If, like me, you are a devoted fan of the amazing writer-director-producer-actor-showman Orson Welles, a sucker for magic tracks, love listening to Old Time Radio, and enjoy the pulp adventures of The Shadow, then this book is most definitely for you! Oh, and there’s also a murder mystery to solve too. The time is 1938, the place New York, and all is chaos as Welles, the perpetual enfant terrible, juggles a variety of projects and gets involved in a murder investigation on the night on which he will broadcast his most famous radio show …
I submit this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“… a homicidal maniac is running through the halls of the Columbia Broadcasting Building looking for … for more victims? Orson, it’s unbelievable.”
In October 1938 Gibson is summoned to New York by Welles to work on a film adaptation of The Shadow but they never really have time to do it due to the star’s hectic lifestyle, which on top of the proposed film currently includes (deep breath): keeping various amorous dalliances on the go (he is thus fighting with his wife and George Balanchine, one of whose own girlfriends Welles has been seeing), putting on a Broadway production of Danton’s Death, fighting off gangsters from the Cotton Club and producing a radio version off HG Wells’ The War Worlds too … Along the way we meet many of Welles’ friends and collaborators from the time, including producer John Houseman, budding actress Judy Holliday and composer Bernard Herrmann.
The power of radio was perhaps never displayed as powerfully as in the 1938 Halloween adaptation War of the Worlds, which terrified some listeners by presenting the story as a series of live broadcasts reporting a Martian invasion. Collins’ book, appropriately enough, is steeped in the radio lore of pre-War America and he includes huge amounts of historical information with his story, frequently interrupting the narrative to provide context around the real-life events and personalities being depicted. So if the murder plot feels a bit secondary, well, it is, but it doesn’t really get in the way of the main enjoyment that comes from a rich depiction of a very specific time and place and a unique personality in the shape of the great Orson, who here pulled off his greatest ever illusion.
The writer said, “I’ve finished my investigation. And I know you’re responsible.”
Welles and Gibson have both appeared as fictional characters in other novels – the pulp author would go on to star in Paul Maidment’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (2006), while Welles had previous appeared in Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991) and Me and Orson Welles (2003). Welles’ celebrated 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds became the TV-Movie The Night That Panicked America in 1975 (co-written by Nicholas Meyers by the way, author of another pop culture mashup, The Seven Percent Solution) and was also was the subject of Mark Gatiss’ delightfully funny Doctor Who audio, Invaders from Mars (2002).
I thoroughly enjoyed this tribute to a bygone age (though admittedly I could have done without the bashing of the late Robert L. Fish in the opening sections set in 1975) and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the era. It was the last in Collins’ series of books set around historical disasters in which famous authors helped solve fictional crimes during real-life events.
The Disaster series
- The Titanic Murders (1999) – featuring Jacques Futrelle
- The Hindenburg Murders (2000) – featuring Leslie Charteris
- The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001) – featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs
- The Lusitania Murders (2002) – featuring SS Van Dine
- The London Blitz Murders (2004) – featuring Agatha Christie
- The War of the World Murders (2005) – featuring Walter Gibson
To find out more about the author, visit his website, www.maxallancollins.com