The Empty Glass
J.J. Baker
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Buy *The Empty Glass* by J.J. Bakeronline

The Empty Glass
J.J. Baker
Blue Rider Press
336 pages
July 2012
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Cogent and thought-provoking, Baker’s The Empty Glass examines the events the terrible night Marilyn Monroe died. Lies, cover-ups, and the "lost" evidence in the form of tapes and a new red “memories” diary contribute to a violent noir tale that oozes with malevolence and the inexplicable power of darkness. We’ve all heard the rumors and the cauldron of deceit that could have been bought and paid for by certain murderers who have fought to stay hidden.

Nineteen sixty-two was a different world. The press corps and organizations like the Los Angeles Police Department were made up of a majority of men who hero-worshipped hot political figures like Jack Kennedy and schmoozed with charismatic stars like Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, the boozy English actor who, through good graces and looks, insinuated himself into the Kennedy family by marrying the president’s sister in 1954.

Unfolding his sinister thriller in wild, staccato prose, Baker strips his main protagonist, deputy LA County Coroner Ben Fitzgerald, of the superfluous when he descends into this volatile landscape. High on Novril, Ben is coerced into telling the truth about what happened that fateful night. He explains how he got the call to the one-floor hacienda on Helena Drive in Brentwood, where the most famous woman in the world lived with all the money that implies. The scene is chaotic: piles of books and papers, a jar of face cream, and most notably, an empty water glass.

Ben tries to piece together the story of the night from the evidence of things around him, but his personal misadventures make him ache to close his eyes. All he can see is death of his marriage to Rose and his struggles to be a good father to his son, little Max. When the Chief Coroner offers his “presumptive opinion” that Marilyn’s death was caused by a massive overdose of barbiturates, Ben is hesitant to agree after discovering the actress lying in "a soldier’s position," clutching the telephone and with no evidence of residue or discoloration or the typical “pear smell” that should have been in her stomach during post-mortem.

From the beginning, the contrast between Marilyn’s death and what Ben actually uncovers is significant. The trail takes him to Hollywood Hills' muddy canyon roads, where an arched TRIPLE XXX ranch is set in dead neon, and to Ciro’s club on Sunset Boulevard, a once-hot glamour spot for movie stars. While Ben wanders the bleached streets of Los Angeles, a “city built on sand that shifts like its values,” events emerge into a paranoid pattern. Like Marilyn’s final hours, Ben will come to believe that men are following him, lurking outside every window and behind every door.

The novel flows effortlessly, both in its structure and in its prose, the plot forming a complex web swaying back and forth between Ben, the powerful brass at the LAPD, and other nefarious organizations somehow connected to the Kennedys. Soon a femme-fatale journalist is trapped into complicity with Ben, their romantic relationship rapidly expanding into a terrifying game of survival. In a landscape of smoke and mirrors, a hundred different things begin to uncoil. Ben finds himself clinging to marginal existence filled with doomsday news of enemy attacks.

Fatalistic and allegorical, The Empty Glass careens like a snowball with Marilyn’s tortured voice at its core, drunk or stoned--probably both. Baker presents a vulnerable woman chasing the sleep that eluded her. With her hold on reality slipping away, the novel exposes the demons that lived within her as Ben tries to run from his tarnished past, his fight to expose the truth leaching through the pages.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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