It surprises most people that as a young Brit with ambitions to become a writer (and to meet me I’m almost embarrassingly English) I was bold enough to decide that my first novel would be a noir thriller set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I try to tell them that Raymond Chandler was half English and didn’t move to California until his mid-twenties but let’s face facts: it’s a place I’ve spent little time in, in an era before my parents were even born and with characters – many of them real people – I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting.
And yet to me writing a thriller set in and around Hollywood makes complete sense. Hollywood is a world I visited most weekends in childhood with my parents; a world I dreamed about in my teens and one I seem to spend a lot of time reading about (and visiting almost as much) now. So as it happens, the movie world is the one I know best – “write what you know,” isn’t that what they say?
I’m sure we’ve all been catching up on our Oscar movies recently. And there are some good ones this year too. But in the ’30s, half the US population went to the cinema once a week. This was what people did instead of Candy Crush, TV or Netflix. Admit it, we’re all hooked on rumour and scandal but in the ’30s there was a genuine obsession with Hollywood and movie stars, arguably even more than there is now. MGM promised people “all the stars in heaven” because that’s what people came to see.
But what’s also remarkable is just how much power and influence the movie studios had at that time. Enough influence to twist the arms of police and juries. Enough, even, to cover up murder. Google Jean Harlow. Wikipedia Paul Bern. There were countless examples of real-life cover-ups and scandals to draw upon for my novel. In fact, a lot of what occurs in The Pictures is based on or inspired by real people and events.
Enter my protagonist: Jonathan Craine, reluctant hero, a confused, flawed man who at first has no interest in investigating murders or solving cases. He’s the studio fixer, a man who has spent years covering up scandals for Hollywood studios who finds himself finally questioning his conscience when he discovers that the suicide of a movie producer may be linked to a murder of a high-class prostitute.
1939 is mainly remembered as the year World War II began but at the same time, it was an incredible year for film: Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and Gone with the Wind were all released in 1939. But there’s one film that stood out in that year and it happens to be one my favourite movies: The Wizard of Oz. It’s pretty remarkable that a film that’s over 75 years old is still being watched by people the world over. It’s almost strange that it’s now considered a family classic because the stories around the making of The Wizard of Oz are almost too surreal to be true: the most expensive MGM movie ever made, fourteen writers, five directors, a young Judy Garland hooked on drugs, rumours of ‘Munchkin’ sex parties, a Tinman who almost died from blood poisoning and a Wicked Witch with life-threatening burns from an on-set fire. This unusual and almost unbelievable series of events seemed to me like the perfect backdrop for my Hollywood thriller: a murder mystery set in and around the making of The Wizard of Oz.
Safe to say, The Pictures is an ode to all things Hollywood, my love letter to sitting in the cinema, waiting for the lights to go down and thinking “Dorothy, there’s no place like the movies.”
THE PICTURES by Guy Bolton is published by PointBlank, hardback £14.99