Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Case of the Angry Actress: E. V. Cunningham

I enjoyed this book most for the setting in Southern California in the 1960's. The book was published in 1967. I lived in Southern California in the 70's and I remember the smog and how different it seemed from my home state of Alabama.

Some quotes from the book:
Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto, of the Beverly Hills Police Force, did not live in the “poor” section of Beverly Hills. He lived in a cottage in Culver City and considered himself most fortunate to be possessed of the cottage, a good wife, three children, and a rose garden upon which he lavished both love and toil. He secretly dreamed of himself as a gardener who devoted all of his working hours to his garden.
Mulholland Drive was a high rib out of a sea of yellow smog. To Masuto, as always, the sight was unreal and hideous, and his eyes burned.
Plot and characterization are the two main things that I look for in a novel. This book has a fast-paced interesting plot. The mystery here centers around the death, possibly a murder, of a Hollywood producer. He died during a dinner party at his house, which four other couples attended, in addition to himself and his wife. All of the men in attendance share a history with a young actress named Samantha.

Where this novel was lacking was in the characterization. All of the characters, including Masuto, are stereotypes. I did find a lot to like about Masuto, but there was little depth to any of the other characters. The women were all young and beautiful, and most were married to their husbands for the money. Some of the women suspects eventually move from the one-dimensional portrayal to show their strengths to a certain extent.

This book does include some political and social commentary, focusing on the treatment of Masuto by suspects and witnesses. They treat him with condescension and include racial slurs in their conversations with him. Masuto is nisei, a son of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. , and the suspects are not comfortable dealing with an "Oriental" in a position of responsibility and power. Much is also made of the fact that most Beverly Hills residents are rich and/or powerful and expect the police to handle them with kid gloves.

It is not surprising that these books have such references, since E. V. Cunningham is a pseudonym for Howard Fast, better known for his historical fiction, with themes of human rights. He published his first novel at 19 in 1933. Per his obituary in the New York Times:
His output was slowed but not entirely interrupted by the blacklisting he endured in the 1950's after it became known that he had been a member of the Communist Party and then refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He served three months in a federal prison in 1950 for contempt of Congress, a charge arising from his refusal to produce the records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.
Fast began writing Spartacus, his most famous work, while he was in prison, and self-published it in 1951 following his release from prison. The book was adapted as a film in 1960, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Fast went on to write many more novels.

The Case of the Angry Actress was first published as Samantha. Starting in 1960, Howard Fast published twelve novels of suspense, all having a woman's name for the title. These were published under the pseudonym E.V. Cunningham. Other than the titles, in most cases there was no connection between these novels. Fantastic Fiction indicates that some of them share some characters. See this link for a list of all the E. V. Cunningham titles.

Samantha was published in 1967, and the next mystery featuring Masao Masuto was not published for another ten years. There were seven novels in the series and the last novel in the series was published in 1984.

There is a nice overview of the series at The Cozy Mystery List Blog.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, but I wanted more from it. The story had charm, but it was lacking in areas. I plan to read the next book in the series for comparison. Would I recommend the book? Yes, if you are looking for a light, entertaining, undemanding mystery written and set in the late 1960s.


Sarah said...

It's good to read a novel set in a time and place that you remember well. I often feel that when I read novels set in the 1970s which really did feel like a different country than Britain today.

That said, I think the modern reader demands good characterisation above anything else and this one falling short in this respect puts me off slightly.

Good review though Tracy!

TracyK said...

Thanks, Sarah. Agree about the characterization. Hoping that when I read the 2nd book in the series, I will find that improved. The setting can be really fun.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - Thanks for the thoughtful review. I like reading books that are set in places/times I know, so I can understand the attraction. but I'm not sure either about the characters. As you say, it's hard to be really drawn into the story if there are no characters to really 'latch onto.'

TracyK said...

I was surprised at how much the descriptions of that area resonated with me as I read this book. I still remember the first time I flew into the area and saw the smog hanging over the cities in the distance. That was one of the reasons for relocating. I was in Riverside, don't know if it was worse there or not.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I don't recall reading many novels set in a place and time I am familiar with and that may be because I haven't read many books by Indian authors. I used to read Howard Fast in my college days and particularly liked his trilogy (I think) THE ESTABLISHMENT, SECOND GENERATION, and THE IMMIGRANTS, all well-written novels. I am, in fact, reading one of his novels called THE HESSIAN that I plan to review soon. You might also enjoy THE DINNER PARTY, one of his lighter books. I don't think I have read any of his books written as E.V. Cunningham.

TracyK said...

I had been wondering what Howard Fast's non-mystery fiction was like. (Maybe I read some long ago; if so, I don't remember.) I will look forward to your review. And check out some of his other books.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great choice TracyK - Fast was a fascinating writer and he reached more people as 'Cunningham' than under his own name probably. I've read some of the other books he ublished underthe name but not this one, which sounds like a compraratively weak entry. Rather amusingly he once wrote a TV script from one of his Cunningham books as Fast - I don't know how widely it was known that he used the name at the time.

TracyK said...

He is an interesting author. I did get the impression that this was a weak one, and I am hoping I will like the next Cunningham book that I try.

J F Norris said...

I read several of these Masuto books when they first came out. I must've been in high school at the time. I was getting into Asian philosophy I recall and liked reading books with Japanese and Asian characters -- especially modern Asian detectives in mysteries. It was the first book I learned about the nisei. They were slight, fast paced books, not too dmeanding onthe reader. Good stuff for a teenager trying to make his way out of kid's books into adult books. I vaguely remember one that involved stamp collecting. There's a long gone hobby.

TracyK said...

I plan to try The Case of the One-Penny Orange... that must be the one about stamp collecting. I also have The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie (which I bought for the skeleton on the cover) which I have heard is also a weak one.