For a rare few, the siren song of Hollywood — the glitz and glamour, the quest for fame and fortune — leads to million-dollar contracts and a name in lights. For most, however, Tinseltown is a land of disappointment, filled with shattered dreams and broken promises. So it was for B-movie queen Barbara Lace (born Barbara Sussennox), the woman at the center of Erica Wright’s fourth novel, Famous in Cedarville.
“A looker,” Barbara thrived for 40 years and 55 film credits, though never as the lead actress. Not that it mattered to her little hometown. “By Cedarville standards? She was a star,” Wright tells us. “And stars are forgiven their sins.”
Cedarville is the kind of place where a B-movie queen like Barbara might hope to disappear and live out her days in relative obscurity, “rarely venturing farther than her front porch.” Invisibility isn’t the same as anonymity, however. Barbara’s neighbors have always been aware of her, even if they’ve rarely seen her. As Wright puts it, “most folks had never met Barbara Lace, but she still belonged to them.”
At least, that’s how the novel’s protagonist, Samson Delaware, had come to regard her. His perspective changes when he finds himself summoned, along with several other local men, to Barbara’s Victorian home early one Sunday morning to help the coroner retrieve her lifeless body, the apparent victim of old age and loneliness. An antiques collector, Samson is eager to see what treasures her home holds, so he sneaks back into the house long after everyone is gone. A gunshot and the ultimate discovery of another dead body aren’t exactly what he had in mind, and he’s even more unsettled when he learns that Barbara’s death may not be what it seemed.
Samson begins his own quest to solve the two deaths, taking on the arduous task of interviewing anyone and everyone who ever crossed paths with Barbara, from friends and acquaintances to her Hollywood manager and old rivals. But the deeper he probes, the more skeletons he seems to unearth. As Wright observes, Samson “struggled to understand how all the pieces fit together, and he felt outmaneuvered. A man improvising while everyone else had a script.”
Wright, author of the popular Kat Stone mystery series, weaves an intricate plot here, full of bitter rivalries, obsessions, and revenge. She also loads the novel with a cast of fascinating suspects, each with a backstory and motive perfectly suited for the tabloids and the paparazzi to expose. Excerpts from never-produced film scripts and pitches, written by Barbara herself, add to the mystique and magic of the movie world she once inhabited.
Wright paints Cedarville, modeled on her hometown of Wartrace, Tennessee, as “the kind of town where you couldn’t rightly refuse a favor. With a thousand residents, Cedarville would fall apart if anyone learned to say no outright.” Barbara thought the little town was as far from Hollywood’s secrets as you can get — but she was wrong.
Readers fascinated by the allure of Hollywood’s Golden Era, or just by the promise of a juicy good mystery, can’t go wrong with this one. Lights. Camera. Action.
G. Robert Frazier is a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and aspiring screenwriter. He has served as a script reader for screenwriting competitions at both the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. He lives in La Vergne.
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