German emigres in Hollywood in a captivating historical novel

German emigres

Ben Collier, born Reuben Kohler, a German-American Jew raised in the film industry by his famous director father, leaves Germany in the days immediately following the end of the Second World War in Europe to visit his brother Danny, who lies in a coma in a Hollywood hospital. There, he finds himself embroiled in complex ways with Danny’s widow, Liesl, and the star-studded German emigre community in Southern California; with Danny’s seemingly impenetrable past; with Sol Lasner, head of one of the early Hollywood studios, and Lasner’s right-hand man, “Bunny” Jenkins, a former child star in England; and with a Right-Wing Congressman who stands in for Richard Nixon — not to mention assorted Communists, fellow-travelers, and the FBI in the era of J. Edgar Hoover.

As the plot unfolds in all its complexity, the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

Stardust by Joseph Kanon @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

This brilliant novel, structurally a murder mystery, is better viewed as a compelling portrait of Hollywood in the days preceding the Blacklist. Kanon skillfully paints a canvas peopled by both real and imagined icons of the times, including movie stars such as Paulette Goddard in the foreground and Greer Garson, Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich in the background; the writer Ben Hecht; German emigres such as Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Lion Feuchtwanger; and a smattering of well-known studio heads and politicians. Even FDR gets into the act late in the game, however indirectly.

In the hands of a hack writer, this story could well have become unreadable. But Kanon infuses the tale with suspense that grows slowly and then at an accelerating rate as his self-doubting hero, Ben Collier, becomes enmeshed in the mystery. Kanon’s nuanced portraits of his characters bring them to life and make them difficult to ignore or forget: the talented and promising Jewish actress forced to the sidelines by the Red Scare; the aging, once-powerful studio head who is losing control of the company he founded; the closeted gay film executive caring for his gravely wounded lover; the brilliant German actress groomed for stardom on the fast track; the death camp survivor with eyes that never come to life. Every one of these and many other credible characters emerges from the pages of Stardust as multidimensional and profoundly human.

A former publishing executive, Kanon is the author of four previous novels. Among them are Los Alamos and The Good German, which later was adapted to film in a production starring George Clooney. Both books, like Stardust, are set in the years immediately following World War II and reflect Kanon’s considerable historical knowledge of the era.

For additional reading

For my reviews of all of this author’s espionage novels, see Joseph Kanon’s spy thrillers are superb.

You might also enjoy my posts My 20 favorite espionage novels and 20 good nonfiction books about espionage.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

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mal burnstein - 11 years ago

It was a riveting book.

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[…] — Los Alamos (1997), The Prodigal Spy (1998), The Good German (2001), Alibi (2005), and Stardust (2009) — have won widespread acclaim, and deservedly so, as I’ve noted in my reviews. (To see […]

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