Skimmings

2013-07-14T00:00:00Z Skimmings Arizona Daily Star
July 14, 2013 12:00 am

"Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations"

By Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

"I'm tired of remembering," actress Ava Gardner laments during one of many sessions with the ghostwriter working on her memoir. "I'm sick of trying to explain myself all the time."

Her spirit may have been unwilling, but Gardner's motivation was powerful: She needed the money.

At 66, with her acting career over and her body suffering from the effects of a debilitating stroke, one of film's most beautiful women was nearly broke.

The star of "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954) and dozens of other movies (she was nominated for an Oscar for 1953's "Mogambo") hoped that a tell-all book would bring her hundreds of thousands of dollars - or at least enough cash to allow her to remain in her London flat.

The project that began in 1988 fell apart after Gardner discovered that her chosen writer, Peter Evans, had once angered Frank Sinatra. Thirty years after their divorce, Sinatra still held sway over Gardner and it's unlikely she would have remained in the singer's good graces working with an enemy.

"Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations" is not the book that either Evans or Gardner had envisioned when they met at her apartment or when she called him at all hours of the night, sleepless and mournful. It's less the story of Gardner's life than a memoir by Evans, who uses his decades-old tapes and notes to recount their short-lived partnership. Echoes of the movie "Sunset Boulevard," with its aging and pathetic star, are hard to ignore, except Gardner isn't delusional or trying to seduce her writer. She knew all too well how she got where she was.

Fans of Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s will enjoy the randy banter about the men Gardner married.

At 5 foot 2, Mickey Rooney was the shortest of her mates, the best dancer and an unconscionable cheat. Husband No. 2, composer and bandleader Artie Shaw, gave her a hard time for being a rag-tag North Carolina girl, offered her books to read and gave her the boot after barely a year.

Sinatra matched her in jealousy, insecurity, combativeness - and loyalty. She told Evans that Sinatra always telephoned her on Christmas Eve, which was also her birthday. But she never called him, she said, because "he's a married man, honey."

She was less enchanted with Sinatra's pal Humphrey Bogart, her "Barefoot Contessa" co-star, whom she remembered as envious of her star status in their film.

Two other lovers loomed large in her past. Wealthy recluse Howard Hughes wanted to marry her, even though she battered him with an ashtray during one fight, and he dislocated her jaw during another. Actor George C. Scott, her co-star in, of all things, 1966's "The Bible," would awaken in their bed after drunken rages unaware that he had left Gardner bloody and bruised.

No wonder she kept a drink at the ready while mining her memories.

"The Secret Conversations" doesn't reveal much new about Gardner's life - she did turn out a memoir before she died in 1990 - and next to nothing about the movies she made, even popular films like "On the Beach" (1959) and "The Night of the Iguana" (1964).

Caught on tape being herself, Gardner comes off as she had feared - vulgar, cynical and trampy. Her words also carry the tones Evans had hoped for - funny, perceptive and genuine.

Douglass K. Daniel, The Associated Press

"Let It Burn"

By Steve Hamilton.

Each Alex McKnight novel has revealed a little about the part-time private detective's troubled past: his failed marriage, his work as a young Detroit street cop, the day he got careless and ended up getting shot, and his retreat to Michigan's rural northern peninsula where he now scrapes out a living running a string of rustic tourist cottages.

Now, in the tenth book in Steve Hamilton's fine crime-novel series, McKnight returns to the once great, now dying metropolis, propelled by a nagging fear that his last case there might have been a colossal mistake.

The action begins when McKnight's old sergeant calls to give him a heads up that Darryl King, a young man they put away years ago for stabbing a woman to death, was about to be released.

McKnight decides to drive south to reconnect with his old buddies including Arnie Bateman, the retired homicide detective who had been the lead investigator on the case.

At first, Bateman pooh-poohs McKnight's misgivings about the King case, but unlike the stereotypical TV cops who always bridle at the suggestion that they could have been wrong about something, McKnight's old mentor actually listens. Soon, they both start nosing around.

McKnight drops in on King's mother, who, instead of berating him for locking her son up, serves him chocolate cake. He enlists the help of old friend Janet Long, an FBI agent he's still carrying a torch for. And eventually, he even meets up with Darryl.

But someone out there doesn't like what Alex is doing, and before long, more people turn up dead.

Hamilton interrupts the narrative with occasional flashbacks about the original investigation, giving us a chance to see McKnight as a young husband and policeman, and to see Detroit when it was already in decline but before it turned into a wasteland.

The author's depiction of the Detroit that McKnight now sees outside his car window, and of the way this makes him feel, is both vivid and poignant.

McKnight eventually uncovers the terrible truth about the King case, of course, but only at an enormous cost to himself and several people he cares about. As the tense story unfolds, the action builds to a violent climax.

This beautifully crafted novel lives up to the standard fans have come to expect from one of the few writers to have ever been honored with two Edgar Awards.

Bruce DeSilva, for The Associated Press

"Killer Ambition"

By Marcia Clark

No one knows celebrity murder trials better than Marcia Clark, the former prosecutor in the L.A. County district attorney's Special Trials Unit. Clark's watershed case was the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson, which she and her DA colleagues famously lost amid allegations of mishandled DNA evidence and misconduct by the LAPD.

Clark put her experience to good use as a criminal appellate lawyer, legal analyst, expert commentator and, since 2011, crime novelist. "Killer Ambition," is the third in a series featuring deputy District Attorney Rachel Knight of the L.A. County DA's Special Trials Unit.

The first half of the book details the disappearance of Hayley Antonovich, whose father, Russell, is an über-powerful Hollywood director. A brief, third-person prologue sets up the crime and back story of the teenage Hayley, whose heart of gold is remembered by her bestie Mackenzie Struthers, a kid from a less well-heeled family.

The narrative quickly shifts to Rachel's first-person account of the investigation, which begins when her LAPD colleague - and good girlfriend - Det. Bailey Keller gets called to the Antonovich home in Bel-Air after the $1 million ransom Russell paid two hours before did not result in the return of his missing daughter.

Bailey and Rachel launch an intense investigation that soon focuses on Brian Shandling, Hayley's newly acquired boyfriend with a shady past, and others who may have had a motive. But who among the many people a Hollywood power broker like Russell might have encountered, Rachel asks, would be crazy enough to kidnap his daughter?

As Rachel and Bailey peel away the layers, a body, then two are found and a more complicated and darker motive emerges, with the Antonovich family, their friends and various Hollywood insiders hiding more than they initially let on.

Readers may feel Rachel's active participation in the investigation is suspiciously convenient. Equally jarring is the questionable logic that drives Rachel and Bailey to interview informants far removed from the main action, which conveniently yields information or evidence that brings them closer to an arrest.

Yet once Rachel is in the courtroom, she is in her element. It is in the courtroom that Clark fully explores the corruption that accompanies celebrity and traces how it infects every aspect of a trial, from jury selection to the motives, machinations and missteps of the various attorneys, consultants and experts.

Paula L. Woods, for the Los Angeles Times

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