Where the Truth Lies
by Rupert Holmes
Published by Random House
400 pages, 2003
No Laughing Matter
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
There are many facets involved in the business of making people laugh. One is in the act itself -- to fly solo, or to team up? Many of those who started life as class clowns grew up to be stand-up comics, working alone. Yet just as many realized that teamwork led to greater success. Think of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe. For some reason, though, there is a mystique about two comedians -- usually of differing backgrounds, conflicting attitudes and volatile personalities -- working together and entertaining the masses so much that they clamor for more. Inevitably, however, the magic doesn't last forever. Burnout, fighting and clashing egos do in the team. That was certainly the case for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the famed funnymen whose careers began amid the Catskill crowds in the 1940s and ended somewhat abruptly in the early 1960s. What happened? How did they rise so quickly and fall just as fast?
Although the real-life answers to those questions are a matter of public record, fictionalized accounts have formed the basis of several books published over the last few months. A recent paperback release was Ted Heller's Funnymen, a documentary-style epic that ranged from the hilarious to the poignant, as told from the point of view of nearly 100 people peripherally associated with the comedy duo of Vince Fountain and Ziggy Bliss. And this past April saw the UK release of Hello Bunny Alice, by Laura Wilson, a far more chilling yarn that's related by a young, reclusive woman who knew a famous British comedy team, and their sordid secrets, all too well. She thought her exploits with Lenny Maxted and Jack Flowers were behind her, until the Pandora's box of her past suddenly opens up, with near-devastating results.
The latest writer to try his hand at deconstructing the dynamics of a comedic duo is Rupert Holmes. Where the Truth Lies is his debut novel, but he's already amassed a wealth of experience in a wide variety of artistic endeavors, having penned a musical (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), a critically acclaimed TV series (Remember WENN), several plays (including the recent Off-Broadway hit Say Goodnight, Gracie) and numerous songs. One song in particular may ring a bell; in fact, my own interest in reading Holmes' book was piqued because he'd written "that piña colada song," otherwise known as "Escape," the humorous ditty that topped the charts back in 1979. Because of this author's background, the hype behind his new book has grown with increasing speed. Holmes has been featured in USA Today as a debut novelist to watch out for this summer. Galleys of Where the Truth Lies were in plentiful supply at the Mystery Writers of America's recent Edgar Awards presentation, and it seems certain that the book will be geared more toward the mainstream market than usual crime fiction fare. Yet all the trappings aside, one must evaluate this work by the same set of criteria as any other, and although Rupert Holmes certainly shows promise as a writer, the results here are somewhat mixed. Flashes of storytelling brilliance are offset by elements that fall far short of that.
Holmes sets his story against the glittery, glitzy backdrop of 1970s New York and Los Angeles. It was a time when sex was beyond casual, transatlantic flights featured Michael Caine movies, gossip was plentiful and secrets barely suppressed. Taking it all in is the young journalist O'Connor. We never do learn her first name -- just her first initial (K), which is mentioned only at the book's beginning. She's a freelance writer who has just scored a book contract. Her project is to chronicle the lives of Lanny Morris and Vince Collins, once the most famous comedy duo in Hollywood, whose bitter breakup shocked the entertainment world. But digging through these men's personal histories isn't enough; O'Connor is also determined to get to the bottom of what happened one night in 1959 at a seedy New Jersey casino, where a beautiful redheaded hotel worker was found dead in Lanny and Vince's guest room. Though there have been whispered suggestions about that evening's events, no one has yet discovered the truth -- and, most importantly, the girl's killer was never found. However, in trying to write her book and find out what happened to the redhead, O'Connor gets far, far more than she bargained for.
The complications begin right away, when she meets Vince at his house to discuss the parameters of his involvement in her project. At first reluctant, he eventually agrees to be tape recorded as long as a straight transcript of his words appears in the biography. But mindful of his reputation as a charming womanizer, O'Connor decides to settle the bargain in a most unconventional manner:
"I think I need to know about the proposition I put to you yesterday before we discuss any proposition you might have for me today."
With Vince's cooperation safely secured, O'Connor works to get Lanny Morris' side of the story. However, that's initially a very difficult task, because the man refuses to be interviewed or give any comment whatsoever. So why are documents, purportedly parts of Morris' autobiography-in-progress, showing up at her door? And fate seems to be meddling further when O'Connor finds herself on the same New York-bound red-eye flight as Lanny, having dinner with him and his entourage. On a whim, she decides to use a fake name -- that of her schoolteacher best friend -- in order not to reveal her true agenda and thus spoil a perfectly lovely flight. But Lanny is more than charmed -- he asks O'Connor out when the flight lands. One thing leads to another, and after a night of passion that ends as many often do, O'Connor finds herself in a sticky situation, left behind in the hotel room from which Lanny has just checked out, without telling her:
Why had I slept with Lanny? I surely couldn't blame it solely on the two oversized martinis I'd downed, which was nowhere near my limit. And certainly I'd already interviewed enough celebrities to make it unlikely I'd been starstruck.
