has a shady past though, and it is starting to haunt her and past debts are coming due. Meanwhile, Charlie sets off on a journey through the California heartland that complicates his heart and her plans all while her unknowing husband produces Charlie's screenplay at Sarah's insistence, with Sarah in the leading role.

The characters, scenery, and the comic tone (from the character names to the plot developments, Levinson is having fun at every turn) all fit perfectly and make for a lot of fun; but where Levinson takes the plot needlessly convolutes and complicates the larger narrative. Sending Charlie on an expedition where he encounters a damsel in distress, religious fanatics, and country homesteaders is no doubt great fun, but is unnecessary and as a result the narrative is more arduous and less crisp than it perhaps should be. Largely, though, the book succeeds in being a solid, entertaining throw-back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a compelling read with twists that even the most seasoned veteran of noir fiction will not anticipate.

PHONY TINSEL pays homage to Hollywood's Golden Age, but also skewers it with eccentric characters and even wilder plot developments. While the narrative does lead astray at time, Robert S. Levinson's latest work is a worthwhile read that works on multiple levels and will be enjoyed by crime fiction enthusiasts.

Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, December 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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