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BOOK REVIEWS : A Whodunit Short on Storytelling

December 07, 1989|KAREN STABINER

Hot Toddy by Andy Edmonds (William Morrow: $18.95; 297 pages).

Despite the practical impact of an indictment or a conviction, the power of the law pales next to the enduring effects of public opinion.

Witness the mysterious death of Depression comedian Thelma Todd, who died in December, 1935. After a slipshod investigation, her untimely demise--she was a glorious, sexy, if drug-and-drink-addled 29--was officially ruled an accident. No matter. For more than 50 years, public opinion has kept the case alive. People believed that she was the victim of foul play and a cover-up.

Now, in the shadow of Sidney Kirkpatrick's wildly successful "A Cast of Killers," about the William Desmond Taylor murder, comes Andy Edmonds' contribution to the celebrity crime genre: "Hot Toddy," her attempt to resolve the Thelma Todd case.

She has a provocative theory--that Todd was a hapless casualty of the war between gangsters Frank Nitti and Lucky Luciano, who were fighting for control of the West Coast by gobbling up profitable morsels of Los Angeles, including restaurants.

Todd happened to be a co-owner of the eponymous Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe, a roadhouse on what was then Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway), a hangout for Hollywood's bright lights and would-be sparklers.

According to Edmonds, Luciano got it in his head that the empty third floor of the establishment would make a grand gambling den. Given the way he was used to doing business, he responded to Todd's reluctance by getting her out of the way. Permanently. Burton Fitts, the corrupt Los Angeles district attorney, worked very hard to look the other way.

It would seem to be a banquet of a book: the predatory death dance of two Italian hoodlums, set against the story of a young girl who was incrementally more interesting than the stereotypical starlet.

Todd--who worked hard to live up to her nickname, Hot Toddy--was a complicated, contrary miss who acted like a vamp and behaved like a virgin, who teased men and then fled when they exhibited any interest in her.

To the reader's endless frustration, though, Edmonds doesn't take advantage of her opportunities. She writes in a flat, cliche-ridden style.

It may be that Edmonds allowed herself to be held hostage by her own theory: Everything she tells us is an investment in proving that Luciano masterminded Todd's murder.

Toward the end of the book, when the drug-ravaged Todd begins to sense that she's in trouble, her nerves are frayed.

Edmonds writes: "Thelma returned to her apartment, locked the door and took a good long drink. She thought about the weekend ahead, the parties, the fight with West. She wished she could run away, and seriously thought about doing just that after the holidays. Toddy phoned her mother, had a long talk about the weekend. They planned a Saturday evening shopping spree. Thelma finished her drink and slept the rest of the evening."

It is a scene that cries out for devoted writing, that demands nuance and shading. But Edmonds writes as though Jack Webb were peering over her shoulder: Just the facts, ma'am.

As for those facts: However much one might want to believe Edmonds' conclusions, there are troublesome potholes.

On their last mad ride together, Luciano and Toddy "traveled the route from Beverly Hills to Hollywood to Santa Monica down Wilshire Boulevard." I don't care how powerful a gangster Luciano was: He can't make Hollywood sit between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

Paragraphs later, it turns out that they were headed east on Hollywood Boulevard, south on Vine, and then west on Santa Monica, not Wilshire. A minor quibble--but if Edmonds is going to include the minutiae of their last encounter, she ought to get it straight.

Oddly enough, two writers considered the evidence and arrived at a completely different conclusion in a 1987 article in Los Angeles magazine--accusing Roland West of the crime. They accepted West's deathbed confession, along with supporting stories from people who knew him.

Edmonds dismisses the same confession and relies, instead, on admittedly inconsistent witnesses, and on material provided by an anonymous source who swore he shared Todd's last supper with her.

That's her decision--but right or wrong, it's not her worst mistake. She had a responsibility to shape information into intrigue, and she fell short. The true crime in "Hot Toddy" is that Edmonds took the notion of "whodunit" too literally, writing as though the identification of the murderer were enough to carry a whole book along. It isn't.

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