by Terrill Lee Lankford
Published by Ballantine Books
293 pages, 2004
Shake Your Groove Thing
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Think of movies, and maybe a favorite actor or actress comes to mind. Perhaps a scene in a picture that's repeatedly left you teary-eyed, or that DVD on your shelf you've watched 100 times. Now get ready for a more sardonic take on the reality of American filmmaking. Terrill Lee Lankford has taken an insider's knowledge of the West Coast movie industry, given it a twisted and entertaining spin, and come up with Earthquake Weather, his third book (after Shooters and Angry Moon) and his first in seven years. During Lankford's literary hiatus, he penned and produced films, with a directing credit or two in the mix. That was all well and good, but a loss for the mystery-reading public, because Lankford really has the chops for crime fiction.
Set in 1994 Los Angeles, this novel begins appropriately with a good-size ground-trembler that serves to introduce Lankford's mid-30s narrator, Mark Hayes, a "creative executive" working in development at Warner Bros. As Hayes makes clear, his position sounds more prestigious than it really is:
The creative executive, C.E. for short, which was the job title on my paycheck, is not much more than a glorified reader: a D-boy, or development boy, as we were called by the disrespectful, a reader with an income to justify his work.
But Hayes aspires to become a producer, and so spends his days toiling under the egotistical weight of his boss, Dexter Morton, a major but much-resented Hollywood player who boasts his own production company. In order to move up the celluloid food chain, Hayes keeps his lips firmly planted on Morton's prodigious posterior. His prevailing hope is to earn a producing credit on one of the big guy's films.
That's the only way you can work your way up to where you can develop and make your own films if you don't have the bread to buy your way in. You gotta get that producer credit. And if you can't find a major mover to grandfather you into the business, you've got to find your own projects, your own production money, and make your own films.
Lankford has the modern film-industry crowd down cold -- much to his credit. The pages of Earthquake Weather are strewn with bitter, frustrated screenwriters; slimy, backstabbing producers who amass wealth and power by exploiting others; pragmatic studio heads with tunnel-vision on the bottom line; egomaniacal directors, and drug-addicted stars and wannabes. Most of the creative talent here chokes back the bile of the unqualified, who impact their careers, with heavy doses of alcohol. Given this menagerie of diseased and depressed personalities, one has to wonder why in the hell Hayes would want to make a living in the film biz. The reader might even muse that, should an earthquake strike and wipe out the whole industry, it might be a beneficent act of God.
Although plenty of stealing and blackmailing goes on behind closed doors here -- the quotidian business of Hollywood -- no additional or more noteworthy crimes are committed until about halfway through the novel. Then Hayes suddenly discovers the body of Dexter Morton floating in a backyard pool, his "giant, hairy tarantula" of a toupee stopping up the filter, and a nasty gash on his noggin. Even crime writers of the highest pedigree would hesitate to put off introducing a dead body into their stories until such a late stage. And Lankford does tempt reader impatience; but he's saved by the fact that he can deliver characters and atmosphere of remarkable interest. There are stretches in Earthquake Weather where nothing really "happens," yet I found myself turning the pages anyway, anxious to know what or who comes next.
It doesn't take long for Hayes to convince himself that the investigating homicide detectives (who are easily compared to the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover characters in the old Lethal Weapon movies) like him for the crime. After all, he found the body. However, this young D-boy's fears are more idiosyncratic and dramatic than they are grounds for police suspicion. In an exchange with one of the cops, the paranoid Hayes seems more intent than anybody to point the finger in his own direction:
"Wait a minute. You're treating me like I'm a suspect. I didn't kill Morton."
Besides, Dexter Morton was almost universally disliked; numerous people might have found great satisfaction in doing him in. "He had nothing but enemies. Even his friends hated him," we're told. Lankford, however, is uncommonly slow in supplying a suspect the reader can really sink his or her teeth into. Instead, Hayes offers up a list of potential killers he identifies with sobriquets that make them sound like cast members in an old B-movie: "Mr. Son of a Bitch Director, Mrs. Disgruntled Personal Assistant, Jason the Wronged Boy Genius, Abused Writer, Marge the Vengeful Lover" and so on. Ultimately, the murder mystery becomes a rather peripheral storyline in this novel, while Lankford presses on with other matters.
So is there any saving grace in this landscape of pulchritude? The answer lies with Earthquake Weather's likable narrator. Mark Hayes is a purist who does his damnedest to steer clear of all the degradation and follow his dream to simply "make movies." He's a good guy surrounded by the emotionally crippled. His apartment roommate is a computer programmer bent on sleeping with as many actresses as he can. (He's well on his way to achieving that goal). His fellow suffering D-boy, Alex Richards, has to swallow the further indignity of having Morton steal his hot girlfriend, Charity James. Charity is the sort of curvaceous blonde most men -- Hayes, among them -- would gladly take straight to the sack, yet she totes around the baggage of one tragedy too many. Despite Hayes' virtuousness, even he is not immune to the smog of sin that hovers over this new novel. Entrusted to deliver money under the table to a ghost screenwriter named Gordon "Wilkie" Wilkenson, "one of the best dialog men in the business," Hayes decides to skim a little of that dough off into his own "development fund." (It's impending circumstances, rather than a guilty conscience, that correct this behavior later on.) And while he's supposed to be looking after the aforementioned Charity James, our hero -- succumbing to her unsubtle overture ("I'm going to show you something. If you like it, you can play with it") -- relishes a quickie in the kitchen, only to subsequently prove himself ineffectual in saving Charity from the whims of truly uncharitable men.
The most interesting member of this cast, aside from Hayes, is Clyde McCoy, a 1980s screenwriter who has definitely seen better days. Yet another in a long string of recovering alcoholics, McCoy has found an unexpected target for the anger he's amassed over many years. When the would-be producer learns that McCoy is writing a biography of Raymond Chandler, he's thrilled -- at least initially:
"I love Chandler," I said. "He's one of the main reasons I wanted to make movies. I'm a big film noir fan."
Seeing beyond McCoy's vast reserves of hatred, though, Hayes is drawn to the elder man's complexities and manifest talent ("He must've been doing something right to get so many movies made"). Hayes sees a potential gold mine in the still-unproduced scripts that are gathering dust in McCoy's closet. Hollywood didn't so much quit on McCoy as the reverse, and Hayes -- out of a job after his boss' slaying -- could use the profits a venture with McCoy might well provide.
Earthquake Weather is at its best when dealing with the entertainment world, and loses something of its power when the plot reaches beyond that glitzy realm. It's also weakened by an inconsistent pitch. There are riveting crime passages here, thick with the threat of violence, spontaneous action and dangerous men; but those passages are broken up by stretches, dominated by different tones and agendas, that bleed away the tale's malevolence. This novel also suffers from the fact that the motivation for murdering Morton is inadequately substantiated, and the revelation of the killer's identity registers no better than a 1 on the Richter Scale.
On the other hand, Terrill Lee Lankford's ending captures a brilliantly edgy, noir tone, with just the right touch of tension and flavoring of ambiguity. And this book really isn't about the producer's murder, anyway. It's about those souls who populate a sordid world built on illusion, and who try to hold onto their dreams no matter how often they're discouraged and burned. By that measure, Earthquake Weather has few faults. | May 2004
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.