The murder of William Desmond Taylor is one of Hollywood’s legendary unsolved murders, inspiring a cadre of books, although a big-screen adaptation hasn’t come to fruition. Author William J. Mann taps into the true crime world, creating a book that’s historical conjecture steeped in fact. Much of it isn’t particularly revelatory to those who’ve investigated the case – in spite of Mann being given access to supposedly new information – and a stray subplot threatens to make the already lengthy tone even more lengthier, but Tinseltown is primed for the adaptation treatment if Hollywood knows what’s good for them.
The book examines the murder of William Desmond Taylor as part of the ongoing troubles Hollywood was having during the pre-Code era. For Mann, his thesis is that the reason Taylor’s death remains unsolved was due to Adolph Zukor’s desperate attempt to prevent anymore reason for films censorship. Coupled with the recent snafu involving Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the last thing Hollywood needed was a director associated with wild parties, drugs, and homosexuality. By placing the murder within this grander scheme, a portrait emerges of the lengths Hollywood would go to protect themselves.
Along for the ride are the cast of characters: Taylor, child star Mary Miles Minter, and recovering drug addict/superstar, Mabel Normand. This is the trio commonly associated with the case, and Mann does a decent job of developing them with the information that’s available. Without resorting to too much conjecture, Mann discusses Taylor’s homosexuality, the wife and child he abandoned, and alludes to other dark secrets the director took to his grave. Minter and Normand are more intriguing, if only because their longer lives and convoluted histories are well-known and ripe for gossip-fodder.
What’s interesting is the blend of speculation and authenticity found within Tinseltown. Mann only quotes from documents or other verifiable sources, leaving a book that, in parts, is very heavy on conjecture or very cold in terms of establishing a dialogue. Make no mistake, this is a true crime book, first and foremost. There are moments that come off like Mann wants to speculate, but shies away; these are evident when he refers to a character hiding something, only to say we’ll never know. At times, I wished Mann was a bit more adventurous in making a bold statement if he’s creating a theory regardless.
The outlier is Mann’s ace in the hole, a woman named Patricia Palmer. She’s a small-time actress whose name has been associated with Taylor’s murder, but too much of her story’s been debunked. Mann decides to run with the theory of her association, but for a majority of the book her character just takes up space, never developing or truly coalescing with the narrative like Minter or Normand, maybe because Palmer’s connection to Taylor was so tenuous. Mann makes those bold assertions missing in other areas with Palmer and it isn’t until the epilogue that he brings it around and slaps a “She did it!” sticker on the whole thing. The book is tight without her story, and it might have been better just to leave her as a peripheral character as opposed to staking a theory on her.
Tinseltown is a tangled web worth exploring despite a murder theory that never feels completely convincing. The book boasts enough colorful characters and a fact-based story worthy of a film.
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