“And so you left your hometown
To try out for the part
Everybody’s pretty little angel
With a pretty little heart”
- Melissa Etheridge, Map of the Stars
Hollywood has always been that elusive locale folks dream of running off to – a place where stardom, acceptance, and wonderful weather are easily, and eternally, within one’s grasp. But Hollywood also has a dark underbelly – a place of facades and facelifts, where it seems everyone is out to take advantage of the naïve and each decision seems destined to rot away innocence. It is into the midst of this duplicitous location that James W. Ziskin chooses to drop Ellie Stone is his latest series novel, Cast the First Stone.
As Cast the First Stone opens, Ellie Stone is given an assignment to travel from New Holland, New York to Los Angeles, California. The newspaper for which she is a reporter wants her to write an article about hometown boy Tony Eberle, who is just about to make a big splash in his first major Hollywood movie. It’s the type of story that small town newspapers in 1962 dream of – hometown hero to Hollywood hunk.
The only problem is that by the time Ellie gets to California, Tony has vanished from the set of the movie and the producer is found dead after a fall from his balcony. Are these two things connected or simply a case of coincidence? With rumors of a stolen film script, illicit photographs, and studio shenanigans thrown into the mix, Ellie has her hands full trying to write a suitable article for the New Holland Republic.
James W. Ziskin uses the backdrop of Hollywood’s heyday to examine society’s view of alternative lifestyles – after all, Hollywood came to be known as the celluloid closet for a reason. With discrimination and prejudice at an all time high, those in power were able to manipulate the press – and the public – into keeping secrets and burying scandals. Never one to shy away from allowing Ellie Stone to show her flaws and evolve over time, it is a revelation to watch as James W. Ziskin documents Ellie’s changing views on homosexuality throughout the course of this novel – all the more powerful for its subtlety.
The Hollywood setting is perfect for this stage in Ellie Stone’s development. Unlike the starlets and ingénues who strive for success through celebrity, Ellie longs to make a name for herself through hard work – by writing the most accurate article she is capable of composing. As our intrepid reporter morphs a human interest story into a murder investigation, readers sense that Ellie Stone is maturing and becoming more independent with each subsequent choice – at a time when the feminist movement was still in its infancy.
James W. Ziskin’s ability to elucidate changing societal norms while also navigating the demands of an entertaining mystery story never fails to impress. Readers who enjoy their crime fiction with a dose of social conscious should certainly dive into the Ellie Stone Mystery series immediately.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.