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Stardust: A Novel
by Joseph Kanon

Published: 2010-07-06
Paperback : 528 pages
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Hollywood, 1945. Ben Collier has just arrived from war-torn Europe to find his brother has died in mysterious circumstances. Why would a man with a beautiful wife, a successful movie career, and a heroic past choose to kill himself?

Ben enters the uneasy world beneath the glossy shine of ...
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Hollywood, 1945. Ben Collier has just arrived from war-torn Europe to find his brother has died in mysterious circumstances. Why would a man with a beautiful wife, a successful movie career, and a heroic past choose to kill himself?

Ben enters the uneasy world beneath the glossy shine of the movie business, where politics and the dream factories collide and Communist witch hunts are rendering the biggest star makers vulnerable. Even here, where the devastation of Europe seems no more real than a painted movie set, the war casts long and dangerous shadows. When Ben learns troubling facts about his own family’s past and embarks on a love affair that never should have happened, he is caught in a web of deception that shakes his moral foundation to its core.

Rich with atmosphere and period detail, Stardust flawlessly blends fact and fiction into a haunting thriller evoking both the glory days of the movies and the emergence of a dark strain of American political life.

Editorial Review

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AS IT HAPPENED, Sol Lasner was also on the train. Ben spied him first on the red carpet at Grand Central posing for photographers, like one of his stars. Shorter than Ben remembered, his barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, storklike, but with the same tailored look, natty. He gave a quick, obligatory smile to the flashbulbs, then herded a group of men in suits onto the train, back to business. At Croton, where they switched over to the steam engine, most of the suits got off for the ride back to the city, but two stayed on through dinner, so Ben didn't have a chance to talk to him until they were past Albany, when the landscape had already turned dark and there was nothing to observe from the observation car but blurs of street lamps and platform lights streaking past.

He'd been sitting near the rounded back of the car, smoking and staring out at nothing, when Lasner came in, holding a cigar. He nodded to Ben, not recognizing him, and for a moment Ben was tempted to let it wait, talk later on the Army's time. The next few days were supposed to be his, little shrouds of time to wrap himself up in, prepare for the funeral, stare out windows, get used to it.

The long-distance call to Danny's wife has taken hours to put through, her voice scratchy with bad connections, or grief. What kind of accident? "A fall. It's in the papers as an accident. You know, anyone can fall. So they put it in that way." But it wasn't? Ben had asked, disconcerted, feeling his way, listening to the precious seconds tick by. "Look," she'd said finally, "you should know. You're his only family," but then went quiet again. You mean he tried to take his life? "Take his life?" she'd said, confusing him until he realized that it was a translation problem, an idiom she hadn't picked up. Hans Ostermann's daughter. Tried to kill himself, he said. "Yes," she said reluctantly, then drew a breath, moving past it. "But they didn't want to say. You know what it's like here. Everything for the good name. Nothing bad ever happens. It's better if it's an accident, in the papers. So I said it, too." There was a snort of air, like a shrug over the phone. "But his brother -- you have a right."

Rambling on, making no sense to him now, or maybe he had just stopped listening, his head dizzy with it. Not a crash, a virus, some act of fate, but something willed, a scream of unhappiness. "I'm sorry for this news," she'd said before he could ask more. "Is it possible for you to come now? He's in a coma. So still alive. I don't know how long. They don't expect -- so if you could come." And then the reserved time was running out, and instead of questions there were logistics and plans. But what answers could anyone have? Something that only made sense to Danny, the most private act there was.

To his surprise, there had been no problem having the Army move up the trip. The problem was getting there, with the trains the way they were. Then something last minute opened up on the Chief, if he was willing to sleep sitting up on the Century to meet it, so he'd packed a duffel, sent the wire, and now found himself riding with Sol Lasner. Who could wait -- the Army's assignment -- while he took his personal leave, brooding. Days to think about it, all the way to California. Meanwhile, Lasner was lighting the cigar, looking out the window and then at his watch, checking some invisible schedule.

"Any idea where we are?"

"Just past Schenectady."

Lasner drew on the cigar, looking out again. "Upstate," he said. "Goldwyn's from here. Gloversville. They made gloves. That's what he was, a glove man. Well, why not?"

Just talking to himself, not really expecting a reply, but suddenly Ben took the opening anyway. The meeting had fallen into his lap, personal leave or not.

"Mr. Lasner?"

Lasner turned, peering at him.

"Sorry. You probably don't remember. We met last month overseas, on the Army trip. Ben Collier." He held out his hand. "I was one of the liaison officers. Translator."

Lasner took his hand, looking closely, still trying to place him. "The guy with the rooms, right? The one got Eddie Mannix the Ritz in Paris."

Ben smiled. "And Zanuck. And Balaban. Colonel Mitchell arranged it. He figured they'd want the Ritz. Kind of people used to it."

"I got news for you," Lasner said, pointing with the cigar. "You think Harry Cohn's used to the Ritz? Some hot-sheet place down on Flower -- that's what he's used to." He shook his head. "I still don't know what that trip was. A stunt. Army puts a bunch of us in uniform, takes us around. What did they get out of it?"

What did they? Harry Cohn played poker in his suite, ignoring Paris. Everywhere the jockeying for the best hotel rooms, the special transports. Ben remembered the winding road up to Berchtesgaden, lined with jeeps, a new tourist attraction, GIs hunting for souvenirs while the executives stood at Hitler's vast picture window, little tyrants finally humbled. A ride on Hitler's yacht. Hamburg, where people had melted into the pavement during the firebombing. The camps, even worse. A few survivors still there, too emaciated and stunned to be moved. In town, packs of children, foraging. How much had they seen from their requisitioned rooms?

"It was Ike's idea. Thinks people should see it. What happened. So the State Department sends groups over. That was the studio tour. There was another for the newsreel editors. See what it's like."

"At the Ritz."

"And Dachau."

For a moment there was no sound but the click of wheels beneath them.

"I was there," Ben said quietly. Watching Lasner stagger against a building, his face in his hands, sobbing. "I know it made an impression on you."

Lasner rounded his cigar in the stand-up tray, smoothing off the ash.

"We're making a picture about it."

"Who's making?"

"I'm in the Signal Corps. We shot film there. What the newsreels didn't."

"You personally?"

"No, I collect the film. See it's put together for briefings, whether we can do something more. Information length, maybe features. If not, V shorts. Depending on the footage. What you do, in a way. Produce."

Lasner waved his hand. "And now you're out of a job."

"Not yet. The Battle of San Pietro got a lot of play. And the Tokyo film did okay on general release, so the exhibitors are still interested. And there's Ike's film coming."

"Who's releasing?" Lasner said quickly.


Lasner grunted.

"You know how it works. War Activities Committee -- Freeman, at Paramount -- assigns the pictures on a rotating basis. All the majors. It was Columbia's turn."

"The majors. What am I? They still think Continental's a Poverty Row shop? Next year, we'll outgross RKO, but me they give the training films. You know what it costs me? We get four to five thousand a reel. But we throw in the production, the overhead, the salaries for chrissake. Add it up, it's more like seven thousand a reel and we just eat the difference." He tapped the cigar again, calmer. "Not that I mind. You know, for the war. But you don't hear Freeman calling me with a feature, either."

"He will be."

Lasner glanced up at him. "What's this, a pitch?"

Ben leaned forward. "We're sitting on a ton of footage. They're setting up trials. This is what they're all about. People need to see this. We want to work with a studio to put it together."

Lasner shook his head. "Let Columbia do it. You think people want to see this? Nobody wants to see this."

"They should."

"Should. You know, Freeman asks, it doesn't mean we have to do it. These war films -- it's all strictly voluntary. And now, after the war? Nobody's going to make this picture."

"I thought you'd want to."

Lasner looked at him for a long minute, then sighed.

"Let me tell you something. Nobody needs a picture about killing Jews. What else have they been doing? Since forever."

"Not like this," Ben said quietly, so that Lasner busied himself putting the cigar out, avoiding him.

"Wonderful," he said finally. "Cohn gets Eisenhower and I get -- I'll think about it. Let Freeman call. We'll see." A dodge.

"I'll be at the Signal Corps base in Culver City. A local call."

"Fort Roach." He caught Ben's look. "Hal Roach's old studio. The Army took it over. They've got some of my people down there. Drafted. My best cutter. Splicing film on VD. How does your prick look with crabs. Talk about a waste of a good technician." He glanced up. "You want to make the picture there? Fort Roach?"

"No, I want to make it at Continental. With you."

"Because we were such good pals in Germany. Looking at things."

"Freeman said you were the first call to make. You were there for the Relief Fund. You hired refugees in 'forty. You -- "

"So back to the well."

"He said the others think they're Republicans."

Lasner snorted. "Since when did Frank get funny? If I heard two cracks from him my whole life it's a lot." He shook his head, then snorted again. "Mayer keeps a picture of Hoover in his office. Hoover. And now with the horses. A Jew with horses. So he's fooling everybody." He paused. "Don't push me on this. We'll talk. In an office. We make a picture if it makes sense to make a picture. Not just someone tells me it's good for the Jews. Anyway, what kind of name is Collier?"

Ben smiled. "From Kohler. My father. It means the same thing."

"So why change it? Who changes names? Actors."

"My mother. After the divorce, we went to England. She wanted us to have English names. My father stayed in Germany."


"He was a Mischling. Half."

"And that saved him?"

"He thought it would."

Lasner looked away. "I'm sorry. So it's personal with you? That's no good, you know, in pictures. You get things mixed up."

"Not personal that way. I just want to get this done and get out of the Army. Same as everybody."

Lasner picked up the cigar again and lit it, settling in.

"Why'd you pick the Signal Corps?"

"They picked me. My father was in the business. Maybe they thought it got passed down, like flat feet. Anyway, I got listed with an MOS for the Signal Corps."

"What's MOS?"

"Military Occupational Specialty. Civilian skill the military can use. Which I didn't have, but the Army doesn't have to make sense. They probably wanted guys with German but everybody did, so they grabbed me with an MOS. And once you're assigned -- "

"Well, at least it kept you out of combat."

"Until last winter. Then they needed German speakers with the field units."

"So you saw some action?" The standard welcome-back question.

