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Down the rabbit hole

Where the Truth Lies: A Novel, Rupert Holmes, Random House: 390 pp., $24.95

July 20, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

"Neo-Dickensian" is the adjective Rupert Holmes' publishers suggest to tout his first novel, and it's apt, up to a point. "Where the Truth Lies" is a big, juicy book with pungent dialogue, vivid description, outsized characters, a convoluted plot and no end of jokes. Moreover, Holmes has an affinity for Charles Dickens: He won multiple Tony awards for adapting the Victorian master's unfinished last novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," into a Broadway hit.

Playwright, television scriptwriter, songwriter, pop singer, Holmes is a show-business insider as well as one of those gifted people who seem able to do anything they want with the English language. So it's no surprise that when Holmes wrote a mystery -- a classic locked-door mystery, in fact -- it would prove so entertaining. It's about entertainment and insiderdom, about the layered illusions of Hollywood and Disneyland and our favorite noir act, the Mafia -- about the infiltration of everyone's lives by the products of America's dream factories.

Still, Dickens isn't as direct an inspiration for Holmes' story as a later Victorian, Lewis Carroll. The parallels with "Alice in Wonderland" are always implied and often overt. The stand-in for Alice is a 26-year-old journalist known only as K. O'Connor. The white rabbit she follows down holes and through mazes is a $1-million contract to write a tell-all book about Vince Collins, whose partnership with fellow comic Lanny Morris began to fray after a young woman, Maureen O'Flaherty, was found slain in their suite at a mob-run New Jersey resort in 1959.

Neither Collins, the suave crooner of the pair, nor Morris, the pratfalling "monkey" -- think of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis -- was charged with the crime. They had an alibi: When O'Flaherty died, they were broadcasting to an audience of millions at a polio telethon in Florida. Even in the 1970s, however, when O'Connor approaches Collins for interviews, "the girl in New Jersey" remains a touchy subject. Collins' sudden willingness to talk is, for the publishing world, an irresistible lure.

O'Connor wants to learn the truth, but she also wants many other things. As Holmes has said in a recent interview, the '70s were "such a luscious, absurd, unpardonable era. And everybody slept with everybody, because it was a way to kill time, or because the restaurant had been nice, or because it was less of a hassle to just go ahead and have sex rather than to explain why you weren't even remotely attracted to someone. In any later period, I think O'Connor might have behaved very differently."

In the era that "Where the Truth Lies" re-creates -- of Watergate and bell-bottoms, designer drugs and Szechwan cuisine -- O'Connor behaves scandalously, to her own peril but to our delight. Her narrative voice is all attitude and bluff, in part to disguise her vulnerability to the seductions of show biz. She promises Collins that she'll sleep with him when the book is finished. She sleeps with Morris in New York, having swapped apartments and identities with a schoolteacher friend. Then it's Collins' turn again, after the rabbit hole turns into a secret VIP restaurant in Disneyland and O'Connor takes a psychedelic pill and meets an Alice impersonator straight from the streets of the Magic Kingdom.

Collins warns O'Connor that Morris, with whom he split up years ago, "can be a bit of a monster. A cruel one." The implication is that Morris might have killed O'Flaherty. But when O'Connor reads chapters of Morris' wildly unbuttoned memoirs -- mailed to her in an apparent attempt to discourage her from writing a book of her own -- the finger of accusation points back at Collins.

O'Connor is perfectly willing to consort with, indeed fall in love with, possible murderers because they are famous and charming, because the restaurants are very nice and because the truth, though she eventually finds it, may not be so important after all. In fact, she concludes, "It's vital to our survival that there be people capable of amusing us and diverting us from the truth now and then." Holmes arranges things so that the "civilians" caught up in the plot, even the dead woman, have little claim on our sympathy.

"Where the Truth Lies" is a labor of love. Every scrap of lawyerese or Mafia-speak, every tidbit of Hollywood lore, every scene of mental or physical intoxication, every tightening of the suspense -- as O'Connor, entangled in her own lies, risks embarrassment, her book deal and finally her life -- is beautifully rendered, polished to a sheen. Holmes seduces us, but will we care the morning after? This is where he parts company with Dickens, about whose novels we would never ask such a question: They were also labors of outrage.

*

From 'Where the Truth Lies'

In the seventies, I had three unrelated lunches with three different men, each of whom might have done A Terrible Thing. The nature of their varying "things" ranged from obscene to unspeakable to unutterable, and you will surely understand if, as a writer, I was rather hoping that each had. (Done their particular Terrible Thing.)

In the case of my lunch with the first man, I knew by the time he rested his gold Carte Blanche card upon the meal's sizable check that my hopes were abundantly justified.

In the case of the second lunch, even while a busboy filled our water tumblers, I realized that my dining companion was as innocent (and inevitably tedious) as a playful pup. But neither of these men need concern us here.

As for Man the Third ....

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