Should a writer's personal life be fair comment in a review?
My first instinct is to go all Nancy Reagan and just say "No.".
But how about if that said writer has used his or her personal life to sell or promote a book?
That's the connundrum that faces me here. And I'd have to say, upon further consideration, "Sometimes."
Not that screenwriter and first time P.I. writer Daniel Depp has gone overboard with the personal stuff, but it's virtually impossible to read his new novel, Loser's Town without becoming painfully aware of who his famous half-brother is. But it's also glaringly obvious that's the way the author and his publishers and publicists want it.
Aging former stuntman turned Los Angeles private eye and weekend rodeo cowboy David Spandau knows more than he ever wanted to know about the movie biz, which may not make him the happiest camper around Tinsel Town, but sure adds an edge and a delightfully skewered "insider's" view to this 2009 debut.
Spandau works for Coren Investigations on Sunset, a swanky "boutique" detective agency that caters to the rich and powerful. Despite his misgivings, Spandau agrees to go to work for heart-throb actor Bobby Dye (a party-loving, good-looking man-child, with a skinny model girlfriend overly fond of recreational drugs in tow -- remind you of anyone?) who's caught up in a nasty Hollywood blackmail scheme. The preliminary buzz on this one made it feel like the start of a beautiful friendship... but actually reading the book harshes that buzz pretty quick.
Not that there isn't some really really good stuff here. Spandau himself is a carefully crafted and intriguing character, with some decidedly Macdonaldesque overtones (the detective, for example, still yearns for his ex-wife), and some of the quirky lowlifes (agents, publicists, gangsters, etc.) who flesh out the story are surprising vivid, suggesting Depp hasn't been neglecting his Elmore.
But all this great characterization (Spandau's sometime assistant is a real piece of work, for example, and the lovesick thug Potts is alternately disturbing and heart-warming) goes for naught because Depp isn't sure where he's going. Sub-plots burst into narrative flames, only to puff out like a wet birthday candle a few chapters later, and Spandau, the alleged hero of the story, is curiously absent -- and not even involved -- in much of what takes place. Not that all major sub-plots simply fade away, though -- some suddenly reappear, long after we've almost forgotten about them. And certainly after we've ceased to care about them.
Which is a real shame. There's plenty of good writing here, and some delightfully wicked takes on the industry (although, honestly, nothing particularly new). But the Johnny Depp-like Dye is curiously flat, as though the author wasn't quite sure how to handle him; worried on the one hand he'd offend and on the other that he'd be accused of sucking up. As it is, whatever resentment and jealousy and contempt might be brewing right under the surface is held in check. After all, everybody loves Johnny, right? It wouldn't do to piss off all those fans. And just to be on the safe side, Depp dedicates the book to "John."
Too bad he hadn't paid as much dedication to his story.
My guess? The Depp name got Daniel's manuscript in the door, even though it was probably good enough to be accepted anyway, but as a result the book got vetted more thoroughly by publicists than actual editors. Because a sharper editor would have insisted on the story being tightened up and would probably have suggested that the author remove some of the more glaring repetitions of descriptions and phrases (sometimes only a few pages apart). And maybe, just maybe, urged the author to drop the kid gloves and just go for it.
As it is, this books reads like a disjointed and failed opportunity. now that the roman à clef trick has been played, Depp is going to find it difficult to build a series around a character who ends up being an extra in his own debut.
The author was born in Kentucky, read Classics at university, and has worked as a journalist, a bookseller and a teacher, and now divides his time between California and Europe, writing and producing screenplays. Maybe he and Johnny have matching villas in France.