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Bit Player: A Jeri Howard Mystery by Janet Dawson
Review by Marilyn Brooks
Perseverance Press Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781564744944
Date: 01 April 2011 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Back in the golden days of Hollywood, there were bit players, extras, and movie stars like Norma Shearer, Lana Turner, and Joan Crawford, and thousands of girls left home to become one of those stars. Jeri Howard’s grandmother was one of those girls. Jeri, a private investigator out of San Francisco, is pulled into a mystery over sixty years old when a man in a film souvenir shop hints that Jeri's grandmother might have been involved in a romantic affair and the murder of a British movie actor.

Jeri Howard's foray into movieland's past starts innocently enough when she and a friend spot a new store in Alameda--"Matinee—Classic Hollywood Memorabilia". Jeri is an amateur collector of film souvenirs. She's hoping to find an insert (lobby poster) from a Norma Shearer movie because Jeri's grandmother, for whom she is named, was a bit player in several of Shearer's films.

Jeri explains to the clerk what she's looking for and why, and his reaction seems odd to her. "Jerusha Lane," he says. "Very pretty name. She was involved in that business with Ralph Tarrant, in 'forty-two." When Jeri presses the clerk, he says he doesn't know details, only gossip. Tarrant was murdered, and the story went around Hollywood that Tarrant and Jerusha were an item. It was quite the Hollywood mystery, he says, and that's all she can get from him.

This is a story Jeri has never heard, even though she was close to her grandmother before her death some years ago. And she doesn’t believe it, doesn't want to believe that her beloved grandmother would have had a relatioship with someone other than her fiancée.

Jerusha gave herself five years to "make it" in movies, but along the way she met and fell in love with the man she later married and who became Jeri’s grandfather. But did she also fall in love, or at least in lust, with Ralph Tarrant, a British actor who also was trying to become a Hollywood screen star? That’s what Jeri sets out to discover.

Although this is the tenth Jeri Howard mystery, it's the first one I've read. It's enjoyable, a quick read, but there were a couple of things that prevented me from truly getting into the story. First, there's very little action in this novel, much of the story dealing with Jeri's getting information from various databases around the state, and after a while I found that very repetitious. Second, the ease in which she found things out didn't seem realistic. Nearly everyone she contacts still lives in California and is willing to see her; people have saved mementos from half a century ago and have ready access to them; even the various police departments that she contacts are eager to help her with a case from the 1940s.

Sometimes the novel read like a textbook, detailing every road she took, every phone call she made. It made Jeri seem more like a researcher than a private eye. And Jeri was never in danger, never threatened in the novel. Although there are multiple murders past and present in the book, I never got the sense that Jeri or anyone close to her would become a victim, so there was very little tension for me. And what’s a mystery without tension?

I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I knew Jeri's backstory. She has a large family, a close relationship with her father, and at least one good friend. Maybe it's necessary to have read more of her books to get a better sense of her. Without that, the book seemed kind of flat to me, like a girl setting out for the big time in Tinseltown but remaining a Bit Player.

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