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One Extra Corpse by Barbara Hambly (book review)

Cover of the novel "One Extra Corpse" by Barbara Hambly. The cover shows a closeup of a dreaming 1920s girl (probably a film starlet) with her gaze set in the distance.

(Goodreads Description)

Hollywood intrigue, glamor . . . and murder: Enter the roaring twenties in this thrilling Silver Screen historical mystery, starring two very different female sleuths.

May, 1924. It’s been seven months since young British widow Emma Blackstone arrived in Hollywood to serve as companion to Kitty Flint: her beautiful, silent-movie star sister-in-law. Kitty is generous, kind-hearted . . . and a truly terrible actress. Not that Emma minds; she’s too busy making her academic parents turn in their graves with her new job writing painfully historically inaccurate scenarios for Foremost Studios, in between wrangling their leading lady out of the arms of her army of amorous suitors.

So when one of Kitty’s old flames, renowned film director Ernst Zapolya, calls Emma and tells her it’s imperative he meet with Kitty that morning, she’s not surprised. Until, that is, he adds that lives depend on it. Ernest sounds frightened. But what can have scared him so badly – and what on earth does cheerful, flighty Kitty have to do with it?

Only Ernest can provide the answers, and Kitty and Emma travel to the set of his extravagant new movie to find them. But the shocking discovery they make there only raises further questions . . . including: will they stay alive long enough to solve the murderous puzzle?

Thursday Quotables Meme

I’ve read quite a few novels set in 1920s Hollywood, but this had a very unique voice. It seemed to be very well-researched: it used specific terms that sounded genuine to the era if different from what we would say today (for example, she used scenario instead of script). It presented life on stage in a way that I never thought of but makes a lot of sense for the time (the scene I cited below impressed me a lot, but the scenes where actors and extras worked on stage, or depicting how the stages were built rang very genuine). Everything was similar and yet different from everything I’ve read so far in novels set in 1920s Hollywood – and I really enjoyed this.

The cast of characters was very interesting, and the recurring cast was endearing. I wish I had read the first novel when I had the chance.
Thing is, the blurb didn’t present the book properly, in my opinion. I read this one by chance, and I remember skipping the first because it gave me a sense of romance more than anything else. The blurb for this one felt the same! The story is more about the mystery and the historical setting than romance.

If there was something that didn’t convince me completely, it was the mystery. I couldn’t figure out anything while reading (and this is not necessarily bad), but even when it was revealed, it sounded too convoluted.
More than one thread intertwined – something I see is becoming common in recent mysteries – and I’m not sure it was necessary. It ended up feeling unlikely and over the top, which is a pity, seen as the rest of the book sounds so realistic.

The end was kind of problematic, in my opinion, and it didn’t completely convince me.

But apart from these final notes, it was a very enjoyable book, well-written.

I’d just add, as a personal note, that I was surprised to read Barbara Hambly. When I saw her name, I thought, wait, what? The fantasy writer?
I remembered her name from my teenage years when I devoured fantasy books like I eat bread. I had to google her, and yes, it’s the same person.
It was such a funny feeling to find someone from so long ago (well, for me) and in a new environment. But it was nice.

One Extra Corpse by Barbara Hambly – Historical #cosymystery set in 1920s Hollywood. Great historical setting. Fantastic cast of characters #BookReview #HistoricalFiction Share on X

One Extra Corpse
Exceprt

From the commissary tent Emma watched Zapolya’s tall form spring lightly down the palace steps, cross to the deep, gothic portico of the cathedral facade, megaphone and flag still in hand. The extras stirred – And well they might! thought Emma, appalled – then closed ranks, and Emma had a brief glimpse of Nomie Carlyle’s silver-blond curls and sable dress. A cameraman appeared on the balcony beside the Evil Countess and her Stll-More-Evil Henchman, put his eye on the viewing lens at the back of the camera box and the gentlemen in plus fours darted up beside him, hung over the balcony railing to hold a slate in front of the lens: scene and take numbers, Emma knew, having held a lot of slates herself in seven months. He vanished as Zapolya appeared momentarily in the cavern embrasure of the cathedral door, and slashed with the red flag.

