Friday, June 24, 2016
Review: DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
From the acclaimed co-creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, Death by Hollywood is a suspenseful, shocking, and darkly comic crime novel about a screenwriter, a billionaire’s wife, a murder, and, of course, a cop.
I've been a big fan of Steven Bochco's television crime writing - while Hill Street Blues was a bit before my time, I loved LA Law and Doogie Howser, MD as a kid. Then, for my mind, it was actually NYPD Blue that began our current golden age of television writing (most people point to the West Wing/Sopranos when cable TV like HBO started pushing boundaries and delivering very high-quality narratives - but NYPD Blue was truly groundbreaking, and led the way for those shows, even doing so on network television).
More than twenty years on, NYPD Blue still stands up remarkably well if you watch re-runs. I also thought Raising the Bar, a New York legal series Bochco created, was excellent - sadly it didn't last beyond its second season. The vagaries of television land.
So I was both curious and excited when I came across this crime novel from a master of high-quality television crime drama. Could Bochco transfer his screen talents to the page? The premise of the novel certainly seemed interesting: a fading screenwriter witnesses a brutal murder but instead of reporting what he saw finangles himself into the police investigation and the lives of those involved, using it as inspiration to pen his comeback screenplay, but entangling everyone in a dangerous game.
There is plenty to like about DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD, but overall I was left a little underwhelmed. The whole is less than the sum of the parts, and Bochco too often veers quite cheesy, eschewing nuance for lurid Hollywood tales that no doubt have some basis in reality, and would have been very interesting as seasoning or texture to his mystery, but overwhelm it when they're wall-to-wall.
I've had a lifelong interest in Hollywood and the film industry, so would be more forgiving than many readers. But for some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on, DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD never really gelled for me, despite having some interesting characters and events. Too often it felt a bit shallow or thin - which is interesting given that Bochco's television work often had characters of great depth and complexity. There are some good wisecracks, plenty of action and humour, and several 'inside jokes' about the Hollywood scene, and Bochco has an engaging narrative voice.
File this one in the 'airport thriller' category - a relatively entertaining and engaging book in a fascinating if lurid setting that veers cheesy and often seems more style than substance.
But then again, perhaps that's a point Bochco was trying to make about Hollywood life?
Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for print publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson