Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen

Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen, the second novel by Sarah James (The Woman with Two Shadows), is an Old Hollywood-era whodunit so faithful to its place and time that scenes seem to play out in black and white.

It's 1943, and Hollywood's Pacific Pictures has given narrator Annie Laurence, a New York playwright, a screenwriting contract: a rep saw and loved her Broadway murder mystery. In California, Annie becomes friendly with a handful of industry people who call themselves the Ambassador's Club, which includes the Dorothy Parker-like critic Fiona Farris. Annie already knows of Fiona: in a review of Annie's Broadway play, the critic alluded to the playwright's scandalous romantic situation back in New York. But Annie is hardly the only victim of the critic's pen, so when Fiona turns up dead at the Hollywood Canteen--a gathering spot for servicemen that's run by industry volunteers, Annie among them--there are plenty of suspects, especially within the Ambassador's Club.

Like Ava Barry's Windhall and Craig Russell's The Devil's Playground, Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen precisely captures a classic Tinseltown drama's mores and decor, complete with endless cigarettes and unchecked alcoholism. The Hollywood Canteen--a real Old Hollywood hot spot--is a character in its own right, and James works in choice cameos by habitués Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth, among others. Fiona's beef with Annie's Broadway play was that its conclusion "disappoints," but James's big finish should please readers--provided they aren't looking for a Hollywood ending. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

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