The Actress, Elizabeth Sims, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.
This is very much a St. Martin's mystery, as I've come to know them. Smart, concise plot; vivid characters; interesting setting and a twist of originality. It fits in with many other St. Martin's authors I've loved over the years, from K.J. Erickson to Ellen Hart to David Housewright. This is the first book by Ms. Sims, but it's told in the assured voice of a pro. The story and set up are great—struggling actress Rita Farmer meets famous lawyer Gary Kwan at the library when she's doing a story time performance for kids, including Kwan's. Kwan pulls her aside and offers her a job, one so secret she has to meet him in his office to discuss it.
Intrigued, she gets her best friend and working actor Daniel Clements to look after her own son, Petey, while she goes to talk with Kwan. What he wants is simple: a talented and unknown actress to coach his client in the best ways to project herself sympathetically to a jury. Rita is slightly horrified to discover that Kwan's client is the notorious Eileen Tenaway, a recent widow who is in jail for the murder of her own toddler with an overdose of Valium. Complicating matters is the chance that Rita may just have a shot at an audition with the most revered, artistic movie director of all time, one who routinely directs actresses to Oscar winning performances and careers. He likes to work with unknowns, just like Rita. However, Kwan names an outrageous fee for Rita's efforts, telling her that it's an exclusive—no outside auditions while she's working for him. Intrigued and needing money badly, Rita accepts.
She's put off initially by Eileen Tenaway's demeanor which seems cold and at first appears more than cold to the jury. Plus she's uncomfortable—she's not sure if Eileen is innocent or not. This doesn't seem to concern Gary, but it bothers her. However, she gets the bit between her teeth and becomes more and more involved with the case, almost to the exclusion of Petey, who starts to act out at school as his mother becomes more distant from him.
Sims is juggling a lot here—Rita's relationship with her drunken ex, Jeff, who wants to take custody of Petey away from her; Rita's growing and inappropriate attraction to Gary Kwan; and a back story involving Eileen Tenaway's supposedly dead husband, Richard, a jewelry magnate. The back story with Richard assumes more and more importance as the story moves forward and Sims begins to tie her threads together; she also ups the emotional ante in a story involving Gary, Daniel and Rita herself, and then she uses one of my favorite narrative suspense builders, the kidnaping of Petey, to really get things on a roll.
The vividness of the writing, the originality and specificity of the life of a struggling actress, and the courtroom setting all make this a pretty compulsive read, as does the character of Rita herself, who is unforgettable. I am very much looking forward to the second installment.
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