There’s nothing like a whodunit. It’s even better if it’s a true-life one with a believable solution. The result is pure catnip to mystery readers.
In the hands of William J. Mann, the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 comes alive again in “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.”
Taylor was a perfect gentleman and a director loved by many in the film industry. Then, an intruder shot him, and the perfect image shattered.
It turned out that “William Desmond Taylor” wasn’t even his real name — or his only name.
The story of this murder has been told before but not in such salacious detail.
Mann does a superb job of introducing the world of early movie making — the moguls, the bit players and the growth industry of illegal activities that lurked behind the picture-perfect world of Los Angeles. Drugs, prostitution and blackmail have always been part of Hollywood.
Even back then, the movie industry was already under attack by powerful social interests like the women’s clubs and civic reformers. As Mann writes about powerful men with indiscretions in private clubs, “Scandal had to be contained at all costs.”
So, after Taylor’s death, the powerful Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, his employer, ordered his men to help suppress what they found in Taylor’s home — the fact that the director was more interested in men than women. The revelations would have brought down the wrath of the “church ladies” and others from the pictures industry.
Even with the facts hidden, Zukor couldn’t escape the social reformers long. Mann explains the history behind the Hays code of censorship created in 1930.
He also devotes much time to the story of Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, an aspiring actress with a dogged streak of determination and a criminal background. It’s not until the end that the readers will find out why she’s so important.
“Tinseltown” is an immensely enjoyable read as a re-creation of a murder, and a fascinating time in a place.
Tish Wells is a staff writer for the McClatchy Washington Bureau.