A flicker of green from the palace door under the balcony – another flag – as all the extras cowered back, looking around them as if they heard the shots (which had yet to be fired), realized they had been betrayed and that the righteous vengeance of the Americans was upon them…

Emma saw the doors open and the girl Nomie snatch up her dark skirts and bolt for safety behind them as the gunners opened fire. Bullets tore chunks from the steps, shattered the long windows on either side of the door. Emma’s heart turned to water in her chest.

Pinterest pin. The text reads, "One Extra Corpse by Barbara Hambly (The Silver Screen Mystery Series) - Book review". The picture is a vintage photo of a 1920s Hollywood film set. A cameraman is filming a scene on set, standing behind a voluminous camera.

She’d driven young men from eh Osford train station to Bicester Hospital during he war, young men who’d come from this. Her brother Miles, her husband Jim, both had spoken of the noise of the guns, the heartstopping din of battle. How it froze you, disoriented you, the first time you heard it, the first time you were in it…

Dear God!… Her mind simply stalled on the words.

It wasn’t like the single shot one heard going out with the dean of New College to murder pheasants, something Emma had only done once.

It was nothing like it.

Dear God…!

She saw, to her horror, machine-gun bullets stitch the palace wall, over the heads of the extras but not all that far over their heads. Another line of shots slashed across the cobblestones, almost at their feet (‘that sharpshooter better be sober,’ Miss Darrow had said), and at the same moment, explosions shattered the corner of the palace steps, and a nearby house front, filling the air with smoke and dust. The extras fled, screaming (‘This panic, this disbelief – you flee for your very lives!’) crowding up in a surging mass when another explosion charge went off right in their path. Some tried to break away in the direction of the camera cranes and genuine safety, but that was where the machine-gunners were posted. Others dashed for the shelter of the house facades, only to have more explosions drive them back.

A white flash in the smoke caught her eye. Desiree Darrow – through her horror Emma wondered what plot twist required the Obligatory Plunky Damsel to be thus skimpily attired – raced across the momentary gap in the chaos, riffle bullets kicking geysers of dirt and rock-chips just behind her heels (‘It’s Smitty… You don’t need to worry about him’). An explosion only a yard away threw her to her knees, and she scrambled to her feet and ran in earnest as a second charge went off only a foot from where she’d been downed.

Others weren’t so lucky. Through the thickening smoke Emma saw two extras down, who neither moved nor struggled when others tripped over them, kicked them…

Dear God!

The one cameramen she could see, high on the tallest crane, kept cracking with a light, steady movement of his wrist- The extras milled, now genuinely confused by the smoke and the noise and shoving, losing whatever instructions they’d been given about which way to run. Instants later the Aercian cavalry came leaping in over a ruined wall seconds after its explosion and collapse, the horses seeming to spring out of the smoke, the sabres flashing like dragon claws in the smouldering light. The cameraman on the balcony had vanished, camera and all, and there was no trace of either Miss Tempest nor Mr Craig; an explosion ripped most of the balcony from the wall, stone and bricks and beams cascading on the knot of terrified extras just below.

Up on the cranes – one high, one lowered almost to the ground level – the two cameramen cracked away. Desiree Darrow had long since disappeared – If she hasn’t been shot down by a stray bullet! – but the chaos continued, horses and soldiers milling among the extras now, dust and smoke thicker and thicker…

When is it going to stop? They have their shot.

The air was rank with the stink of cordite, churned-up dirt and smoke.

Dear God, somebody yell cut…


Silver Screen Murder Mysteries
The series so far

Cover of the novel "Scandal in Babylon" by Barbara Hambly. The cover shows a closeup of a girl in 1920s outfit. We see her profile, her head tilted backword, as if she were looking up at the sky.
Cover of the novel "One Extra Corpse" by Barbara Hambly. The cover shows a closeup of a dreaming 1920s girl (probably a film starlet) with her gaze set in the distance.
Cover of the novel "Saving Susie Sweetchild" by Barbara Hambly. The cover shows the back of a young woman wearing a deco evening gown silhouetted against a background of fireworks.

The Thursday Quotables  was originally a weekly post created by Lisa Wolf for her book blog **Bookshelf Fantasy** . It isn’t a weekly post anymore, not even for Lisa, but just like her, I still love to share my favourite reads on Thursdays and I still use the original template which included an excerpt.

NOTE: This blog contains affiliate links (including Amazon links) to the book I independently review. When you click on a link and make a purchase, I may receive a commission for advertising the product (at no extra cost to you).


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