The Devil's Playground

Written by Craig Russell

Review written by Jon Morgan

Jon Morgan is a retired police Superintendent and francophile who, it is said, has consequently seen almost everything awful that people can do to each other. He relishes quality writing in all genres but advises particularly on police procedure for authors including John Harvey and Jon McGregor. Haunts bookshops both new and secondhand and stands with Erasmus: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I may buy food and clothes.”

The Devil's Playground
RRP: £20.00
Released: June 08, 2023

Hollywood studio ‘fixer’, Mary Rourke, a woman with her own demons, is called to the luxurious home of an actress billed as "the most desirable woman in the world." This is Hollywood in 1927 and pre-talkies, silent movie actress Norma Carlton, star of a film still in production, The Devil's Playground. is found dead in bed, and strangely attired. Tablets are found on her night table.


Local police are paid off and the story is put out that it is not suicide but an undiagnosed heart condition. However, after an autopsy by a studio house physician, Rourke realises that she has been played – Norma Carlton was, in fact, murdered.


Rourke begins to speculate as to whether the dark rumours that The Devil's Playground really is an accursed production. This is grist to the Studio’s mill, but does it have some basis in fact?


At the behest of the studio boss, and excluding the usual studio detective, Rourke begins an investigation which leaves her wondering what is real what is fake and if anyone is really what they seem, She used to doing everything to cover-up inconvenient truths for the studio. This truth is darker, deeper and more twisted than anything she has ever come across.


Secret societies, fortune tellers, missing would-be starlets, stars without scruples or morals, all lead back to the Louisiana wetlands where a supposed voodoo witch is living, having taken refuge. Persecuted by locals, one of who nevertheless fathers her daughter, and many of the local town’s inhabitants meet very sticky ends, the woman and her child nevertheless survive an attempt at burning them out and flee once more.


Seemingly unconnected, other than by a search for a print of the Devil’s Playground, long believed to have been destroyed, Paul Conway, film historian and silent-movie aficionado, experienced in finding such ‘gems’ is on the trail of such a print, rumoured to exist in a strange, isolated desert house, inhabited by one, apparently harmless, old woman, who, like most of the characters, is not what she seems. What he finds there is beyond his dreams and also the stuff of nightmares.


The denouement is both shocking and chilling. The evil that escaped the Louisiana Bayou has never gone away.


At base, a whodunnit, this is a thriller in a superior vein. It is well researched as witnessed by the Cajun-French dialects and vocabulary as well as the local colour of the bayous and of Hollywood prior to the rise of the big studios. The shadow of WWI hangs over many of the main characters and they are richly drawn.


Many of them have re-invented themselves or had a new back-story created for them in order to live and thrive in the overheated atmosphere of early Hollywood. This re-invention changes names, personalities and backgrounds, erasing pasts and past crimes . It is one more example of the paper thin veneer of Tinseltown.


It is a murder (s) mystery with many twists, some well-signalled, others, utterly unexpected. Although not my usual fare, I thoroughly recommend it.

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