Quick Review: WINDHALL by Ava Barry (Pegasus Books)

BarryA-WindhallUSAn intriguing, well-written mystery about the long tail of a Golden Age Hollywood murder

An investigative journalist in modern Los Angeles attempts to solve the Golden Age murder of a Hollywood starlet.

1940s Hollywood was an era of decadence and director Theodore Langley was its king. Paired with Eleanor Hayes as his lead actress, Theo ruled the Golden Age of Hollywood. That ended when Eleanor’s mangled body was discovered in Theo’s rose garden and he was charged with her murder. The case was thrown out before it went to trial and Theo fled L.A., leaving his crawling estate, Windhall, to fall into ruin. He hasn’t been seen since.

Decades later, investigative journalist Max Hailey, raised by his gran on stories of old Hollywood, is sure that if he could meet Theo, he could prove once and for all that the famed director killed his leading lady. When a copycat murder takes place near Windhall, the long reclusive Theo returns to L.A., and it seems Hailey finally has his chance.

When Hailey gets his hands on Theo’s long-missing journals, he reads about Eleanor’s stalkers and her role in Theo’s final film, The Last Train to Avalon, a film so controversial it was never released to the public. In the months leading up to her death, something had left her so terrified she stopped coming to work. The more Hailey learns about Avalon, the more convinced he becomes that the film could tell him who killed Eleanor and why she had to die. But the implications of Avalon reach far beyond Eleanor’s murder, and Hailey must race to piece together the murders of the past and present before it’s too late.

What really happened to Eleanor Hayes, all those years ago at Theodore Langley’s party? Was she murdered? And by whom? Has Langley got away with murder for all these years? When the case is thrust back into the spotlight, journalist Max Hailey dig deeper than anyone else ever has to get to the truth. Windhall is an interesting, engaging, and enjoyable mystery novel set in old and contemporary Los Angeles. I really enjoyed this.

Max Hailey is an investigative journalist making a meagre living at Lens, a progressive now-online magazine that is struggling to stay above water and relevant. He has a difficult relationship with the magazine’s new boss (who keeps trying to come up with ways to fire him). Max is reckless in his approach to his work — he reminded me a little bit of Michael Connelly’s Jack McAvoy, in this respect: he often takes risks, pushes people’s buttons, and is rather self-involved in his pursuit of a story. That his latest assignment is about a true crime mystery that has obsessed him for years only makes him even more reckless and single-minded. This puts him on the radar of wealthy members of Los Angeles/Hollywood society with their own agendas, as well as shady-seeming characters connected to Theo and the Windhall estate. He also acquires a few allies along the way (reluctant as they might be, at times).

I was surprised at how little the copycat murders feature in the story. I had expected them to be a bit more of a focus of the story. It’s not the only aspect of the story that takes a back-seat to what happened in the past. This is fine, of course, but given what Barry does tell us about them — and everything else Max and Petra discover during their investigation — it was strange that they were shunted off to the side, and dealt with in such an off-hand manner.

Barry’s characters are pretty interesting and well-drawn, for the main. There were times when it wasn’t quite as smooth or consistent as I’d expected. Sometimes Max’s behaviour was more plot-driven than natural. Or, perhaps the author struggled to balance between making him likeable to readers but also rather bullish and self-involved. The supporting cast were well-drawn, though — and I particularly liked Theo.

Despite these niggles, I really enjoyed reading Windhall. It evokes old Hollywood very well, and the plot moves along at a good clip. Just as Max et al really want to get to the bottom of what really happened at Theo’s party, so too was I pulled along, eager to learn the truth. Barry doesn’t spoon-feed the reader with answers, and just as Max fails to share with Petra, he often fails to share with the reader until he confronts or interviews someone. The ending of the novel throws out a couple of well-done reveals and surprises, too, and was ultimately satisfying.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood/Los Angeles mysteries, I would certainly recommend you give this a try. I’m looking forward to reading what Barry comes up with next.

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Ava Barry’s Windhall is out now, published by Pegasus Books in North America and in the UK.

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