Cover image of "Stardust," a novel about postwar Hollywood

Ben Collier, born Reuben Kohler, is a German-American Jew raised in the film industry by his famous director father. He 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. She and Danny were close to the star-studded German emigré community in postwar Hollywood.

Also involved in their lives, and now in Ben’s, are Sol Lasner, head of one of the early Hollywood studios, and Lasner’s right-hand man, “Bunny” Jenkins, a former child star in England. On the scene, too, is 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 (2009) 622 pages ★★★★★

Photo of the Hollywood 10, who were victimized in the Red Scare in postwar Hollywood
These dangerous-looking men were dubbed the Hollywood 10 when charged with contempt of Congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the hysterical heights of the McCarthy Era. Image: Photofest – The Hollywood Reporter

German emigrés in postwar Hollywood

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. He stages the tale with movie stars such as Paulette Goddard in the foreground and Greer Garson, Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich in the background. And he rounds out the cast with writer Ben Hecht; German emigres such as Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Lion Feuchtwanger, who were among the German emigrés who flocked to Hollywood in the Nazi years; and a smattering of well-known studio heads and politicians. Even FDR gets into the act late in the game, however indirectly.

A suspenseful tale peopled with nuanced characters

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.

About the author

Photo of Joseph Kanon, author of this novel about postwar Hollywood
Novelist Joseph Kanon shot in and around his New York Upper East Side apartment on May 8th 2015. Image: Axel Dupeux for The Wall Street Journal

A former publishing executive, Joseph Kanon (1946-) is the author of eight other novels. He’s best known for spy thrillers. 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. Kanon was educated at Harvard University and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Prior to turning full-time to writing, he was the editor in chief, CEO, and president of the publishing houses Houghton Mifflin and E. P. Dutton in New York.

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

This book is one of the Great mysteries about Hollywood.

You might also enjoy my posts The 15 top espionage novels and 20 good nonfiction books about espionage.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers.

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