Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
The Hollywood Canteen was an entertainment center set up during WW2 for servicemen and women heading overseas. Established and run by volunteers from the entertainment industry from October 1942 until November 1945, it was hugely popular, offering free food and acts ranging from comedy to big bands as well as the chance to dance with the volunteers and maybe meet a famous celebrity.
Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong and James Cagney were some of the many celebrities who appeared there.
In 1943, playwright Annie Laurence, newly arrived in Hollywood to work as a screenwriter at Pacific Pictures, joins the ranks of volunteers, making sandwiches and dancing at the Canteen. There she meets theatre and film critic Fiona Farris, generally despised by all in the industry for her caustic but witty reviews. Prior to arriving in Hollywood, Annie’s successful play on Broadway received an unusually positive review from Fiona, although she did hint at Annie’s ménage à trois with her leading actor and actress, something they had kept secret for years.
Soon Annie has fallen in with Fiona’s group of friends, who call themselves the Ambassador’s Club, each bitter and unhappy in some way about their careers. When Fiona dies from imbibing poison, the police must investigate to determine if she committed suicide or was murdered and each of the club will be viewed as suspects, but especially Annie who used the same unusual source of poison in her murder mystery play. This makes Annie determined to expose the killer, if she wants to avoid ending up in jail for murder.
With a background of the glamour and dazzle of Hollywood, this is an engaging murder mystery. Although life is not all glitter and glamour for those working in the industry and life on the film is shown to be hard work for all involved. Heavy drinking is almost obligatory and the use of drugs is rife: stimulants to keep actors and writers alert and productive and then sleeping pills so they can switch off at night. Private lives are also strictly controlled by the studios with fake marriages and ‘wholesome’ hobbies.
Although, the novel gives a good sense of what the Canteen was like, we only really see it through the small numbers of characters who form the Ambassadors Club. I would have enjoyed more historical context about how WW2 affected the lives of those living in LA and how the servicemen and women felt about visiting the Canteen. It would also have been interesting to have more vignettes of stars who performed there. Nevertheless, this is a fun and entertaining murder mystery set against a fabulous backdrop.
With thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley for a complimentary digital copy of the book.
More Historical Suspense