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Hollywood’s Golden Age, through the eyes of a (fictional) gossip columnist

Lindsay Lynch’s new novel ‘Do Tell’ explores the glitz -- and underside --- of 1940s Tinseltown

4 min

Readers who crave Golden Age Hollywood lore may find diversion in Lindsay Lynch’s ambitious debut novel “Do Tell,” which evokes the scandals, manipulations and rumor-mongering generated by that world’s players.

Narrator Edie O’Dare, a Boston-born, Depression-poverty-driven, so-so actress who got into the industry by winning a contest, understands the jungle-laws of movie biz: People are hired, fired, loaned and hoarded like board game tokens. Scanning an Academy Awards dinner table full of wannabe-stars from the fictitious film studio FWM (an ersatz competitor with MGM), Edie discerns “what everyone else saw: spare parts.” As her studio contract runs out, she recognizes her main chance for survival: becoming a gossip columnist. If her acting is unremarkable, she knows she can write. “I was good … I knew what I was doing.” She succeeds by eavesdropping, bribing contacts and spying. “I don’t like to deploy the word snitch, so let’s say I became an unofficial publicity associate.”

Lynch weaves in an understory in which a young actress accuses an adored leading man of rape. (The young woman’s courage in telling fortifies the title’s double-entendre.) A sensational trial follows. Edie’s gossip-writing gets tangled in it: As an early confidante to the young actress, she must also ply her (cagey) trade.

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O’Dare’s voice resembles that of a hard-boiled, wisecracking private eye: a Sam Spade sister who operates within, and reports on, cutthroat Tinseltown antics. From an epoch when women’s youth and beauty often supplied their only power, such a narrative should deliver cautionary clout.

Unfortunately, “Do Tell” spends too much time describing clothing, makeup and hair, and parties where precious little occurs. People side-eye each other, rush in or out of rooms, drape themselves in doorways and utter cryptic insults. Real-life celebrity names are dropped without elaboration, presumably to lend period authenticity. Edie notes a wealthy studio owner’s “smudged lipstick” (from canoodling with her famous date) or that a popular actress’s waist size briefly grows four inches (a quickly erased pregnancy). Such misdeeds are no longer shocking, and when committed by fictional celebrities, even less so. That job — conveying portentous urgency — would have to fall to the novel’s prose.

Alas, the writing here is serviceable but flat. Most of “Do Tell” consists of uninflected statements (“I was surprised at how naturally he took to being the foppish don. His hair was left to its natural curl and his eyelashes were darkened.”) or fussy logistics (“I pulled a pair of sunglasses from my handbag and observed the festivities from a place on the back patio, careful not to make contact with anyone”). There is nothing technically wrong with these sentences. It’s that they’re inert, lacking surge or spark. The novel is built of them.

Occasionally, a plaintive insight surfaces. A major actor who’s done his own stunts admits, “Every day I’ve been [acting], I feel like I’m running down a moving train again and I never know which jump is going to be the one that kills me.” Or from Edie herself: “The paradox of becoming ‘the most feared woman in Hollywood’ was not lost on me; I was terrified all the time. Even the most innocuous of observations on my part could cause the end of someone’s career.” And yet: “With my column, people noticed me in a way they hadn’t before.” Thus, the carousel of trading-favors-for-dirt grinds on — until much later, in a retrospective wrap-up of fates and evolutions.

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The British have a useful adage that some put this way: “For them as likes this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they’ll like.” May them as likes it, enjoy themselves.

Joan Frank’s latest books are “Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading” and “Juniper Street: a Novel.”

Do Tell

By Lindsay Lynch

Doubleday. 334 pp. $28

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