These are the first two books in Martin Turnbull’s Garden of Allah series, set against the backdrop of Hollywood history. Mr. Turnbull has created three original characters, a beautiful would-be actress, a budding female journalist who gets side-tracked writing gossip columns, and a gay man kicked out of his hometown by his disapproving father trying to make it big as a screenwriter. The series takes it’s name from the unusual (and historical) hotel where the Gwendolyn, Kathryn, and Marcus live while struggling to realize their dreams. It’s a converted mansion once owned by the glamorous Alla Nazimova, an aging silent film star who still lives in a villa on the premises. It’s a popular stop for many now legendary figures on their way up or down in Hollywood, which of course enables Mr. Turnbull to get away with his characters having an increasingly unlikely series of run-ins with some of show business’s biggest names.
The action in the first book, The Garden on Sunset, covers the dawn of the age of talking pictures, which go from fad to the only game in town with frightening speed. Many careers fell apart in the transition, as anyone who has seen The Artist already knows. It’s Marcus who stands to benefit, as the movies will now need more writers than ever. But he can’t get a job until he’s proven himself to be a writer, so for now he’s delivering telegrams for Western Union and piling up rejection notices from the magazines that publish short stories.
Kathryn has trouble breaking into the newspaper business. Despite the trail-blazing work of her heroine Nellie Bly women have a long way to go in the workplace. A chance meeting leads to a job answering fan mail for Tallulah Bankhead, a renowned stage-actress (and notorious alcoholic) trying to cash in with some movie roles.
Gwendolyn finds herself just one of the thousand pretty girls who’ve decided they’re going to make it in pictures. She suffers through humiliation upon humiliation as she tries to get noticed by the right kinds of people, and avoid the unsavory attention that comes all too readily. The temptation to give men what they want to get ahead is constant, but Gwendolyn wants to do things the right way, for now.
The adventures and misadventures of the three protagonists are entertaining, but they are buttressed by Mr. Turnbull’s well-researched knowledge of the who’s-who of the decade in Hollywood and his insights into the history of the movies. We meet closeted gay men like director George Cukor and Latin star Ramon Navarro, we travel to magnate William Randolph Hearst’s castle, where Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers are on the guest-list, and we meet another screenwriter struggling to write and stay sober, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The second novel in the series follows the highly-publicized production of Gone With the Wind, which became a cultural phenomenon as soon as the novel was published. A film version was a certainty, even though prevailing wisdom held that Civil War pictures never made a dime. America has already cast Clark Gable as Rhett, over the actor’s own objections, but who will play Scarlett?
Gwendolyn thinks her Southern Belle upbringing makes her a natural choice for the role, meanwhile Marcus deepens his friendship with the embattled director George Cukor, and Kathryn uses her connections to break big news every step of the way, making many powerful enemies in the process.
Turnbull tells a fun story, but his prose leaves a lot to be desired. His use of period language is sometimes so cliched as to be laughable, and his dialogue is often clunky as a result. He’s also too in love with ending chapters on a cliffhanger, only to move on to a different character in the next one, only catching up with the first story chapters later. It’s a pattern which becomes no less frustrating as it becomes familiar.
Still, if you like old movies these novels will be a fun, quick read and a chance to see the early days of the industry in more detail. Turnbull is especially good when we get to visit the set of Gone With the Wind. And for a male writer, he has a strong sense of the crushing sexism, condescension, and legitimate danger faced by women of the time. His empathy toward Gwendolyn and Kathryn is especially appealing. They are realistic in a way many male-written female protagonists are not.