"Some. The camera crews got the worst of it. They had to work the front lines. We lost a lot of them."

Sometimes just yards away. Ed Singer, so glued to his lens that he never saw the shell that ripped his arm off, just turned and looked down, amazed to see blood gushing out. Ben scooting over. To do what? Dam the blood with a wad of shirt? A stump, spraying blood as it moved, even the camera covered with it. Ed looking at him, frantic, knowing, until his eyes got calmer as shock set in, then closed, no longer there to watch his life run out.

"I was lucky," Ben said. "The closest I came was in a plane. When nothing was supposed to happen. You see Target Berlin? Some of the night footage in that. They told us the AAs had been wiped out, but they forgot to tell the Germans. Our gunner was hit. We get back, the plane is full of holes."

He stopped, embarrassed, then took out a cigarette.

"Sorry. What am I doing now, telling war stories?" He inhaled, then blew smoke up toward the round observation roof, in this light oddly like the glass bubble of the Lancaster. "The thing was, I used to live there. Berlin. So it was the enemy, but also someplace you knew. It's a funny feeling, bombing someplace you know. You think what it must be like on the ground."

Lasner stared at him for a minute, saying nothing. "And then -- what? You're showing Zanuck around Europe. In uniform. He had it made, you know that? A tailor." Almost a wink, a joke between them. "And for that they needed -- what's it again? -- an MOS. Because your father was in pictures. Where, Germany?"

"Uh huh," Ben said casually, sorry now that he had brought it up. "He came here for a while. Years ago. I was born here, in fact. California. But he went back."

"Collier," Lasner said, thumbing a mental file.

"Kohler then. Otto Kohler. He was a director." The old hesitancy, as if the name, once his own, would somehow brand him.

"Otto? My god, why didn't you say so? Wait a minute. I thought his kid was already over here -- at Republic or some place. We were going to do something with him once, but then it didn't work out. I forget why." He stopped, confused. "Same name, though, as Otto. Kohler."

"My brother," Ben said, about to say more, and then the moment was gone. Why not tell him? But why would Lasner care? Something still private, and somehow not real. "He changed it back. Kids pick sides in a divorce. He was closer to my father." Moving away from it. "You knew him? Otto?"

"Of course I knew him. He worked for me. You didn't know that?" He glanced at Ben, a slight suspicion. "We made Two Husbands. You must have seen that."

Ben spread his hands. "I was only -- "

"That picture was a classic. He didn't keep a print? Never mind. I'll run it for you. You should see it. The talent that man had." Lasner was off now, waving his cigar to draw Ben along with him. "He was the one that got away. The Ufa directors who came over. The great ones." He raised three fingers. "Murnau -- well, he got away, too, that car crash. Lang we've still got. And Otto. His trouble? Expensive. Sets. He thought we were making Intolerance." He looked again at Ben. "Why didn't you tell me before? Now I know who you are," he said, leaning back and opening his jacket, visibly relaxing.

Ben smiled to himself. An industry, but still a family business.

"He was ahead of his time with those sets, you know," Lasner was saying. "But they were all like that, the Ufa people. Even the ones who came later. You know why? No Westerns. They never learned to shoot outside. It was all controlled light with them. Of course, they had the facilities. In those days, what they had in Berlin -- I'm still knocking my brains out in Gower Gulch trying to borrow arc lamps, and over there they're making cities. Otto," he said, shaking his head. "I can see the resemblance now, around the eyes. I knew your mother, too. A looker. So what happened? They split, you said."

"Another woman, I guess. That's what I heard. My mother never talked about it."

"Well, he was like that. He always had an eye. So that's why he stayed there? Some skirt?"

"I don't know. He probably thought he'd get through it -- that's what people thought then. He was making pictures with Monika Hoppe. Goebbels liked her. Maybe he thought that would protect him, they'd look the other way. Anyway, they didn't. He was arrested in 'thirty-eight. They sent a notice to my mother. This was when they still thought they had to explain it."

"So," Lasner said, looking away. "Some story."

With everything Ben remembered left out. The good days in the big house on Lützowplatz. The parties, sometimes with just a piano, but sometimes with a whole band, the air full of perfume and smoke, Ben looking down through the banister. Faces even a child recognized. Hertzberg, the comedian with the surprised round eyes; Jannings, jowly and grave even with a glass in his hand. And afterward, sometimes, the quarrels -- were there women even then?

Sunday mornings, the room still smelling of stale ashtrays, his father got them ready for their walk. Scarves in winter. Umbrellas if it rained. But the walk without fail, because that's what you did on Sundays in Berlin. Down Budapesterstrasse to the zoo, afterward a cake at Kranzler's, his father desperate by now for a drink. Later, when they were too old for the zoo, they would head straight for the cafés, where his father met friends and Danny tried to sneak cigarettes. Then, a few years after that, they were on a train for Bremen, an American woman with her two boys, their father back on the platform at Lehrter Bahnhof.

