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A Cast of Killers by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick (Dutton: $17:95; 301 pp.)

June 01, 1986|Kevin Thomas | Thomas is a Times staff writer.

The murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February, 1922, created one of Hollywood's greatest scandals, wrecking the careers of Mary Miles Minter, a youthful rival to Mary Pickford, and comedienne Mabel Normand because both were close to Taylor. Taylor's secrecy-shrouded personal life and history was so complicated and the investigation of his fatal shooting so confused, seeming even to be deliberately muddled by both Paramount and the police, that the case became the film industry's most enduring and tantalizing mystery.

In 1967, distinguished veteran director King Vidor decided to investigate the murder himself with the hope of developing the story into a film. When Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, planning a biography of Vidor, who died in 1982, came upon a locked strongbox in the garage of the guest house of Vidor's Beverly Hills home, he discovered not only meticulous records and diaries of the director's research into the murder but, astonishingly, that Vidor had convincingly identified the killer--45 years after the fact! But in solving the crime, Vidor realized that it would be impossible to turn it into a film at that time.

Kirkpatrick laid aside his Vidor biography, for the moment, to write instead "A Case of Killers," which is one of the best Hollywood books ever, containing more real-life tragedy than the fictional "Sunset Boulevard" and uncovering evidence of more political corruption than ever imagined by Raymond Chandler (or Robert Towne in his "Chinatown" script). "A Case of Killers" is at once many things: the story of a great director playing detective as a way of attempting to launch a comeback movie in his 70s, of his resuming a romance (with ever-vivacious silent star Colleen Moore, who would also be his producer) after a hiatus of more than 40 years.

Vidor discovered that Taylor's private life was full of surprises, that Mary Miles Minter's life was infinitely sadder than he--and most everyone else--had ever imagined and that both her reputation and that of Mabel Normand had apparently been deliberately blackened to distract attention from the actual killer.

What more could any detective mystery writer ask for? And that's not even taking into account a cast of supporting characters that includes silent stars Gloria Swanson, Minta Durfee Arbuckle, pioneer director Allan Dwan, that shrewd and candid Hollywood observer Adela Rogers St. John--and, yes, even the long-secluded Mary Miles Minter herself.

Kirkland has done such a remarkable, page-turning job on so many levels, it's lamentable that "A Cast of Killers" is scattered with minor errors that so easily could have been corrected--and are so typical of far less ambitious Hollywood histories. This is much too good a book to find in it that the landmark Alexandria Hotel is at Spring and 6th, instead of 5th, where it's been for 80 years, or to find that Buellton, the town made famous by split-pea soup, has its name misspelled, or that Minta Durfee was Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle's widow when in fact he married twice after their 1925 Paris divorce.

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