The Last Embrace
Denise Hamilton
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Buy *The Last Embrace* by Denise Hamilton online

The Last Embrace
Denise Hamilton
400 pages
July 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In Denise Hamilton’s first foray into historical fiction, 1949 Los Angeles seethes with corruption from a criminal underworld stretching from the studio system to the highest echelons of the LAPD. The City is almost an anti-paradise, its dreams written on parchment-thin bougainvillea that cannot help but crumble and shatter with the first breeze of fall.

For ex-OSS investigator Lily Kessler, Hollywood can certainly be a horrible monster. Lily has just arrived in Los Angeles to search for her sister-in-law, Doreen Croggan. Although she has never met Doreen, there is a connection between them, especially after the sudden death in Europe of Lily’s fiancé, US Army Major Joseph Croggan, Doreen’s older brother whom Lily loved with all her heart.

Doreen came to Hollywood dreaming of stardom in 1944, around the same time Lily fled to Europe. A fiercely spirited girl who had graduated from walk-on roles to a studio contract, Doreen changed her name to Kitty Hayden and seemed awash in projects right up until just last week, when she disappeared into the L.A. air.

Doreen/Kitty had been staying at the Hollywood Wilcox Boarding House for Young Ladies, but Lily discovers when she books herself into Kitty’s room that the reality of Kitty’s genteel poverty contrasted sharply with Mrs. Croggan’s boasts about her daughter taking Hollywood by storm.

Under the watchful and strange eyes of the officious Mrs. Potter, the boarding house manager, Lily eventually learns from Kitty’s roommates that the young actress indeed had a bright future: “the camera loved her, even if she’s only on screen for five minutes, you could see the vulnerability, the nakedness, it’s like you gaze through her eyes and see her soul.”

When Kitty’s body is discovered in a ravine beneath the Hollywood sign, strangled, with her purse and shoe missing, but with no obvious signs of sexual violation, the heartbroken Lily teams up with local newspaper photographer Harry Jack, who in turn leads her to form an uneasy alliance with two detectives from the Central Homicide Bureau: the brash and seemingly crooked Detective Magruder, and the dashingly handsome Detective Pico.

Unfortunately, the discovery of Kitty’s body has also gotten the attention of some powerful players, particularly local mobsters Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna, who are currently are engaged in a fierce turf war. Then there are the movie studios who rule this company town. Often desperate to protect the images of their movie stars who are considered gods and think they can do anything they want, the studios fear the negative publicity that will inevitably follow murder.

The attraction between Lily and Pico is instant, his attentions unleashing strange desires inside her even though she suspects that he knows things about Kitty’s murder he hasn’t yet told her. As Lily works with Pico to piece together the motives of what might have happened to Kitty the night before she died, she finds herself caught up in a terrifying dragnet of criminal intrigue involving organized crime, police corruption, special effects technicians, and the clandestine ways of studio abortionists.

Hamilton’s exciting narrative powerfully swirls and unfurls atop each page, the net of disaster drawing tight around Lily, the ghosts and shadows of Kitty’s fractured life so overwhelming her that no amount of Southern Californian sunshine can possibly dispel it.

With a colorful cast of characters who are more often than not fueled by blackmail and greed, the author portrays a vibrant yet darkly menacing city of lost souls, where innocent starlets are sacrificed at the alter of corporate studio heads and wannabe actors. In the end, Lily ends up battling betrayal and conflicted loyalties at the center of the novel’s violent conclusion, high atop the Hollywood Hills beneath this vast sign, that eternal, almost mythical symbol of a city where dreams are made and then broken.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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