They were meant to go home, but stayed in London. Did his mother think Otto would follow, that it was somehow important to be near him, at least on a map? When it didn't matter anymore, after the official letter, she lacked the will to leave, and they stayed longer. By the time Ben finally did get back to America, to the Army training camp, he was grown up. The accent they teased him about now was English so he lost that one, too. And then, full circle, the Army wanted the old language of his boyhood. They polished off the rust, and it came back, as fluent as memory, bringing everything else with it, even the smell of the cakes, until finally the war took him to Berlin and he saw that it was gone for good -- Kranzler's, the zoo, all of it just rubble and dust, as insubstantial now as his father, all ghosts.

"Then what?" Lasner said, an old hand at story conferences. "She remarried? A woman like that -- "

"No, she died. During the war." He caught Lasner's expectant look and shook his head. "She got sick." No drama, a daily wearing away, medicines to keep the retching down, then a final exhaustion.

"So now it's just the brother?" Lasner said, suddenly sentimental. "Let me tell you something. Stay close. What else have we got? Family. You trust blood. Don't be like -- " He took a puff on the cigar, moving farther away, drifting into anecdote again. "Look at Harry Warner. Jack makes him crazy. Screaming. Shouting. Sometimes, they're in the same room, you don't even want to watch. Don't be like that."

"But they're still -- "

Lasner shrugged. "Who else would work with Jack? He is crazy. You know, I said to him once, you hate him so much, come work with me, partners, your name first, I don't care. At the time, this is worth a fortune to him. You know what he said? 'You want that bastard to run my studio?' His studio. So they're stuck with each other, till one of them keels over. You put that kind of pressure here," he said, touching his heart, "and sooner or later they wheel you out on a stretcher. Well." He stood up, glancing at his watch again, then out the window. "What I hate, this time of night, is you never know where you are." He put his hand on Ben's shoulder, an uncle. "Remember what I said. Don't be like Jack. Stay close."

And what was there to say to that? Danny had gone to California in '40, using Otto's name to get a Second Unit job at Metro. Just to see what it was like. And then the war had closed the door behind him, eight thousand miles away, so that all they'd had for years were sheets of blue tissue V-mail. Danny playing parent. Keep safe, out of combat. Their mother's health. War news. But still Danny's voice, the same wink in it. Stories he knew Ben would like, could pass on to his friends. Meeting Lana Turner. Going to hear the King Cole Trio. You have to come out here. The whole make-believe world real when Danny wrote about it, the same kid sneaking cigarettes, talking late at night from his bed across the room. About what? Anything. Ben wrapped up in the sound of it.

He got up, feeling Lasner's hand still on his shoulder. "Don't forget to call Freeman."

"I don't forget anything," Lasner said, peering at him. "I'll tell you one thing I don't forget. Your father cost me a bundle. So maybe I'd better watch out -- you're an expensive family."

"No sets this time," Ben said.

Lasner nodded, finally dropping his hand. "We'll talk. Where are you staying in Chicago?"

"I'm just changing trains."

"The Chief? That's seven fifteen. That gives you what? Nine hours to kill." Everything measured and counted. "What're you going to do for nine hours?"

"See Chicago, I guess."

Lasner waved his hand. "You've seen it. You need a place to rest up, I'm at the Ambassador East. They get me a suite. Plenty of room." He started to move toward the end of the car. "Otto's kid. You live long enough -- " He turned. "He was shot?"

"That's what the letter said."

"But who knows with the Nazis." The unspoken question, a quick bullet or days of pain, clubs and wires, and screams. Years ago now.

"Anyway, he's dead," Ben said. "So it doesn't matter."

Lasner nodded. "No. It's just my age, you think about the how." He was silent for a minute, then looked up. "You got a budget on this thing?"

Ben held up his hand, checking items off his fingers. "Hard costs. The footage we've got. Prints, I can req the raw stock from the War Production Board. You do the prints. And the sound -- an engineer for the track, some bridge scoring, somebody to do the narration. American. Fonda, maybe?"

Lasner shook his head. "Use contract. Frank Cabot?"

"Fine. All I need is a cutting room and a couple of hands. We can do it either place, but yours would be better -- Army studio, someone's always taking your equipment. You provide the space, I can get the hands from Fort Roach. The stock would be an Army expense," Ben said, looking at him directly. "We'll make it for you. If you put it out."

"Nobody makes pictures for me," Lasner said, looking back, the rhythm of negotiation. "At my studio." He held Ben's eyes for another second, then smiled. "You know, if your father had been like you, he'd still be -- " He looked away, at a loss. "I mean -- "

Ben said nothing, waiting.

Lasner held up a finger. "Don't take advantage. People don't forget that." He lowered the hand, a dismissal, and walked away, followed by his moving reflection on the glass roof. "We'll talk in the morning," he said, the words in a slipstream over his shoulder.

BUT WHEN the train pulled into LaSalle Street it was the scene from Grand Central all over again -- Lasner surrounded by hats, tips given out, telegrams handed over, the group moving down the platform in a huddle. Ben followed behind, not wanting to interrupt, then lost him outside in the line of waiting taxis. Dearborn Street, where the Chief would pull out, was only a few blocks away, but what would he do there? He turned east instead, past the murky bars and shadowy streets under the El, light poking through the girders in latticework patches. Off the train, things seemed to pass in a plodding slow motion. Nothing whizzed by the window. He had all day.

