Thu
Jun 8 2017 1:00pm

Review: Cast the First Stone by James W. Ziskin

Cast the First Stone by James W. Ziskin is the 5th book in the Ellie Stone Mysteries series.

Edgar-, Anthony-, Barry-, and Lefty-nominated author James W. Ziskin infuses his fiction with the types of factual flourishes that breed an unmistakable sense of authenticity. A linguist by training, he had bicoastal career experiences in print and photo journalism and film production before settling in Seattle and making a name for himself in crime fiction. Ziskin’s newest, Cast the First Stone, is the fifth in his critically acclaimed Ellie Stone Mysteries series. 

February 1962: “Girl reporter” Ellie Stone lands a plum assignment when she’s asked to profile rising star Tony Eberle for the New Holland Republic. Eberle, who got his start in local theater, has just been cast in his first feature Hollywood film, and the newspaper’s publisher wants to showcase their hometown boy made good. Despite a premonition of disaster that’s sidelined her rival, Ellie departs New York for Tinseltown the next day and enjoys an uneventful flight. But when she arrives at the studio for her big interview, Ellie discovers that Eberle is nowhere to be found—and that his job, too, has vanished.

Realizing that her big story is about to go bust, Ellie believes that her only hope for salvaging the scoop is to find Eberle and help get him recast. But before she can make any headway in the matter, the film’s producer turns up dead as the result of foul play—and authorities soon confirm that Eberle is a person of interest in their investigation. That’s not the kind of feel good story that the high-ups will go for. So Ellie needs to come up with an alternative narrative, and fast. Easier said than done, however, as her digging begins to expose the sordid politics and proclivities that underlie LA’s glitz and glamor. 

With little more than a rental car and an outdated map at her disposal, Ellie is off and running. She forms an alliance with two other journalists—photographer Andy Blaine and reporter/aspiring screenwriter Gene Duerson—who are equally desperate for leads. While theirs is a (mostly) reciprocal relationship, her involvement with the rest of the press is somewhat more duplicitous, as is a tenuous detente with Sergeant John L. Millard (whose intentions are beyond professional).

Fortunately, Ellie possesses keen instincts and the ability to turn others’ underestimation of her into an advantage, which puts her ahead of the pack (even if Eberle himself remains elusive). But the more she discovers, the greater a threat she becomes to those with secrets to keep.

Despite being the fifth book in the series, Cast the First Stone works brilliantly as a standalone. Ellie—sassy yet sophisticated and with a surprisingly strong code of conduct—is a leading lady well worth getting to know. Exposing her to the rampant hedonism, homophobia, and sexism of 1960s Hollywood not only illuminates cultural conflicts (which remain painfully relevant today) but also questions of journalistic ethics and standards. While Ziskin’s story is a real zinger, the subtext demands careful consideration, proving that you don’t have to sacrifice substance for style. 

Read an excerpt from Cast the First Stone!

 

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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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