Copyright The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles
Times 2003. Allrights reserved.)
"Neo-Dickensian" is the adjective Rupert Holmes'
publishers suggest to tout his first novel, and it's apt, up to a
point. "Where the Truth Lies" is a big, juicy book with pungent
dialogue, vivid description, outsized characters, a convoluted plot
and no end of jokes. Moreover, Holmes has an affinity for Charles
Dickens: He won multiple Tony awards for adapting the Victorian
master's unfinished last novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," into a
Playwright, television scriptwriter, songwriter,
pop singer, Holmes is a show-business insider as well as one of
those gifted people who seem able to do anything they want with the
English language. So it's no surprise that when Holmes wrote a
mystery -- a classic locked-door mystery, in fact -- it would prove
so entertaining. It's about entertainment and insiderdom, about the
layered illusions of Hollywood and Disneyland and our favorite noir
act, the Mafia -- about the infiltration of everyone's lives by the
products of America's dream factories.
Still, Dickens isn't as direct an inspiration for
Holmes' story as a later Victorian, Lewis Carroll. The parallels
with "Alice in Wonderland" are always implied and often overt. The
stand-in for Alice is a 26-year-old journalist known only as K.
O'Connor. The white rabbit she follows down holes and through mazes
is a $1- million contract to write a tell-all book about Vince
Collins, whose partnership with fellow comic Lanny Morris began to
fray after a young woman, Maureen O'Flaherty, was found slain in
their suite at a mob-run New Jersey resort in 1959.
Neither Collins, the suave crooner of the pair, nor
Morris, the pratfalling "monkey" -- think of Dean Martin and Jerry
Lewis -- was charged with the crime. They had an alibi: When
O'Flaherty died, they were broadcasting to an audience of millions
at a polio telethon in Florida. Even in the 1970s, however, when
O'Connor approaches Collins for interviews, "the girl in New Jersey"
remains a touchy subject. Collins' sudden willingness to talk is,
for the publishing world, an irresistible lure.
O'Connor wants to learn the truth, but she also
wants many other things. As Holmes has said in a recent interview,
the '70s were "such a luscious, absurd, unpardonable era. And
everybody slept with everybody, because it was a way to kill time,
or because the restaurant had been nice, or because it was less of a
hassle to just go ahead and have sex rather than to explain why you
weren't even remotely attracted to someone. In any later period, I
think O'Connor might have behaved very differently."
In the era that "Where the Truth Lies" re-creates
-- of Watergate and bell-bottoms, designer drugs and Szechwan
cuisine -- O'Connor behaves scandalously, to her own peril but to
our delight. Her narrative voice is all attitude and bluff, in part
to disguise her vulnerability to the seductions of show biz. She
promises Collins that she'll sleep with him when the book is
finished. She sleeps with Morris in New York, having swapped
apartments and identities with a schoolteacher friend. Then it's
Collins' turn again, after the rabbit hole turns into a secret VIP
restaurant in Disneyland and O'Connor takes a psychedelic pill and
meets an Alice impersonator straight from the streets of the Magic
Collins warns O'Connor that Morris, with whom he
split up years ago, "can be a bit of a monster. A cruel one." The
implication is that Morris might have killed O'Flaherty. But when
O'Connor reads chapters of Morris' wildly unbuttoned memoirs --
mailed to her in an apparent attempt to discourage her from writing
a book of her own -- the finger of accusation points back at
O'Connor is perfectly willing to consort with,
indeed fall in love with, possible murderers because they are famous
and charming, because the restaurants are very nice and because the
truth, though she eventually finds it, may not be so important after
all. In fact, she concludes, "It's vital to our survival that there
be people capable of amusing us and diverting us from the truth now
and then." Holmes arranges things so that the "civilians" caught up
in the plot, even the dead woman, have little claim on our
"Where the Truth Lies" is a labor of love. Every
scrap of lawyerese or Mafia-speak, every tidbit of Hollywood lore,
every scene of mental or physical intoxication, every tightening of
the suspense -- as O'Connor, entangled in her own lies, risks
embarrassment, her book deal and finally her life -- is beautifully
rendered, polished to a sheen. Holmes seduces us, but will we care
the morning after? This is where he parts company with Dickens,
about whose novels we would never ask such a question: They were
also labors of outrage.
From 'Where the Truth Lies'
In the seventies, I had three unrelated lunches
with three different men, each of whom might have done A Terrible
Thing. The nature of their varying "things" ranged from obscene to
unspeakable to unutterable, and you will surely understand if, as a
writer, I was rather hoping that each had. (Done their particular
In the case of my lunch with the first man, I knew
by the time he rested his gold Carte Blanche card upon the meal's
sizable check that my hopes were abundantly justified.
In the case of the second lunch, even while a
busboy filled our water tumblers, I realized that my dining
companion was as innocent (and inevitably tedious) as a playful pup.
But neither of these men need concern us here.
As for Man the Third ....
Credit: Michael Harris is a regular contributor to