He crossed Michigan to the lakefront, hoping for a breeze, but the lake was flat, a sheet of hot tin. In the park, dogs panted under bushes. He thought of Warner being wheeled out on a stretcher in Lasner's imagination. But anyone could have an attack, even someone as young as Danny. Except he hadn't. What had his life been like? Maybe the same pressure cooker the Warners steamed in. Not the easy California you saw in magazines, men in open-necked shirts. Did he look like that? His wife would have pictures. Hans Ostermann's daughter, the only thing Ben knew about her. She'd be at the hospital now, waiting things out.

He got up from the park bench, restless. How could he not know Danny's life? Ben had followed him everywhere, just wanting to be part of things. Wild, just like your father, his mother had said, meaning impulsive. But he wasn't. A letter every week, staying in touch, still taking care of him. And now gone, without even a note. Maybe he hadn't really meant to do it, not at the very end. A fall. How did she know for sure it hadn't been like that? He stopped in the street, caught not just by the heat and the night of half sleep, but a deeper weariness, tired of thinking about it, going round in circles.

On State Street he saw an AIR COOLED banner running along a marquee and went inside. The picture was a Betty Grable on second run, something with snow. Caesar Romero danced. Charlotte Greenwood did her split high kick, right over her head. Betty was put out over some romantic mix-up with John Payne, all of it so airy that it melted away as you saw it, like touching beer foam. The newsreel brought him back with a jolt. Europe in grainy black and white, where he'd been just two weeks ago. People going through PX garbage cans. Then war criminals passing sentences on themselves before the courts could -- cyanide capsules for the privileged, amateur nooses for the others. Not a botched accident, a Hollywood indulgence. Meaning it. In the camps, they threw themselves on electric fences. You never asked why, not over there. He stood up, desperate to move again.

Outside there was everything he'd been too preoccupied to notice before. Taxis. Buildings with glass. Stores. No debris in the street. Doormen walking dogs. The bar at The Drake, with silver dishes of nuts. A country so rich it didn't even know its own luck. Where anyone could be happy.

At the station, busy with redcaps pushing luggage carts, he saw flashbulbs near the Chief. Not Lasner this time, real stars. Paulette Goddard. Carole Landis. Two girls he didn't recognize. All of them smiling, holding up a bond drive poster as they perched on the compartment car steps. Other passengers stopped to watch. You'll never guess who was on the train.

They left at seven fifteen exactly, sliding out so smoothly that it wasn't until they began clicking over the points in the yard that Ben looked up to see they were moving. Past sidetracked box cars, then clotheslines and coal sheds and scrap metal yards, the backside of the city, until finally the open country of the prairie. Another day before they saw mountains. Los Angeles Monday morning, half a continent in under forty hours. He opened his bag to change. People dressed up for dinner on the Chief. A wash, a drink in the club car. He looked out again at the late summer's light on the unbroken fields, a pale gold. Farther away from the newsreel with every mile. And then, not paying attention, he nicked his finger on his razor and watched, dismayed, as blood welled out of the cut. Had there been blood? She hadn't said. A pool spreading under his head? Where had he fallen? But there must have been blood. There always was.

Copyright © 2009 by Joseph Kanon view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Did you expect the final outcome? Did the identity of Danny’s murderer come as a shock?

2. Discuss Liesl and her numerous lovers over the course of the narrative. (Consider Danny, Ben, and Dick Marshall). Did she ever love Ben, or was he just an extension of Danny? As Ben asks, “Was any of it real?”

3. Discuss the courtroom debate between Minot and Lasner. Who do you think won in the end? Did Lasner successfully thwart Minot’s attack on Hollywood, or did he merely delay the inevitable?

4. Ben is supplied information (and misinformation) by a variety of questionable sources. Did you trust his various informants? (Consider Kelly, Riordan, Polly, Minot, and Bunny Jenkins).

5. Bunny is one of the more complex characters within the narrative, a child star turned Hollywood Studio second-in-command and “fixer.” Discuss his evolution and multiplicity. How did you interpret his relationship with Jack (the mangled veteran)? Or his compliance with Minot’s proposed witch hunt? And, of course, consider his role in saving Ben’s life. Did you ever have a firm grasp on his character, or intentions?

6. Did you trust Ben’s deductive skills? He was led down the wrong path on numerous occasions. Were Liesl and Riordan right in persuading him to let Danny go? Is he any better off once Danny’s past allegiances are uncovered?

7. Murder plays a large role throughout the story, as two killings spur Danny to uncover the secrets behind the studio and the Red Scare. Were you certain as to why Danny had to die? What about Genia, the Holocaust survivor?

8. Where do you think Ben goes after watching War Bride?

9. Who was your favorite starlet in Stardust’s versions of Hollywood? Rosemary? Paulette Goddard? The new and improved Liesl Eastman? Are any of them safe from Minot and Polly Marks?

10. Who makes a better case for Ben’s future in Hollywood? Bunny, or Lasner?

Expand Your Book Club

1. Read another thriller/mystery novel, such as Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man or a title from Ferrigno’s Assassin series, and discuss the way the writers build up and establish intrigue, and the methods by which they reveal the truth.

