Move over, Ray Donovan. Hollywood’s got a new fixer, this one circa the 1940s. His name is Jonathan Craine, and like it or not (he doesn’t), he’s being strong-armed into solving the takedown of real-life mobster Bugsy Siegel in the aptly titled new book The Syndicate.
The actual case—Siegel was gunned down in June 1947 while at the Beverly Hills digs of girlfriend Virginia Hill—has never officially been solved. But theories abound. In this take, author Guy Bolton casts a wide net, pulling in fictional and real folk. The latter includes MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer and gangster Meyer Lansky. Then there’s William Wilson, who runs the Hollywood Enquirer as well as Sunset Strip clubs—Bolton’s fictionalized version of Billy Wilkerson of Hollywood Reporter legend. Tinseltown unions also figure into the plot, as do members of the LAPD and the FBI, and a newspaper reporter who goes by the byline T. L. Conroy (because Tilda Conroy believes the era’s readers prefer to think a man is covering the crime beat).
Looming over everything is the shadow of the Commie-hunting HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is aggressively targeting Hollywood lefties. If all this seems a lot to take in, there are also cameos by the likes of Dalton Trumbo, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy (a “filthy drunk,” we’re told). On a film set we meet George Raft (known to hobnob with gangsters), Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. Howard Hughes, though never seen, is tapped for info by Mayer.
Then there’s Craine’s backstory, which stems from his origins in Bolton’s 2017 debut novel, The Pictures. Briefly, the ex-LAPD detective is still hurting over the sinister machinations of the Hollywood power structure, as well as the suicide death (covered up and reported as an accident) of his actress wife. As The Syndicate opens, he’s reestablished a bond with his son, now 16. The two are working their farm in a rural area some 350 miles to the north of Los Angeles where Craine has purposely distanced himself from La-La Land.
Then comes the abduction of his son by Lansky henchmen, who prove they’re serious by slicing off the tips of several of the kid’s fingers. They say they’ll kill him, should Craine not carry out orders. Did I mention that there’s a ticking clock to all this? There’s a racial component, too—the setting being post-World War II Los Angeles. And I can’t forget the minutiae. One of my favorites is mention of the French 75, once Craine’s preferred drink. Conveniently, the ingredients are listed.
This doesn’t all come together seamlessly, but Bolton is an assured writer with a style more direct than poetic—a plus for this crime casserole—and he’s got winning characters in Craine and Conroy, among others. If the book’s climax is a bit messy (and hazy), I’m still rooting for the leads to return. But I’m also hoping the London-based author can get some assistance in the “translation” of lingo foreign to the American ear. A scene in which a torture victim is described as looking like something you’d see in an “abattoir” sent us in search of the dictionary. Turns out “abattoir” is the British word for a slaughterhouse. It’s not a huge deal, but, when reading a book like this, I’d much prefer to reach for a vintage cocktail. A French 75, if you please.