Hollywood Kills: Five Great Thrillers Set in and Around Tinseltown
By Rio YouersFebruary 21, 2022
My new novel, No Second Chances, is a full-throttle action thriller set in modern-day Los Angeles. It tells the story of Luke Kingsley, a canceled actor who is believed to have killed his wife, and Kitty Rae, an effervescent young woman who has arrived in Hollywood in pursuit of her dreams. These colorful protagonists soon run afoul of Johan Fly – drug dealer to the rich and famous – who doesn’t take kindly to being cheated and lied to, and who loads up on cold-blooded anger in his pursuit to make Luke and Kitty pay.
The novel was written and edited over a twenty-month period, from late 2019 into 2021, with the world buckled by COVID-19 and international travel all-but shutdown. I had planned to return to Los Angeles (where I’d started writing the book) to soak up the atmosphere and get the right vibe, but with that off the cards, I turned to fiction for my L.A. inspiration. I read a dozen or so books set in the City of Angels, from literary novels to nonfiction to classic crime noir. They were all fantastic, in their own way, but here are five thrillers that really stood out for me, and that transported me from my locked-down reality to the sun (and blood) drenched streets of Los Angeles.
Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to include Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty on this list because it seemed too predictable a choice. I thought I’d veer off the beaten path and shine a light on some less obvious titles. But after some interior debate, I feel I have to include Get Shorty purely because it’s such a predictable choice. This 300-page shot to the jaw is dripping with Tinseltown satire and California sunshine. For my money, it’s the Hollywood novel by which all others are judged.
The plot sees Ernesto “Chili” Palmer, a Miami loan shark, heading to Los Angeles to chase down a client who’s late on a sizable debt, but who also conned an airline company out of $300,000 by faking his death. The set-up alone should allow Leonard to flex his considerable crime-writing muscle, but he expertly ratchets up the intrigue (and humor) when Chili gets involved with a small-time producer, and before long finds himself involved in the movie industry. I don’t know if breaking into the movies is that easy in real life, but Elmore Leonard makes it look easy. Then again, Elmore Leonard makes everything look easy.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
Okay, full disclosure: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is my favorite movie of all time, and Quentin Tarantino is – by a long stretch – my favorite director, so including this novel is something of a no-brainer. And yes, the argument can be made that it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense, more a literary observation of Hollywood in the late 1960s. That is indeed true, but this – Tarantino’s first foray into the world of prose fiction – is such a delightful, characterful love letter to Hollywood and its players, that I would be remiss not to include it here. It is written with verve, affection, skill, and humor, with a cornucopia of celebrity anecdotes and insights into the entertainment industry. There’s also a lovely scene in which Rick Dalton and friends chill out in a piano bar with Tarantino’s real-life stepfather, Curt Zastoupil.
I’ll gently posit that the Charles Manson connection does give Once Upon a time … in Hollywood a thriller vibe. Also, Cliff Booth (Rick Dalton’s stunt double) is such a kickass character – an ice-cool, ex-military killing machine – that I think he deserves a thriller novel of his own. Hey, Quentin … how about it? You can call it Cliff’s Edge.
Die A Little by Megan Abbott
1950s America. A time of doo-wop, pencil skirts, soda fountains, and boat-sized Coupe de Villes. I’d always imagined this era in quaint, Rockwellian tones – everything “gee-whiz” and squeaky clean.
Boy, was I wrong!
The 1950s that Megan Abbott presents in her Edgar Award–nominated debut can in no way be described as squeaky clean. We see the flipside of that bobby-sock wearing, bubblegum-chewing ideal – a shadowy underworld of sex, drugs, and murder. Abbott navigates her characters through this landscape with impeccable skill – principally Lora King, a suburban schoolteacher who suspects there’s more to her new sister-in-law, Alice, than meets the eye. Concerned for her brother, with whom she is particularly close, Lora decides to delve deeper into Alice’s history, and is subsequently drawn into a seamier, more dangerous reality.
There’s so much to love about Die a Little: The authenticity, the turns of phrase, the attention to detail … but what it all comes down to is that Megan Abbott is an exquisite novelist, and if you want a side of Los Angeles that isn’t all glitz, starlets, and red carpets, then this is the book for you.
The Devil May Dance by Jake Tapper
Politicians, mobsters, scientologists, and movie stars. CNN anchor Jake Tapper brings it all (and then some) to this highly entertaining page-turner. Charlie and Margaret Marder – the stars of Tapper’s previous novel, The Hellfire Club – return here, and are tasked by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to investigate Frank Sinatra and his connection to the mafia. I mean, what a premise, right? What’s not to love? Nothing is straightforward, though, particularly in Hollywood, and the husband-and-wife team find themselves up to their eyeballs in shadiness before you can sing the opening verse of “Fly Me to the Moon.”
There’s a compelling exposé feel to The Devil May Dance, as you might expect from such a celebrated news anchor, but the beats are deftly hit and the staggering depth of research (the “Sources and Acknowledgments” run for eleven pages) is never overbearing. Everything moves at a breezy clip, with the locales so artfully recreated that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and alcohol in the air. If hanging out with the Rat Pack in 1960s Hollywood sounds like your thing, then look no further.
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
The unsolved (and particularly gruesome) real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed “the Black Dahlia” by the media, provides the inspiration for this 1987 novel from the great James Ellroy. Two testosterone-jacked detectives, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, are assigned to the case, spiraling into obsession and madness as they work to solve the most violent and highly publicized crime of the era. The setting is post-war Los Angeles, and it’s brilliantly done. There’s an authentic sense of time and place, plunging the reader into the 90% of grime that resides beneath the 10% of glamor. And here, in the dirt, is where the novel excels, creating a vortex of foreboding and decay that drags at your ankles long after you turn the final page.
Author Photo Credit: Sophie Hogan
About No Second Chances by Rio Youers:
Luke Kingsley’s life is turned upside down when his soul singer wife, Lisa Hayes, disappeared without a trace, silencing a very public and tumultuous marriage. Most people think Luke got away with murder. The last thing he expects is to be pulled back from the brink by a starstruck stranger.
Wannabe actress Kitty Rae believes in Luke—as much as she believes her own career is just one lucky break away. For now, she works for Johan Fly, a charismatic, wealthy, and seriously unbalanced drug dealer to the rich and famous. When Johan discovers that Kitty has been skimming the product, he vows to make her pay.
As Luke begins to help Kitty, among uncovering a web of violence and corruption he discovers a single clue about his wife’s disappearance which leads Luke and Kitty to set off to find the long-lost Lisa. But Johan is hot on their trail and there’s no limit to what he will do to find them. And in a world where fortune favors the ruthless, there’s also no limit to what Luke and Kitty will have to do to survive.