Stardust, by Joseph Kanon
by Robert A. Parker
Kanon seems always to feature a strong setting, usually Europe, a complicated plot, and interesting European characters. He does it again here, and it again works. This 2009 book begins as a Hollywood novel, however, including even a 20th Century-type train ride with stars, this time heading westward. On arriving in Los Angeles, the hero, Ben Collier, confronts a mysterious death, that of his brother Danny. Danny has jumped or been thrown over a balcony. Ben and Danny are Jews raised in Europe, and Ben moves among both Hollywood’s German exiles, many Jewish, and Hollywood executives, in order to discover any connection they have with his brother, and why his brother died.
And so Stardust makes its initial impression as a Hollywood novel. It goes into deep detail as it presents the strategy, the rivalry, the maneuvering, and the technology behind studio life. We meet Sol Lasner, head of Continental Pictures; Bunny, his right hand man; and Liesl, widow of Danny and a budding star; plus, Osterman, Liesl’s father; and other Germans, like Dieter, Liesl’s uncle, and Kaltenbach. There are also Hal, a film cutter; Rosemary, a young star; Dick Marshall, a proven star; and then actual people in bit roles, like Paulette Goddard, Jack Warner, Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann, and Bertolt Brecht.
Ben has been brought in to Continental to direct a documentary on the German concentration camps, but is soon involved emotionally with Liesl as he searches for the truth about his brother. He moves about the studio offices, the sound stages, the cutting rooms, the preview parties, and confrontations with the press. It is a broad Hollywood setting, with gossip columnists like Polly Marks, as well as reporters, policemen, and FBI agents.
It seems the truth about Danny’s death is very complicated, but Ben slowly focuses on Danny’s involvement with Communists in the U.S. Was he still a Communist here, as he was in Europe when he helped émigrés like Liesl escape, or was he, here, a loyal American? And what are Liesl’s convictions? This is the 1940s, and red-baiting is beginning in the movie industry, led by California Representative Ken Minot. Who in the U.S. is deceiving whom in the search for Communists? Ben needs to know if he is to find the truth about Danny’s death. And what was Danny’s role?
The Communist witch-hunting takes over this novel’s second half, and it culminates in a dramatic hearing, led by Minot, in which Kanon pulls out all the stops. Meanwhile, Ben offers himself as a potential target to learn whom among the Communists killed his brother and why. There is one intriguing scene, as Ben hides in a closet in Minot’s office, seeking evidence, and is discovered—but not revealed. Why he is not betrayed involves more of the complicated motives of these people. On the other hand, the climactic scene with the killer on a sound stage is standard, and the identity of the killer is anti-climactic. But the pleasure of the novel has been in getting this far.
Kanon deliberately leaves one loose end, however. It seems to link the death of Danny with a mutual decision of Ben and Liesl. As if Kanon is not going to succumb to a traditional happy Hollywood ending. I went back to reread a number of pages, and still could not decide Kanon’s true intent.
This is a rich reading experience, as are all Kanon’s novels. In this case, it is his detailed portrait of Hollywood that sets this work apart. It is one of the best portraits I have read because of its range of detail. It is also an expose of the Red witch-hunts there, with a dramatic climax in which Lasner powerfully, but unrealistically in actual life, tells off the witch-hunter.
This work is also a political murder mystery that raises moral and ethical issues, which has brought comparisons to Graham Greene and John LeCarre. I would not rank Kanon at that level, but would place him fairly close behind LeCarre. Like LeCarre, he is also prone to complicated plots that are not easy to follow. Such as the morality of those who collaborate with the Communists to undermine them. And the suggestion that those who do so are actually being used by the Communists. And then there is the treatment of the German émigrés, who have fled one persecution and are now threatened by another. Plus, the complexity is enhanced by the novel’s structural variations. Such as the reversals of Ben’s suspicions regarding Bunny, Danny, and Liesl. And the changing role of the FBI.
Some of the complications that confront Ben help enrich his character. He seems to fall in love with his brother’s wife. Should he? And he agrees to collaborate with Congressman Minot in his pursuit to learn what happened to his brother. Again, should he? Plus, in order to learn the truth, is he justified in offering himself as a target? For if he is killed, will the truth ever be known?
But I continue to go back to this portrait of the film industry, through one small company, Continental. Kanon himself had been the president of two major New York publishers, but has no apparent Hollywood background. Thus, one marvels at what must have been tremendous research. But he obviously learned also from writers he published. Such as that reality comes from small touches. Here, one touch is the presence of Paulette Goddard, always portrayed in a positive light. She is witty and direct, as well as beautiful. Kanon seems truly to have fallen in love with her. And why not? She was always one of my favorites as well.
To sum up, this work will survive mostly because of its portrait of Hollywood. And will interest many because of its exploration behind the scenes of the Communist witch-hunts. For mystery lovers, its double-dealing may be too confusing. The personal story of Ben is more intriguing at the start, as he becomes involved with Liesl and the German émigrés, less so later on when he sets himself up step-by-step as a target. And the exposure of Danny’s killer is inconsequential—except, do we really know who it was?
I am on to more Kanon, expecting more European post-war atmosphere, and more complicated intrigue. (October, 2014)