Hold a Scorpion by Melodie Johnson-Howe is the latest Diana Poole crime thriller that takes our amateur sleuth deep into Southern California's underworld to uncover the mystery of a diamond-encrusted scorpion―and the reason for the murders that follow in its wake.
Diana Poole has split with her egocentric boyfriend, Peter Bianchi, who had chided her to take a good look at herself. So she does—by going to a movie theater and watching her larger-than-life image on the silver screen.
A middle-aged actress who is on the back burner of Hollywood, Diana mulls the ended relationship and career mistakes that has brought her to this empty, darkened movie house. As she views herself, she insightfully ponders, “… narcissism is as demanding as an unpaid drug dealer.” Driving back to her Malibu home (after being lulled to sleep by her own hues), despondent thoughts are temporarily erased when she notes a woman waving boisterously in her direction. A fan? Someone she knows? She’s not sure as the brief encounter turns to horror.
A few yards from the woman a black SUV pulled off the highway and came to a stop on the embankment. The passenger side door opened. The woman looked at it, and then at the oncoming traffic, as if she saw what we all saw—automobiles rushing by her at speeds from fifty to eighty miles an hour. Then she gazed back at me and walked, smiling, into the onslaught of cars.
A white van rammed full force into her, flipping her into the air, hair splintered out from her head. In the next lane, a beige sedan ran over her as she hit the pavement.
Quirky Deputy Sheriff Ford (referring to the residents as “my stars”) is investigating, and the only noteworthy items Diana is able to relay are what she considers a gallant gentleman that had appeared on the fated scene pulling the hem of the deceased woman's dress down to safeguard her modesty and the suspicious black SUV. Being questioned (witnesses note the woman was purposely walking toward the actress), Diana feels like she is under scrutiny solely because of her celebrity status.
Though she tries to concentrate on a new movie she is being considered for, the mystery man from the accident appears at her house carrying a gun, wanting to know if Diana knows where the dead woman—Elizabeth Rodgers—had put a scorpion. He also says that “they” had her on pills and seems on edge. Spooked, she manages to get into her house and call the police. Sheriff Ford confirms the woman’s name, adding that she had been at StarView drug rehab.
Writer Ryan Johns is Diana’s friend, next door neighbor, and lousy support system. Albeit a hilarious one, for us the reader, because he is over-the-top. He upchucks from his own yard onto Diana’s side, claiming to have disturbing dream images of Elizabeth. He seemingly passes through the five stages of grief in the time it takes to bed a young woman, Tanya, who was doing yoga outside his home. Diana is at a loss, “In one day Ryan had found a shiny new bauble to keep the twilight of his career away, to keep Elizabeth Rodgers away. Now I was left with her.”
Leaving flowers beside the accident scene still littered with debris, Diana notices a diamond-encrusted scorpion bracelet that is familiar to her. It had been given to her mother—who was also an actress—by a fan years before.
Having lost the acting job that she was up for, and spurned on by a loose connection to Elizabeth, she begins looking into StarView—very ballsy, I might add. Arriving unannounced at the rehabilitation facility, she straight up asks the head of the institution, Marc Decker, if she could talk to the attendant who was responsible for taking care of Ms. Rodgers and further research the claims that their patient was being overmedicated.
She also proposes that it was not an accident that killed Elizabeth Rodgers, and that someone at StarView could have a great deal more knowledge about the situation. Throughout her investigation, her fame is both a help and a hindrance, as everyone seems to be aware of her lagging occupation and that she was dumped by the younger Bianchi. Decker even suggests that the two “traumatic experiences” Diana has had—the accident and break-up—could be affecting her better judgement.
Compounding her inquiry, Ryan hires Diana’s ex, Leo Heath, a PI (she clarifies as a “Hollywood fixer”), to look into Elizabeth’s death. They agree to work together after Diana has a testy exchange with Ryan:
Ryan stared out at the ocean. “I look back on that time when the three of us were together, and I sometimes think that was [the] best thing that happened to me.”
“You ended up in the hospital. You almost died,” I reminded him.
“You can pick anything apart.” He smiled. “Besides it’s better this way. Tanya says the quicker we let go of Elizabeth, the sooner we can get on with our lives.”
I was off again. “That little fuckfest wandering the beach in her Lululemon see-through yoga pants is now your life coach?”
“You above all people should know how hard it is for a beautiful woman to be taken seriously. And I’m fine with what Tanya is.” He winked lasciviously.
Author Melodie Johnson-Howe adds such a legitimacy to the Hollywood passages, one doesn’t need to look into her bio to know she’s pulling from a reserve of personal experience. All the same, I checked, finding she is a former actress who had worked alongside the likes of Clint Eastwood, Mickey Rooney, and James Caan.
On her website, tongue in cheek, she states, “In my first acting job I was shot dead in the titles of a TV movie. They covered me with a sheet and carted me off to an ambulance. Only my hair showed.” This same self-deprecating wit shines through the Diana Poole character, who uses her celebrity to her advantage but understands the double-edge sword of being instantly famous everywhere she goes.
Sharp dialogue. Engaging mystery with likable characters. Definitely add Melodie Johnson-Howe’s Hold a Scorpion to your reading list.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.