2. There is an immense amount of misinformation, secret connections, and crossed lines throughout the narrative. See if you can draw a map that clearly indicates how everyone is associated, who supplied whom with information, and how Dieter’s machinations work underneath it all.

3. The novel is a representation of a very specific era of Hollywood. Watch some of the movies from that era to get a better idea of what Tinsel Town was producing during the 1940s. Try You’ll Never Get Rich (Rita Hayworth, 1941) or Casablanca (Ingrid Bergman, 1942). There is also a rich selection of German cinema from this informative period, mentioned frequently in the beginning of the text. See any of Fritz Lang or Brecht’s seminal post-occupation films.

4. Continuing with the previous question, do you find any Communist or Socialist undertones in these films? Could you make a case for or against an imaginary Red inquisition?

5. Who would you cast in the Stardust movie?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Conversation with Joseph Kanon

1. You obviously did a great amount of period-specific research for the book. What was the information-gathering process like for such an undertaking?

All of my books begin with a place. I have to know where my characters live, how the streets look to them. The best way to get a feel for a city is to walk it—for The Good German I spent days walking all over Berlin, trying to imagine the ruined city of 1945 beneath the modern one, a kind of literary archaeology. Los Angeles resists that kind of walking—you have to drive it—but the period details required a similar re-imagining. Many of the settings in Stardust still exist: the emigres’ houses (Feuchtwanger’s, Salka Viertel’s, etc.), the studios, Mt. Wilson, the Farmers Market, Union Station. But they exist in a very different city. In 1945 there were no freeways, streetcars ran down Hollywood Boulevard, there were still orange groves in the Valley. And it felt more remote. The fastest train from Chicago took 40 hours (and a full weekend from New York). Beverly Hills a generation before had been bean fields.

You can learn a great deal from old photographs and histories, but by far the most useful source of period details are memoirs. Luckily, Hollywood has provided an almost endless stream of anecdotes, memoirs and biographies, and while they’re often self-serving or misleading about their subjects, they’re usually accurate about the way people lived. This kind of research can be so enjoyable that the problem is having to stop.

The more serious area was the political climate—the union infighting, the red baiting and beginning of the witch hunts. The trick here is not only getting the background right, but getting the tone right. It’s impossible to quote directly from the actual transcripts of the hearings. The exchanges are so ludicrous and shameful that they seem implausible now. So in an odd way you have to elevate them, give them an intellectual seriousness they never had, and still somehow capture their almost surreal circus atmosphere.

2. Ben seems to possess an inexplicable detective’s intuition. What makes him such a good sleuth?

I don’t know that he’s a particularly good detective—he’s just following his nose and wherever logic seems to lead him. I’ve never written a book with a professional detective because I don’t have any idea how they actually work, what tricks they know. I just have Ben do what anyone would do. If you suspect something’s wrong, how do you go about finding the truth? Of course, playing detective is also simply a convention of the genre—if there’s a murder, somebody has to investigate or you don’t have a story. But I found it useful to have Ben get things wrong too. Stardust is about seeing, about the dust that gets in the way of our seeing things clearly, sometimes because we’d rather not see. And of course it’s complicated here by being set in a community whose business is illusion.

3. What are your favorite movies from Stardust-era Hollywood?

1939 is generally considered Hollywood’s annus mirabilis, the peak year of the studio era, but the golden period continued right through the 40s, when Stardust is set. Favorites? Too many to list, but I never tire of watching Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, to me the wittiest comedies ever filmed. Notorious is perfect entertainment, Double Indemnity still the best—and best written—film noir. Is there anyone who doesn’t love Casablanca? Meet Me in St. Louis is a beautifully made sentimental piece. Citizen Kane is inevitably on the top of every list.

It’s important to remember, though, that even during the golden years, first-rate movies like these were rare. We know the movies that endured, not necessarily the ones audiences liked then, and few things change faster than pop culture. The Crosby-Hope Road pictures, big hits at the time, are barely watchable now. The Bells of St. Mary’s was far and away the most successful movie of 1945. To us the big stars of the 40s are Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant and indeed they were big stars, but the box office champs were Bing Crosby and Betty Grable and her musicals aren’t even redeemed by camp now—they’re just inane.

4. Considering the subject matter of Stardust, it must have been useful to see The Good German translated to film. How do you feel about literature adapted for Hollywood?

I wasn’t involved in the making of The Good German, so the one really didn’t affect the other. I did, however, visit the set and that was useful because the director, Steven Soderbergh, wanted to made the movie that way it would have been done in 1945—shooting on sound stages and studio back lots, even using the same camera lenses that would have been available then. So in a sense I got to spend time on a set that might actually have been in Stardust. This even extended to the breaks between set-ups. Because The Good German was a period movie, all the actors were in 1945 dress—upswept hair, bright lipstick, uniforms, etc. To see the extras milling around the lot was to see exactly how it would have looked in 1945. The movie was shot on the old Columbia lot on Gower, just across the street from Continental in Stardust, so even the buildings had the right period feel.

The book-to-movie transition has always been difficult for writers—they are notorious complainers about film adaptations—because what they really want to see is an illustrated version of the novel that’s already in their heads. But film isn’t a visual translation, it’s a medium unto itself, made by other people. The best a writer can hope for is that talented people are taken by something in his material that prompts them to do good work of their own.

