By Megan Abbott; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
Here, author Megan Abbott has taken a real event — the Oct. 7, 1949, disappearance of dancer, model and actress Jean Spangler — and weaves a “what-if” story line as if every speculation about what happened to Spangler were true.
The known facts about Spangler’s disappearance are these: She disappeared about 22 months after the mutilated body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (the “Black Dahlia”) was found in a vacant lot. Spangler’s purse was found in Griffith Park with a puzzling note addressed to a “Kirk” and a reference to seeing a doctor. No additional evidence has been uncovered about Jean Spangler’s disappearance and her whereabouts remain unknown.
Speculation about what happened to her offered many possibilities. What if she died in a botched abortion? What if she were killed by a Hollywood icon who didn’t want to be associated with her? What if she were blackmailing someone? What if she was involved with mobster Mikey Cohen or one of his goons? What if she simply fled L.A.?
The character that drives this story is studio flak Gil Hopkins. A former reporter, Hopkins understands his job is less about getting publicity than it is about avoiding bad publicity. He’s a fixer, a man who knows people and can persuade misbehaving actors to see things the studio’s way.
In this novel, he’s also among the last people to see Jean Spangler alive. One of Spangler’s co-workers reminds him of that and lets him know she thinks he’s a cad for leaving Jean with two actors known to be sadistic.
Hopkins persuades himself that he needs to follow up on Spangler for the good of his studio bosses. Through him, Abbott explores all the guesses about what happened to her. She does it in a smooth and credible way as Hopkins investigates Jean’s last night before she disappeared.
Hopkins’ investigation turns into a parallel exploration of who he has become, and by extension what the corrupted City of Angels had become in the late 1940s. This is a classic Hollywood drama of desperate dreamers and corrupted souls. Abbott captures post-war Hollywood exquisitely. Her novel gives thought-provoking perspective to a decades-old mystery.
Jeannette Hartman is the creator of Book Reviews by Jeannette.