Make Believe by Ed Ifkovic is the third Edna Ferber historical mystery set in the glamor of Los Angeles in the 1950s (available November 6, 2012).
It’s 1951 and Edna Ferber is in Hollywood to support Max Jeffries, a friend who was part of the film production of Show Boat—until he was blacklisted as a Communist. When Max ends up dead, Edna searches for answers in the tawdry side of Hollywood, where she encounters the likes of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra.
Edna is a celebrity too, but a minor one if compared to Frankie and Ava. She’s written some books, among which is Show Boat, which was adapted for a Broadway musical and several films. However, she’s never been quite happy with what’s been done with her work, and she definitely doesn’t like Los Angeles, where yet another film version of Show Boat is about to premiere, this time starring the notorious Ava Gardner.
Let’s read what Edna has to say about the city and the crime that will come to haunt her:
All night long I lay in my bed, numb, eyes wide in the dark. But I must have drifted off because I started awake as sunlight streamed through the windows. I sat up, sobbing in raspy gasps like a beaten child.
Mechanically, I splashed water on my face, pulled clothing from a closet, then fiddled with the dial on the radio until I found a newscast at the top of the hour. Six in the morning, a beastly hour to be awake, lethal to the body. I rarely violated my longstanding regimen: eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, up promptly at eight, fully dressed, breakfast of coffee with whipped milk and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and then out the door for an invigorating walk. But you didn’t walk in L.A. No, instead, you found yourself wide-awake in bed after a restless, nightmare-laden sleep, grappling with the bizarre fact that an old friend has been savagely murdered. Six in the morning, sitting fully dressed in a chair, trying to make sense of a phantasmagoric world by searching for answers on local radio stations that played “Good Night, Irene” every five minutes.
No, L.A. is not the place for Edna. She doesn’t like this fake world, with its fake people and their celluloid dreams. Is it because she’s an old woman among a young and glamorous crowd? No, not really. She’s just a down to earth person, who can manage well enough in a social gathering, but who also has trouble holding her tongue. Her words are her weapon and she’s not shy to use them if the need arises: “I don’t tolerate bad behavior unless I’m doing it,” she says.
Well, she’s more tolerant that she lets on and no matter how much she hates Hollywood she can feel nothing but affection toward one of its most famous products, a goddess of the silver screen: Ava Gardner. Before meeting her Edna thought Ava would be distant, ill-behaved, a diva who wouldn’t spare even a glance for the common man, but sooner rather than later Edna comes to feel enchanted by that magical being. Here’s the scene where they first meet:
…I wondered… earthquake?
When I looked at Max, he was grinning.
Every head had turned, as though on oiled ball bearings, toward the center of the lobby where Ava Gardner, striding across the floor, momentarily stopped and looked around. As the epicenter of that seismic shift in the earth’s rotation, she stood there, checking her watch, as all those around her seemed to lose their minds.
It was, frankly, awesome. This presence one woman could have, electric, galvanizing, stupendous. Everyone was smiling, wide-eyed, like little children surprised by a treat. Only Ava herself, standing there naturally in the center of that space, bringing one hand up to check on her hair, seemed unaware of the rumbling sensation she caused. This was Movies, writ large; this was melodrama on the wicked showboat stage; this was Theater; this was, perforce, a blinding of the noontime sun.
Ava seems unreal in Edna’s eyes for more than one reason: she’s a star, but she’s humble; she doesn’t just pretend to be friendly, she really is; and more often than not Edna sees in her the country girl she used to be. Plus, she’s nice to people, cares about Edna’s persecuted friend Max and—unlike most of the others—is not afraid to show it; and she has dreams and faults like everyone.
Among Ava’s flaws are her drinking problem and her love for Frank Sinatra, that unruly man who hangs out with a couple of ex-mafia guys, and who likes threatening to kill people. He doesn’t seem to enjoy anything more than drinking and a bar fight.
This power couple looks like the center of the universe. Starlets, musicians, studio executives, gamblers, and jesters seem to orbit around them, but they never seem to get anywhere near them, as far as fame and glory is concerned. So Edna, who descends like a meteorite into their world, and for some fleeting moments finds herself in the limelight, is bound to upset the natural order of things. But she only does that in order to solve Max’s murder. Ava loves her for that. And Frankie hates her; but that’s just because she’s the only woman—aside from Ava—who can look him in the eye and tell him to shut up.
I really enjoyed reading this novel, not only for the mystery but also for its larger than life characters and splendid humor. And yes, I can say that after I finished it I too felt enchanted by the presence of the glamorous Ava Gardner.
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Lakis Fourouklas has published four novels and three short-story collections in Greek. He’s currently translating his work into English and blogs at Fiction & More. He also keeps a few blogs in Greek regarding general fiction, Japanese literature, and crime fiction. Follow him on Twitter:@lakisf. He lives in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Read all posts by Lakis Fourouklas for Criminal Element.