Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen takes us back to the height of World War II, with a mystery that intrigues and gives the reader fun characters to play with, but doesn’t really excite. It’s a pretty decent portrait of World War II-era Hollywood, but the mystery needed more punch to satisfy me.
After the play she was in in New York closed, Annie Laurence heads to Hollywood for a fresh start. Having broken up with her boyfriend, there’s nothing holding her to the Big Apple, so when Pacific Pictures offers her a contract in motion pictures, Annie jumps at the opportunity. The job, like everyone else’s job in the system at this point in time, comes with a requirement – she must put in time working at the Hollywood Canteen in the Ambassador Hotel. The Canteen is a nightclub staffed by volunteering Hollywood folks in support of servicemen heading overseas to fight in the war effort; they can dine, tipple, and dance with the beautiful people for free.
One night while on duty, Annie is shocked to stumble upon a body in the Canteen’s kitchen. The victim is crusty film critic Fiona Farris. It’s soon figured out that Fiona has been poisoned and Annie – having discovered the body – is an immediate suspect. Since Farris was not kind in her reviews and could make or break any career as she so pleased – and had a closely-knit but backbiting social circle who dubbed themselves The Ambassadors as they held court at the Ambassador Hotel - there’s some worry that one of the Canteen’s many A-list volunteers might have been responsible for her murder.
All of Annie’s stage successes have been in mysteries, so when one pops into being in front of her, she turns into a real-life detective. Annie decides to get to the bottom of things by cozying up to Fiona’s social circle. It turns out Fiona was surrounded by a flock of malcontents, and they’re all too willing to tell Annie what Fiona was up to. But who’s the real perp?
Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen is well-grounded in its time and place, and provids a decently paced mystery, but some parts of it were a little hard to swallow.
While Annie is a wonderfully winning heroine, and I enjoyed watching her match wits with the wicked people around her, she gains entrance to Fiona’s inner circle with far too much ease. And they spill intimate secrets to her with little encouragement – and far too little consideration. I imagine we’re supposed to think that they believed they were writers BS-ing to writers, which explains the slackening of social norms, but it still doesn’t ring true.
Yet the mystery itself - and the romantic tangle Annie finds herself in, which I won’t spoil for fear of revealing too much of the subplot – do work, and it’s thanks to them that I can offer Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen a recommendation.
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