The Jean Harlow Bombshell
I love old Hollywood, its mysteries and its scandals, so The Jean Harlow Bombshell, which focuses on a biographer who was murdered for digging up a fresh secret about the beloved Hollywood star and the assistant left behind to deal with the criminal fall-out seemed a natural fit for me. But while the mystery itself is reasonably unpredictable and its characters generally decent, they aren’t enough to keep the reader interested through the length of the book on their own. The mystery made from the meat of Harlow’s life feels rather dull, and an attempt at exposing a transphobic character ends up using dead pronouns.
Justine Turner –in the middle of writing a biography on legendary pre-code star Jean Harlow – has an emergency meeting with her assistant Charlotte Donovan at a tea room. Before she can get to discussing the biography, she dies of an apparent heart attack while Charlotte was in the ladies’ room. The police who respond to the scene think Justine – who had a history of heart problems – simply passed away, but Charlotte’s recollections of Justine’s ramblings about terrible people coming out of the woodwork because of the book, quickly point toward the possibility of homicide.
Living in Justine’s wake and with a mountain of her final requests to fulfill, Charlotte decides to finish the Harlow biography – but soon she finds herself the object of the stalker’s attention. In the flesh she’s trailed by a dead ringer for Jean, who has a tendency to turn up in the crowd when she’s least expecting her, a woman who was also tailing Justine. Online and through email, Charlotte becomes the obsession of various Harlow fans determined to keep Justine’s research suppressed. Leaning on her best friend Kate (a lawyer) and Sergeant Den Brophy, who soon becomes more than the man examining the truth behind Justine’s murder, Charlotte tries to decode Justine’s files, figure out the mystery of a secret locked room in her apartment, and swim through the mountains of notes she’d left to figure out just what her employer’s learned about Ms. Harlow that has made Charlotte a target of so many people before she becomes another stiff in the morgue.
The Jean Harlow Bombshell has an interesting concept, and its characters are kind and easy enough to invest in, but nothing about them makes them especially exciting, amusing or engaging. But flaws cropped up stubbornly and refused to allow me to enjoy the story.
Charlotte is a decent heroine – she steps forward into the limelight to save Jean’s reputation and gets her house in order because of it. The stalwart Den and the funny Kate provide good sounding boards, and the suspense feels fairly well-earned. There’s a subplot involving Charlotte’s mother and her alcoholism that feels a touch too pat, but is researched reasonably well and works.
On the whole, the author’s research into the life of Harlow is good, and Jean is rescued from the shallow, sexpot image that people have plastered upon her face since her death. Most of what is told feels true to what I’ve read of her in various biographies, including David Stenn’s (which Bryan recommends in the afterward); that old canard that Jean died of renal failure because her mother refused to get her help due to being a practicing Christian Scientist is rebuffed. But some of the material is underused or oddly referenced; strangely, William Powell, who had an on again/off again relationship with Harlow at the time of her death, comes in for a heavier bashing for his stinginess and refusal to marry Jean than Paul Bern, Harlow’s one-time husband. The man is long rumored to have beaten the starlet during their relationship and this is not even referenced once in the text, not even to be rebuked. What is briefly mentioned is that while Bern committed suicide within weeks of marrying Harlow, it’s long been rumored he was murdered by his former wife, who was also found dead soon after Bern’s death, her personal papers ransacked and stolen. With such a juicy – and still unsolved – case to play with, one would think Byrne would have written about it. But instead, the secret that Justine was holding onto is snoozy; I doubt it would be something a person would be willing to kill for, especially as it only actually peripherally involves Harlow herself. There is, however, time for the main characters to drool over an outtake of a nude Jean from Red Dust, which leads to Charlotte dreaming of her. Um.
On top of that, the author’s handling of a trans character who is murdered by a transphobic relative is awkward at best, as she chooses to have Charlotte use he/him pronouns to describe her, even though she identified as a woman.
Sadly, The Jean Harlow Bombshell is somewhat less than a fizzle. With a dull central mystery and just okay central characters, I can’t recommend it.