This murder case, long an unsolved mystery, took place in 1922 Hollywood, where moving pictures were just settling into being an industry. William Desmond Taylor was a director for Famous Players, the most prestigious studio of the time, and actress Mabel Normand was the last person to see him alive.
When Taylor was found dead, suspicion fell on young star Mary Miles Minter, someone the producers wanted to become the next Mary Pickford. Three of her hairs were found on him, she had sent the much older man love letters, and her mother seemed to know things at suspicious times. But things get much more complicated, with revelations of a previous life, sexual secrets, hysterical threats, many other possible murderers, and plenty of outrageous rumors.
Following his usual illustrated maps, Geary sets the stage of the early days of Hollywood beautifully, including the features that made California such a desirable setting. It tickled me that, in addition to climate and landscape, he mentions the proximity to the border. Many early moviemakers were violating Edison’s moving picture patents, so if things got hot, they fled to Mexico. (How times have changed, since the movie companies are now some of the most rigid in trying to prosecute those who don’t respect their trademarks.)
In this case, a studio man was allowed to search the house to prevent anything “reflect[ing] poorly upon the deceased or the studio.” Various pieces of evidence disappeared, making it impossible to know what really happened, especially now. Geary lays out what’s known and touches briefly on what’s speculated. As always, he declines to pick a solution, suggesting possibilities instead of certainties.
Geary’s detailed pen-and-ink line provides a wonderful sense of nostalgia and time gone by. As is typical of the cases he chooses to profile, there are plenty of mistakes to feel superior about. “Today, the neighbors know not to move the body or traipse through the house before the cops arrive,” the modern reader thinks, but human nature is still the same. The ending roll call of stars who died young reinforces how little some things have changed.
A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher. They have posted a preview at their website.