I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules about adaptations. It’s often just the luck of the draw. Lolita didn’t seem a natural for the screen but Kubrick made an interesting movie from it anyway. The 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (script by Aldous Huxley) is still a delight, if not what Jane Austen intended. But does it really matter? The original books remain just as they were, still available, as rich and complex as ever. Why can’t we enjoy both?

The problem is that movies are so central to our popular culture that we tend of think as adaptations as replacements. They’re not. And the better the book, the less likely it is to be replaced. I suppose you could see Gone With the Wind without ever reading Margaret Mitchell and not miss much, but even though Garbo is in Anna Karenina and Gwyneth Paltrow made a fine Emma, imagine how much you’d miss by not reading the books. Of course, this process also works the other way—a movie can drive readers back to the book, always a good thing.

5. There has always been a large interest in following a child star’s coming of age. How do you view Bunny’s rise to the upper echelons of studio business? Or is it a fall from the limelight?

Bunny is one of the most complicated characters in the book and to me in some ways the most interesting. He represents the generation that will succeed the pioneering moguls and as such will steer the studio system through radical change (and eventual collapse) but he’s very much a product of that system—he grew up in it—so his feelings are contradictory. There is a built-in poignancy, a sense of loss, to the lives of child stars. Very few of them ever carry their careers into adulthood (Elizabeth Taylor being a notable exception). But there’s a built-in toughness too—they learn at an early age how arbitrary and unfair life can be.

Bunny has both these qualities. He prides himself on being pragmatic and shrewd, but he is still hopelessly romantic about movies. He knows that Hollywood will change—he is alert to the rise of television, he is willing to compromise people and principles for the sake of the studio—but he is not yet one of the corporate suits who would take over what was left of the studios in the 60s and 70s. He cares about making movies, not just making money. He can be manipulative, even Machiavellian, a cold-blooded plotter, and yet when he stands outside a closed set he’s looking at his own version of paradise lost, when he worked with people “closer than family”. Now he’s the boss. He’s clear-eyed about this—what’s past is past—but a part of him will always feel outside too.

6. This novel has a very cinematic feel. Did you think about a big screen version while writing it? Who would you cast in the Stardust movie?

To me writing is like making a movie in your head, the only one you can control, that’s really yours. What appears on the screen is inevitably someone else’s. So I don’t consciously think of movies as I write, what would work on the screen. But possibly what makes the books feel cinematic is that I tend to shape the narrative in scenes and rely heavily on dialogue. I like scenes where more than one thing is happening at once—in this case, say the dinner party at Sol Lasner’s house, when four or five plot elements are overlapping. The challenge for the writer, aside from the dialogue itself, which keeps the scene going, is knowing when and how to shift emphasis, moving the reader through it, in much the same way as a director has to know where to place the camera.

As for casting, this is everybody’s favorite parlor game. At bookstore readings I’m constantly asked whom I think should play a character or even whom I had in mind when I was writing. The truth is that the characters have to be so real to you that they can only be themselves, not look like anyone else. That having been said, there’s no denying the extraordinary power of film. I may not have thought of Jake and Lena as George Clooney and Cate Blanchett when I was writing The Good German, but that’s how they look to me now. As a matter of fact, I think they’d look right in Stardust too.

7. With all the duplicity and background connections in the book, did you have a hard time keeping track during the writing process? Was there a particular way in which you organized the book?

No, I never work from outlines or plans. Aside from having a general idea of what will happen—and certainly the whodunit—I tend to make things up as I go along. I like that surprise of seeing where the story will take you, the detours. In Stardust, though, I did reach a point where things became so complicated that I started keeping track of the scenes—what in the movies would be called continuity. This mostly had to do with chronology, when somebody would have known something, etc. And there were broader problems of chronology in the backstory—when did Danny and Ben last see each other, how old would Ben have been when his mother died, etc.

Strictly speaking none of these really affect the ongoing action, but I find that readers tend to trust the larger story more if you get the small details right. The Congressional hearings in Stardust take place earlier than the actual ones did, but the schedule for the Super Chief is accurate, right to the minute. And since I assumed, or hoped, that Stardust might appeal to film buffs all the industry details are true: Paulette Goddard was about to do a picture with Milland, Saratoga Trunk was released as described, the palms in the Cocoanut Grove really were from the set of The Sheik, or so sources said. This sort of thing may seem insignificant, but I think details give the story weight. And of course they’re fun to research.

8. What was the most challenging aspect of writing such an intricate narrative?

Trying to keep it to a manageable length. The material is so rich that I wanted to do more, particularly about Hollywood itself, but the book kept getting longer and you don’t want to try the reader’s patience. The front story—the crime and Ben’s solving it—inevitably takes up space at the expense of the backstory, which to me was a portrait of Hollywood just before it began to fall apart.

The seeds of that fall are there but some aren’t covered as extensively as I originally intended. The all-important Justice Department consent decree (separating the studios and their theaters), which would hit the studios with a financial body blow, is referred to here—it’s the reason Minot’s been invited to Lasner’s party—but not in great detail. The internal politics of the labor unions were too complicated (and, frankly, dated) to develop, so I had to be content with some conversation and a strike action. Television appears only in one scene but at least that’s consistent with how little attention the studios themselves gave it in 1945.

