Death by Hollywood, Steven Bochco

Ballantine, 2003, 239 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-46687-X

Sooner or later, it seems that every writer who passes through Los Angeles ends up with the irresistible ambition to run to New York publishers and sell them a revenge novel about Hollywood’s excesses. Find a screenwriter with prose ambitions and you will probably find someone looking to settle a score or two outside the normal power structures of Hollywood. And watch out if an established novelist goes to Hollywood for a while… Sooner or later, they come back wide-eyed with a novel or at least a short story on the madness of Southern California. (Get Shorty, anyone?)

The twist with Steven Bochco is that in Los Angeles terms, he’s more a member of the TV middle-class than the cinema elite. But he’s from Hollywood anyway, so the revenge fantasy novel aspect still holds true. Bochco may not be writing directly about TV production in Death by Hollywood, but he’s still skewering the same celebrity-obsessed mentality that seems to permeate the L.A. bassin.

A relatively short novel at a time where 350-450 pages is the norm, Death By Hollywood is as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Told from a first-person point of view that at first seems disconnected from the action, Death By Hollywood is about murder (fittingly enough for the creator of “Hill Street Blues”, “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blues”), but also about the cult of celebrity and the way in which a person without scruples has a huge advantage over anyone who does.

It starts with voyeurism, as a screenwriter watches a naughty scene turn violent, then deadly. Obsessed with the idea of a killer script premise, the screenwriter inserts himself in the developing story, all the while plotting how he’s going to influence the events for the best dramatic effect. If it means getting friendly with the lead investigator in the case and getting very close to the murderer, well, why not?

Played half with a smile, half with a cynical sneer, Death by Hollywood wastes no time in getting into the heads of characters willing to do the worst to others if it just means taking a step closer to success. Never mind that the plot never quite makes sense (announcing what you’ve done to the world isn’t a terrific idea for a criminal, script or no script): the emphasis here is on the satire, the description of how Hollywood corrupts everyone who’s touched by its illusions. Even the characters who should be the most trustworthy aren’t any better than the others, we discover. The language of the book is crude, and the action sometimes pauses for ribald scenes. This is both a macho-noir narrative and a satire: it’s not to be taken too seriously.

Yet part of what makes the charm of the novel is the accumulation of details about life in Hollywood. I’m always very fond of the alternate Hollywoods developed by fiction writers as they weave details that may or not correspond to real-life celebrities. The nature of celebrity being so extreme, the difference between reality and fiction is never too clear nor too clean. Suffice to say that Bochco writes with the weariness of someone who has spent decades in the business: the asides of his narrator alone are worth the short time it takes to read the novel. (Though I wonder if Death By Hollywood would have been different if Bochco had tackled TV series production. Is there a reason why he didn’t, or was it just a better story this way?)

It’s hardly a perfect novel (among other things, the omniscient point of view seems a bit presumptuous from the narrator, especially when he tries to justify how he learned all of that information), but it’s a very enjoyable one. It may not be worth the price of a hardcover unless you’re building a collection of Hollywood revenge novels, but it’s a great excuse for going back to your local library, or to hunt the bargain bins. Steven Bochco won’t ever by known for his novel over his TV series, but Death by Hollywood certainly isn’t a dishonour. In fact, I wonder if he’s ever going to write another one…

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