Movies, mansions, and murder in the Golden Age of Hollywood! Teri Bailey Black's Chasing Starlight is a historical mystery from the author of Girl at the Grave, winner of the Thriller Award for Best Young Adult Novel. 1938. The Golden Age of Hollywood. Palm trees and movie stars. Film studios pumping out musicals and gangster films at a furious pace. Everyone wants to be a star―except society girl and aspiring astronomer Kate Hildebrand. She’s already famous after a childhood tragedy turned her into a newspaper headline. What she craves now is stability. But when Kate has to move to Hollywood to live with her washed-up silent film star grandfather, she walks into a murder scene and finds herself on the front page again. She suspects one of the young men boarding in her grandfather’s run-down mansion is the killer―or maybe even her grandfather. Now, Kate must discover the killer while working on the set of a musical―and falling in love. Will her stars align so she can catch the murderer and live the dream in Old Hollywood? Or will she find that she’s just chasing starlight?
We think of the glitz, glamorous mega-stars, and classic movies when we think of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but that’s not the Hollywood that Kate Hildebrand walks into when she’s sent to live in Hollywood with her grandfather. She sees the real Hollywood–the working class Hollywood, I’d say. Her grandfather has retired from acting after his failure to do well in talkies, most of his boarders are struggling actors who can’t find work, and the film Kate comes to participate in is a corny musical that’s being rushed through production to make as much money from as little as possible.
Then the boarder with mob connections is murdered in the kitchen with her grandfather’s own keepsake sword. But only people who lived there would know it was a real sword and that means one of them must be the killer, right? So begins this impressive little 1930s whodunnit caper.
Kate has had it rough and I feel for this girl. Her father ran a massive Ponzi scheme, one of his victims kidnapped Kate for a million-dollar ransom, police shot the kidnapper dead during the ransom exchange, and while police desperately tried to find out where Kate was hidden, her dad’s crimes came to light. He shot’s Kate mother dead, then himself, and Kate was hours away from death herself when police finally found her. Kate woke up in the hospital with a new fear of the dark and without her parents. Much to her dismay, she’s also a media sensation.
This society girl is anxious to get out of Hollywood and away from her grandfather Ollie’s broken down home, but everything starts to grow on her. The chaotic film set she’s working on as a production assistant, her friendship with neighbor and teen actor Bonnie, her blossoming attraction to wannabe actor Hugo Quick, and her increasing closeness with Ollie all convince her to stay. (Plus she needs to solve Lenny the mob guy’s murder so Ollie doesn’t get blamed for it and thrown in jail.)
Her character arc is impressive and her inability to quit jumping to conclusions does a good job of obscuring the killer’s identity, though it gets tiring after a bit. I swear, she told herself at one point “I’ve got to quit jumping to conclusions and accusing this one guy of murder” only for her to keep doing so and accuse him of murder again another time or two. Just for good measure. If you step outside of Kate’s head for a few minutes and consider the evidence, you have a good chance of figuring out the killer’s identity early like I did.
Chasing Starlight offers a a unique, memorable setting in 1930s Hollywood and doesn’t whitewash the setting either literally or figuratively. People of color have always been hard at work in Hollywood even though media depictions have made many of us think of that specific time and place as very white. Neither does the book shy away from the types of racism and sexism specific to that period in Hollywood. Latino actor Aurelio faces his entire history being rewritten to make him a heavily accented immigrant who was lucky enough to be brought to Hollywood by a producer.
This kind of oppression has always been in Hollywood and still is to this day, but it presents and works in different ways depending on the era. For instance: A new Latino actor in Hollywood isn’t going to have a racist backstory forced on them by a studio these days, but they’ll still be typecast into specific roles based on their skin color and accent. Women directing films was incredibly common until men commercialized the industry and pushed them out, as one character remarks in the book. Oppression through the ages in Hollywood is fascinating stuff to look into when you feel like it.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
The character of Reuben Feigenbaum, another boarder in Ollie’s home, troubles me somewhat. His surname tells me he’s German and strongly implies he’s Jewish, as I’ve seen it’s a common surname in some Jewish communities. He’s also a communist and in hiding after being the unwilling bookkeeper to a mobster. Him being a Jewish communist who works with money seems a bit close to stereotypes, but to emphasize this: I am not Jewish and am not the authority on this whatsoever.
His character may well be a quiet show of how centuries of anti-Semitic rhetoric and action forced Jewish people into roles they’ve now been stereotyped with, like handling money for a living. Or it might not be that deep and he just trends toward anti-Semitic tropes. I did not ask any of my Jewish friends for their opinions because they have better things to do than be bothered with this just for my sake. I implore you to look for reviews of this book by Jewish people and see what they have to say.
Chasing Starlight is a glitzy whodunnit caper that will learn you a thing or two while you’re enjoying yourself. Would I get a copy of the book for myself when it releases? Yeah. Would I reread it given the chance? Definitely!