Other factors in the decline—the sense of the audience changing, the complacency hat set in with the wartime boom years—were more subtle and could be explored through the characters. Only the anti-Communist hearings became a centerpiece in the story, not only because they’re inherently dramatic but because they open a window on Hollywood’s vulnerabilities: its reliance on fickle public opinion, the special sensitivity of an industry run largely by assimilated Jews, revered for its patriotism during the war and now accused of being traitorous and un-American. The poison that these hearings introduced into the American body politic would go on for years and affect virtually every aspect of American life, but the poison began in Hollywood, where the headlines were. And the stardust.

9. Ben is the son of a German film director and his brother had close ties to German émigrés. What made you introduce so many Germans into a Hollywood story?

Actually, the Germans came first. I was originally drawn to Los Angeles as a setting because of the extraordinary group of German refugees who ended up there—a phenomenon still very little known, even in Los Angeles itself. Hollywood had always been a magnet for talent from the German film industry, especially in the 20s and early 30s, when the move was motivated by career opportunities or family ties, as well as politics. F. W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich—a long list, all early arrivals.

The Germans who came later were somewhat different, an increasingly desperate group of exiles, part of the European intellectual diaspora that was Hitler’s inadvertent gift to America. In a sense, this was for me a continuation of The Good German. That had been a book about a city utterly devastated by war, both physically and morally. But what about the people who had been lucky enough to get out? I was particularly interested in the group that went to L.A.—whether for the climate, the cheaper cost of living, or hopes of finding work in Hollywood—because of the great cultural dislocation L.A. represented in their lives. This was a city, after all, that even most Americans at the time considered exotic, a sunny Eden. Imagine its impact then on the émigrés, often representatives of high culture, who had literally just escaped with their lives, sometimes a few steps ahead of the Gestapo, and now find themselves in a world of palm trees and swimming pools and milkshakes, and a popular culture largely indifferent to them. This seemed to me a story rich in dramatic possibilities, especially since, as technically enemy aliens, they were subject to FBI surveillance (and hounded for any leftist sympathies), the very kind of political intimidation they’d left Germany to escape.

The émigrés are still very much a part of Stardust but book ideas often grow in ways you don’t quite expect and as the story went along I began to see that the Germans were only a part of the larger story, that what they really offered me was a way to look at Hollywood from a different angle.

10. In Stardust you combine history and storytelling to weave your tale. What plotlines or characters from the book are historically based, and which are your own inventions?

The major plot lines, the murder, the motivation for it, the love story, are all invented. Only the background is historically based. But of course the background is an important part of this book and it needs to be as accurate as possible to make the fiction plausible. None of the principal characters are intentional composites or stand-ins for anyone real, except possibly Kaltenbach, who was inspired by Heinrich Mann. Some real people do appear—Paulette Goddard, Jack Warner—but they are only real in the sense that this is how I imagine them to have been. You listen to their voices in memoirs and anecdotes (and of course film) and hope they sound that way here, but in any case these are minor characters in the larger story.

I have mixed feelings about using real people in fiction, in part because readers can bring their own sense of the character to the page and find yours inconsistent. In fact, this is the first time I have done so since Los Alamos--how could Oppenheimer have been anyone else? But celebrity is so important a part of the culture of Hollywood that some star-gazing seemed inevitable and I found that using real people could make a point about the ephemeral nature of celebrity itself.

I avoided enduring icons like Bogart. The movie people who appear here were certainly famous at the time, but perhaps not so well known today. At Lasner’s party Paulette, Ann Sheridan, and Alexis Smith all make an appearance (and dress up the party) but so does the fictional Rosemary, whose shining moment this is, and my hope was to make them interchangeable to the reader, Rosemary just as real as the boldface names—and now all of them faded. Real people also appear from the émigré community—Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Alma Mahler, etc—but again this is primarily to lend more plausibility to the fictional ones (Ostermann and Liesl). What isn’t made up is the mixed blessing of their exile, saved but not rootless in a town of strangers.

Book Club Recommendations

Keep you paper and pencil handy!!
by SRJacksack (see profile) 12/02/10
I wish when I started the book that I kept a notebook of the various characters and the things they say and do, there are so many red herrings and rabbit trails throughout the book. Still a good read and a decent mystery.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Historical Fiction as Thriller/Mystery"by ebach (see profile) 09/01/11

It’s post-World War II, and Ben Collier, on leave from the U.S. Army Signal Corp in Germany, has come to Los Angeles. His brother Danny, a director there, has fallen from a balcony and is ... (read more)

  "Skip it"by mhabrych (see profile) 12/06/10

Did not enjoy it-- too many characters to keep track of and dialogue was hard to follow

  "A look back on old Hollywood"by SRJacksack (see profile) 12/02/10

Although this book was chosen as our "suspense" pick for the club, I didn't find it so much suspenseful as I did a time a time capsule back to the days of old Hollywood, when there were real... (read more)

  "Stardust"by Maurice (see profile) 11/08/10

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