Hollywood scriptwriter Toby Challis is in a bind. Having been convicted of beating his nymphomaniac wife Goldie to death with an Oscar (he was discovered holding the murder weapon in his hand), Toby gets the kind of lucky break his scriptwriter's pen could have granted him when the plane taking him to jail crashes in a freak blizzard and he walks away from the crash as its only survivor. Through a number of fortuitous twists, Toby arrives at the isolated Hollywood hillside house of beautiful Morgan Dyer who not only believes his claims that he was framed for murder, but who also agrees to help him find the real killer. So, Toby and Morgan - who is also tangentially connected to the movie business and who helps Toby radically alter his appearance - begin their investigations amongst a cast of potential killers as Toby attempts to clear his name and solve a mystery that is not of his own making.
Thomas Gifford's knowing, jokey, pacey and noirish late 70s thriller is as hugely enjoyable as it is highly implausible. Packed with movie and mystery fiction in-jokes (Morgan runs a mystery bookstore) and roman a clef touches as characters weave real Hollywood characters into their recollections, there's also a tougher and more cynical core at the heart of this tale based around a locale where illusion and deception is commonplace.
Coming across as part Richard Neely (the noirish protagonist, often rather broad-brush characterisations and a clever twist ending), part Ross MacDonald (the origins and solutions being inextricably linked to a corrupt and dysfunctional family who both grow out of and initiate the corruption, deceit and decay), this is the type of satisfying popular genre fiction that is rarely written these days, but which is an entertaining, gripping and recommended read.
VERDICT: Hooray for Hollywood Gothic!
AFTERWORD: I knew very little about Thomas Gifford before finding this UK hardcover edition in a London charity shop, although I recall seeing some of his earlier novels, including The Wind Chill Factor and The Glendower Legacy, on the shelves of my local lending library in the early 1980s. Some rudimentary research on Wikipedia reveals that he had sixteen books published under his real name and two pseudonyms, Thomas Maxwell and Dana Clarins, between 1975 and 1986, he passed away in October 2000 and his second novel, The Cavanaugh Quest was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977. Currently, Gifford doesn't appear to be particularly collectable, little seems to have been written about him or his work and, consequently, his titles appear to be both plentiful and cheap. Based on this book, I'm inclined to give his other titles a read if they fall into my hands cheaply, as his prose style and plotting reminds me of Richard Neely, who is one of my favourite genre writers from the 70s.