BIT PLAYER by Janet Dawson

Palo Alto: Perseverance Press, 2011. $14.95

Jeri Howard, California PI, makes her return after a ten year absence. Her fans, too long denied their girl, will be delighted to see her back in action.

In BIT PLAYER, Jeri gets quite the shock when a dapper old man in a movie memorabilia shop in present-day Alameda, California, maliciously suggests Jeri’s grandmother was connected to an old Hollywood murder. She might even have committed the crime. Spurred by the veiled accusation, Jeri combs through evidence of a startling cold case--a murder from Hollywood’s Golden Age that might have involved her grandmother. In 1942, somebody set a fire to cover the murder of a charming ex-pat British actor. While the murder was quickly discovered, the killer never was--despite the fact the cops questioned Jerusha Layne, Jeri Howard’s grandmother and Hollywood bit player, in connection with that murder. 

Having her dander up and being a PI, Jeri decides to find out why the old man would make such a terrible claim and to find the killer if she can. To find out more about her grandmother’s life--Jerusha is now dead--Jeri goes to her family for all the information they possess, which include letters, stories, and names of old friends and roommates. Here, Jeri shows that being a PI is rather like being a historian, in that one has to troll through all sorts of old, primary sources. She even consults old newspapers for evidence of wartime Camp Roberts. Her sleuthing produces still living witnesses who provide further information about the dead actor and his connections to Hollywood and Jeri’s grandmother. The past and the present come together in more murders as Jeri pushes her investigation into the sometimes sordid word of buying, selling, and collecting movie memorabilia.

Jeri Howard is a feisty, determined, and independent woman for whom family is enormously important. In this, BIT PLAYER has something important to say, something beyond the ordinary PI novel. History matters; personal history, most of all. Furthermore, it demonstrates that one of the repositories for history, the memories of old people, is not to be shunned. The aid Pearl Bishop--and her family--give Jeri is invaluable.

Historical flashbacks, deftly done as Jeri reads and takes notes from her grandmother’s letters or as eyewitness testimony, introduce readers to early wartime California and the Hollywood studio system. These scenes are taut and authentic; for some readers, they might be too few. With the flashback scenes few, but crisp, the story remains lively and focused on the contemporary.

Some readers will be bothered by the level of coincidence in this novel. While it is convenient, it is also realistic. How often are we, in real life, surprised when we meet with someone from our small home town and remark on what a small world it is? We also remember important things when casually triggered days, weeks, or even years, later. It is the way life works. There is a literary school of thought that holds all life is nothing but a series of coincidences. Perhaps Janet Dawson draws her use of coincidence from her background in journalism, but her use of it as a literary device calls attention to itself.

Some of the characterization, especially motivation, is thin, and there are some spots of sloppy, repetitive writing--Pearl Bishop’s “Model A Ford, called the Gasper” is the most annoying. These are minor distractions from a good, competently told story. Fans of old movies will appreciate the attention to detail. Those of us without a clue about the memorabilia of Hollywood’s Golden Age will get an education. Overall, this Jeri Howard outing marks a solid return.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst