The Mother Brain Files: The Death of Michael Russo Book Review
By Mother Brain
John Merenda, the author of the Civil Wrath trilogy, switches gears from the volatile American West to the treacherous Hollywood of the 1930s in his latest novel, The Death of Michael Russo. Like Wrath, it’s protagonist, Joseph Russo, is a man on a mission. Russo started as a leather worker in Italy when he learned the news of his son Michael getting killed in prison on Devil’s Island. Twenty years later in America now owning a leather business, Joe discovers that not only was the news of his son’s death was false but also he became a major Oscar-winning movie star…and had recently died for real in a murder suicide.
In search of answers of how Michael died not once but twice, Joe travels to Hollywood to meet Helen Wood, an established female film director who discovered Michael, had deep affections for him, and helps Joe to find out the truth behind the deaths of Michael and his wife Alice. Their search, however, reaches as far as the dirty political games in Hollywood and the seedy producers who will do anything to make a profit even if it means murder.
I love these old school Hollywood murder mysteries like Chinatown, Hollywoodland, L.A. Confidential and this story really has all those elements at play. What I enjoyed about the narrative is how it starts out telling Michael’s backstory through flashbacks of Helen’s memories like a rise and fall of a superstar actor. Then it makes a dramatic turn midway through into a nourish murder mystery filled with intrigue and unexpected twists. Merenda also pays great attention to detail of the period not only by integrating famous actors of the early 1930s but also the inter-workings of the studio system of that time with contract players, exploitation of ethnic actors and filmmakers for their successes, and the struggle of women getting taken seriously as directors at a time when “only men made movies.”
The character arc of Joe I also found to be very interesting. Even a few setups with Joe’s behavior and actions that lead to major payoffs by chapter thirty. He begins as a kind grieving father yearning for details about his son’s life but then turns into an unlikely detective once he learns of the motives behind the murder. His uncanny resemblance to his son also causes a budding romance with Helen which was sweet without being sappy.
The only real critique I would have for Michael Russo is that I felt some chapters were dry and interrupted the progression of the story. While I found the subplot of Helen filming the Jesus movie to be interesting as well as good juxtaposition to the murder mystery, some of the chapters establishing the character of Helen’s black housemaid, Dolly, didn’t interest me even if they were written for character development. Maybe it’s just me but I want to see the mystery unfold chapter by chapter.
Overall, The Death of Michael Russo was wonderful Hollywood noir tale which we don’t get much of these days and for the author, Merenda, so radically different from Civil Wrath in a good way. The book is now available to buy for online reading, Kindle, Epub, and other ebook reading formats at Smashwords.com. Civil Wrath and its 2 sequels can be bought there as well.