I came across “The Stand In” via a Twitter recommendation, from someone who I’ve never met and have never spoken to in person. But thanks to the magic of Twitter feeds (I think we met on the #amwriting hashtag or something), every now and then we get to enjoy the fun of making a difference to the life of a total stranger by recommending a book they’d never otherwise have come across. Sometimes you get something that’s completely disappointing; but other times you discover a gorgeous and unexpected little gem that you absolutely adore, and want to recommend to other people. Isn’t the internet brilliant?
“The Stand In” is a lovely, tightly-plotted, perfectly-crafted sliver of Hollywood noir. Rising Hollywood superstars and former lovers Rick DeNova and Lola Chandler are locked into starring roles in Centurion Studios’ production from Hell – a prestige vanity-project to bring Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to the big screen. Rick’s taste for beating up and violently murdering the women in his life, coupled with a burgeoning heroin habit, mean that both he and the production are gradually falling apart, threatening to take Centurion down with it. Hollywood Insider front-woman Nadine Nugent is intent on furthering her broadcasting career by getting the inside scoop on Centurion, while her college-boy minion Danny Gillis is desperate for a big story that will free him from Nadine’s clutches and transform his journalistic career. And Eddie Baines from Hicksville is desperate to exploit his eerie resemblance to Rick and begin his own stratospheric rise to stardom.
Noir, as we all know, comes from cinema, and cinema is the home of heightened reality and slightly implausible occurrences. With that in mind, let me say that the plot of “The Stand-in” does rely on the existence of one huge, giant, incredibly fortunate coincidence (the arrival in Hollywood of a near-perfect visual double for a famous-but-troublesome film-star at exactly the moment the film-star starts to become more trouble than he’s worth, said double also being a brilliant actor). However, you’d have to be a very mean reader indeed not to accept this slight stretching of our collective credibility, because the way everyone responds to this astounding gift from the Gods is so horribly plausible. There’s virtually no moral hesitation from anyone; they just leap gleefully onto this fantastic opportunity like starving vultures. As far as almost everyone in Hollywood is concerned, Eddie is a commercial opportunity, not a person.
Is it believable that everyone from the Head of Studio to the Director to the Police Chief to the predatory landlord would just think “Yahoo, Rick DeNova without the hassle” and crack on with the nasty exploitative behaviour just as fast as it occurs to them? Personally I think it makes perfect sense. Actors are brands, and always have been. They’re owned and packaged by the studios, carefully positioned within the marketplace, and replaced as necessary when their shelf-life expires. Everything the head of Centurion does is shocking, but sadly, nothing he does is actually unbelievable. Geagley shows us a town without a moral centre, where the need to make money beats every other imperative, for everyone, in every institution, everywhere. Look me in the eye and tell me you think he’s called it wrong.
The one exception to this Ed-sploitation fest is Lola Chandler, Two Cities‘ beautiful leading lady. Like a lot of male-dominated genres (see also Superhero comics and Space Opera), noir tends to suck at women. It also tends to suck at them in exactly the same way each time, in that they become either 1) an impossibly beautiful and talented goddess who inexplicably goes out with some utterly average / borderline inadequate guy and then ends up dead because, because, well just because, really or 2) some impossibly beautiful and talented evil super-villainess who is inexplicably overcome by some utterly average / borderline inadequate guy and then ends up dead, just because. Noir tends to suck at women; but every now and then, you find a noir book that doesn’t. Lola Chandler is nice, sweet, flawed, occasionally dumb, human, believable, properly realised and well-written, and I loved her and was rooting for her every inch of the way. Admittedly, this success isn’t universal – Nadine is a little bit too much of a bitch-queen, and the starry-eyed red-shirt blondes who line up to be strangled by Rick have no character beyond “and they really, really fancy Rick DeNova”. But that’s okay. They’re the bit players. At least the leading lady is awesome.
My only real criticism of this book is that it doesn’t feel particularly rooted in its time. From the clues we get (James Dean is dead, Marlon Brando exists, Cleopatra is a contemporary project) I’m guessing late fifties or early sixties. But somehow it doesn’t feel like any particular time. The language, the clothes, the cars, the settings, all feel as if they could belong to Hollywood at any stage of its existence. It’s possible that this timelessness was exactly the effect Geagley was going for, but personally I found it a bit irritating. However, that’s a small niggle, and I’m going to forgive it because it’s such a beautifully-written tale.
One last thing. In the blurb, the author makes the provocative claim that “you won’t guess the ending”. So of course, I spent every second of my first reading of this book trying to guess the ending. And you know what? I honestly didn’t guess what was coming. The basic direction of travel is easy to predict – very early on, Eddie is asked why he thinks Hollywood would want another Rick DeNova when it already has one, but since Rick is clearly psychotic and unreliable, and Eddie is humble, charming and a much better actor, that part’s not too hard to figure out – but there are so many unexpected twists, turns and shimmies along the way that it doesn’t feel predictable at all. And then, just when you think it’s all over, that nice Mr Geagley goes and slaps you round the chops with a whole other surprise that was right there under your nose all along, but you didn’t spot it because you were too distracted with the tightly-written descriptions and the sharp characterisation and the perfect pacing and the excellent craftsmanship, boo-ya.
“The Stand-In” would be worth reading even without the shock of discovering the author really has been cleverer than you, because it’s very, very well-written and it’s worth it just for the journey to its inevitable and well-foreshadowed ending. But finding a book that really has lived up to the “you won’t see this one coming” hype? That’s just delightful.
“The Stand In” is available as a Kindle e-book for the pleasingly eccentric sum of £3.28