House Above Hollywood
Velda Johnston | Dell Books | 1968 | 191 pages
After the death of her aunt Georgia, Carol Marshall leaves Denver for a Southern California boarding house. Although superficially interested in breaking into the greeting card business, her true motivation for moving is to be near the Paloma Beach hotel room where her estranged father killed himself ten years earlier. A former Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Kevin Marshall fell into an alcoholic despair after the accidental death of his wife, leaving his young daughter and moving to California to write Hollywood screenplays. However, Carol has never accepted the fact that her father committed suicide, and is determined to find the true party responsible for his death.
To stretch the modest inheritance from her aunt, Carol accepts a position as a live-in secretary to former silent movie star Tara Mornette, living in relative isolation in her Hollywood Hills home. Once the setting for infamous parties attended by industry stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, the sprawling Mediterranean-style villa now houses only Tara, her cousin Paul Haynes, and the service staff, Peggy and Howard Wong. Tara also seems to have a permanent houseguest, the enigmatic leader of the Circle of the Enlightened cult—and her personal psychic adviser—Malon Thorne. Even upon her arrival at the estate, Carol realizes that Tara is living in fear of some unknown presence.
Aside from some pre-dinner conversation about other planes of existence and a briefly overheard spiritualist session, the presence of the strange occultist living with Tara leads to surprisingly few supernatural thrills. Although the house has a storied history, the location itself lacks an atmosphere steeped in menace or potential danger.
Playing the part of amateur detective during her off-hours, Carol discovers that a woman in oddly dated garb was seen leaving the scene of her father’s suicide, further cementing her conviction of foul play. Her seemingly separate worlds collide when Tara divulges a shocking secret—she not only knew Kevin Marshall, but after initially hiring him to ghostwrite her autobiography, she fired him on the morning of his death. Now guilt-ridden at the though of contributing to the despondency that may have cost him his life, Tara purports to have experienced visitations from his ghost.
The world of faded Hollywood glamour, and its hangers-on, makes for an appealing backdrop to the mystery surrounding Kevin Marshall’s death. Carol is never in too much direct danger while tracking down the woman who may have been his killer, although her employer suffers a hit-and-run attack. Her claustrophobia, while firmly established in a practical joke at the hands of Howard, doesn’t figure into the finale, as perhaps anticipated.
Even the romantic subplot lacks a certain amount of tension. Of course, the broken-nosed ruffian who initially meets Carol with hostility will eventually win her affections. Larry, the former tennis star turned housecleaner and initial love interest, must overcome his own terror in the face of the question, “Can’t we just be friends?”