Phantom Angel by David Handler is the second mystery in the Benji Golden series set in the seedy underbelly of NYC's Broadway theater scene (available February 10, 2015).
David Handler's Phantom Angel conjures up perhaps the most famous play about Broadway—Mel Brooks’s tour-de-force, The Producers. Aging showman and legendary Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, shares with his nebbish accountant, Leo Bloom, the inviolate rules of the game:
Max Bialystock: The two cardinal rules of producing. One: Never put your own money in the show.
Leo Bloom: And two?
Max Bialystock: [yelling] Never put your own money in the show!
David Handler’s Phantom Angel takes a similarly jaded view of today’s theatrical world, even though the main character retains a charming innocence. Native New Yorker Benji Golden has a youthful appearance that helps him track down runaways, so it is not too much of a stretch when he is hired by Morrie Frankel, a famous Broadway producer, to track down a missing $12 million. Angel investor R.J. Farnell and his blonde bombshell sidepiece, the flamboyantly named Jonquil Beausoleil, have also gone missing, and Frankel needs the money for his upcoming musical version of Wuthering Heights.
Benji Golden is a devotee of old-fashioned Broadway musicals and the stars who brought them to life. When Benji meets with Frankel in his “elegantly seedy residential hotel” his jaw drops when he sees the pictures on Morrie’s wall.
There were photos of Gielgud and Richardson, Tandy and Cronyn, Alec Guinness, Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand. Morrie was right there in each and every photo.
Benji is overwhelmed when he sees a picture of his personal idol, Ethel Merman, up close and personal with Morrie. The two men agree that “Merman was the single greatest musical comedy star we’ve ever had.” Benji may be starstruck by a bygone era, but stardust doesn’t blind him to modern day reality.
In fact, Benji is nothing like the innocent persona he projects. Believable, convincing, and persistent, Benji has incredible contacts in New York City’s overlapping circles of influence (the police, the entertainment industry, and all the unheard/unseen people who keep the Big Apple from ever falling asleep). Cricket O’Shea, his former acting school classmate and first hook-up, is now the “sole owner and content provider“ of ”the Web site for theater world gossip.” Like every former New York actor it seems, Benji did a couple of Law and Order guest appearances before joining the family's P.I. business, so he knows all the casting agents and their ken. Lastly, through his late father, a member of the police force before he opened Golden Legal Services, Benji is wired into New York’s finest. Benji’s mother and Rita, one-time lap dancer, run the office, a comfortably tatty one in the heart of Broadway. Rita is statuesque, engaging, and a cracker-jack researcher. Her weapon of choice is a computer—so in short order, she discovers Farnell’s website, Venusian, is a sham:
I checked with a friend of mine who’s a lawyer with the SEC. He’s never heard of it or of Farnell. Neither has my pal who’s a governor of the Federal Reserve.” Rita has a lot of Wall Street friends from her lap dancer days.
When Benji figures out Farnell is a “phantom angel”–a ruse meant to tempt smaller investors, classic rubes, into investing in the Wuthering Heights musical—Benji angrily ends his association with Morrie. Benji is not surprised that the most persistent media person to nose around his dealings with Frankel is Cricket.
Phantom Angel isn’t just about missing money or an angel investor gone astray—something that Benji realizes after Morrie is shot by an unknown gunman, just minutes after Benji invites Morrie to metaphorically exit stage left. Benji understands the internal forces that motivate the varied characters of Phantom Angel. He sees what’s missing in their lives, things like respect, love, a chance to make a difference, finding a legitimate path to fame. As a detective and as a sexual abuse survivor (after a painful incident in Hollywood when he ran away to search out fame and fortune), Benji knows that life experiences often dictate the way someone looks at the world. Sue Herrera, a police detective, gets into it with Benji when they’re both staking out the elusive Miss Beausoliel. They don’t hit it off. Herrera says,
“I’m not paid to be nice. Neither are you.” She looked at me some more, tilting her head slightly. “You have old eyes. Anyone ever tell you that? Richie, my ex, looked like a grown man but on the inside he was still a boy. You look like a boy yet your eyes tell me you’re a man. How old are you?”
The difference between the cops and Benji is that Benji’s empathy and intelligence help him see beyond the obvious. When Benji finally tracks down Jonquil Beausoliel, he tells her he gets it:
I saw it in your eyes the first time Morrie showed me your photo. You can see it in my eyes, too, if you care to look closely enough. People like us, we recognize each other.
Recognition of human frailty and desires—those aspects of character that don’t dwell on the surface—that’s what makes Benji more than a talented detective. More than a guy with fabulous contacts and a sense of old New York and a respect for all its different moving parts. Benji’s a mensch. A very smart mensch whom readers will want to follow as David Handler’s absorbing series continues.
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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.