Naturally, getting far too close to both of her main subjects puts O'Connor in a highly unusual position (so to speak) for a biographer. Yet her ever-changing relationships with both Lanny and Vince only serve to strengthen her resolve to find out what happened to that murdered girl more than 15 years before. When she uncovers a possible clue as a result of a throwaway line in Lanny's papers, O'Connor is certain that one member of the celebrated duo is the murderer -- but which one? The suspense mounts as she becomes more entwined with her subjects and loses all sense of objectivity, until finally, O'Connor manages to sift through the multitude of shifting falsehoods to uncover the truth -- which turns out to be a fittingly complex end to the sordid mess that preceded it.
Where this novel shines is in the details. Holmes effortlessly captures the little things of living large, from the accouterments of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel to the smells of the Szechuan cuisine that O'Connor tastes for the first time (and enjoys with near-orgasmic pleasure.) As well, not only is the mid 1970s portrayed as it may well have been -- at least, if one traveled in celebrity-filled circles -- but the clash of that decade with the late 50s, a time when debauchery and excess were rampant yet more tightly concealed, is well presented through both Vince's comments to O'Connor and Lanny's pseudo-memoirs. Those memoirs, especially, paint a rollicking picture of a comedy team at the pinnacle of its success, made all the more ominous because of the murder waiting to happen, lurking like an albatross around the duo's necks. The transitions between O'Connor's point of view and Lanny's recollections are near seamless, and the jarring effect of continual time switching that pervades all too many novels does not happen here, because the sections link up to each other. As O'Connor uncovers each new revelation, Lanny's memoirs complement her discoveries.
And yet, at the heart of Where the Truth Lies is just that -- lies. In addition to coincidence, or at least the perception of such. Does O'Connor receive Lanny's notes out of some misguided attempt to set the record straight, or to paint a less-than-honest picture? Is Vince telling the truth as he knows it, or is his story one big con job? And even O'Connor cannot be considered an objective source -- far from it. That author Holmes can keep all the double-crosses, betrayals, half-truths and mostly lies straight is a marvelous feat, and it speaks well for his ability to plot a suspenseful story.
A story, it must be said, that is even more about sex than it is about suspense. Sex is a weapon, a celebration of triumph, a way to further an agenda and perhaps a motive for murder. While some instances of sexual interaction in these pages ring true -- especially O'Connor's grappling with her one-night-stand with Lanny -- others leave a sour taste. Late in the book, for example, Vince sets himself up for a possible rendezvous with O'Connor, only to have it mutate into something much nastier. Suffice to say that I will never quite view Alice in Wonderland in the same way again. The resulting blackmail attempt is well executed, but it could have stood alone without the luridness of the scene that precedes it.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this novel is its biggest weakness as well, and that is O'Connor herself. Granted, she is not supposed to be a one-dimensional character -- she has her own motives, gets caught in a web of her own making, engages in conflicts-of-interests so blatant that there may have to be a new phrase invented for her conduct. Yet somehow, her behavior never quite adds up to a cohesive whole. Who is she? Are readers supposed to be sympathetic to her actions, or should they revile them? Her personality changes from cool-headed to hot-tempered to matter-of-fact, sometimes within the same chapter. Yet somehow, she never seems to have her own voice. One problem may be in the choice of speech. Her voice, if you will, struck me as being overly formal, not in keeping with a young woman in her mid 20s. Although Holmes may have been trying to stretch himself by choosing a young female protagonist, except for the sexual aspect, O'Connor could just as easily have been male.
Ultimately, the future looks bright for Rupert Holmes, novelist. He has conquered many worlds already, and there is no reason to think that he will not improve as his career continues. Faults aside, he tells a very good story here, and with some additional seasoning and a stronger sense of voice, he could go very far in his newest artistic choice. His next novel of suspense is due out in 2004, and I look forward to it very much. Where the Truth Lies may have had just a bit too much saccharine in its piña colada flavoring, but with a bit of adjustment, the next escapist outing will be just right. | June 2003
Sarah Weinman is a regular contributor to January Magazine. A Canadian by birth and inclination, she is in a state of flux until she lands her first job in the forensic science field.