A Murder Mystery From the Early Days of Cinema

Emily Weiss has a problem. Her husband is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit; her life’s savings are tied up in a fledgling movie company; Thomas Edison’s goons are stalking her; the actors she works with are alcoholics or reprobates or, at the very least, they don’t understand English. Come to think of it, Emily Weiss has more than just one problem.

The Edge of Ruin is enormously fun: lively and fast-paced, with an engaging heroine who manages to be spunky but never cloying. The story begins with a strong premise, throws in a series of complications (a dead body among them), and takes the reader on a roller coaster to see where it all end up. Oh, and it’s also a cliffhanger, in every sense of the word.

Emily’s troubles start when her new husband Adam decides to sell the family jewels, literally, in order to finance his new start-up movie company. The year is 1909, so such an endeavor is both more reckless and more plausible than it might seem today. Alas, independent film companies such as Adam’s Melpomene Motion Pictures Company have multiple obstacles to overcome. Besides the obvious — the pressure to find reasonable actors, or the need to meet their investor’s stringent demand of four one-reel movies in three weeks — there is the little matter of Thomas Edison.

The Wizard of Menlo Park patented the movie camera and understood this to mean that he was the only person who should make films with it — rather like Gutenberg deciding he should be the only fellow allowed to write books. Edison was quick to sue anyone accused of transgressing against his patents, guilty or not, and he was even quicker to send his “detectives” — often little more than hired thugs — to rough up rival film companies, smash equipment, ruin their films and, sometimes, torch whole studios.

Emily knows nothing of this going in, but she learns fast. Commuting daily from New York to Fort Lee, New Jersey, Melpomene scores some useful actors, among them sultry Russian Vera Zinovia, aging but hard-living Robert Chalmers, and airhead Fay Winningly. Things appear hopeful, but when a dead body turns up after filming a particularly crowded and dusty mob scene, the problems ratchet upward. Adam is hauled away by the unsympathetic sheriff and Emily is left to prove her husband’s innocence (erm, assuming of course he is innocent) while keeping the company safe and completing the pictures in time.

It doesn’t help matters any that Fort Lee is home to the New Jesey Palisades, a series of steep cliffs overlooking the Hudson River, and Emily is paralytically afraid of heights.

The plot hurtles along, with chapters tending toward brevity, plenty of incident, and a final note of drama (or at least tension) that keeps the reader hurrying to the next pages. This is a classic “just one more chapter and then I’ll stop” book. Ms Fleming, author of eight previous novels, keeps her narration succinct and to the point, with few stylistic flourishes or attention-grabbing turns of phrase. “In the morning the sky over Manhattan was black with rain clouds,” is one typically direct bit of description. Elsewhere, we learn that “Duffy’s address proved to be that of a boardinghouse whose door was answered by a formidable Irishwoman in a house dress”. Descriptions are generally limited to one or two adjectives, maintaining the story’s quick pace.

There is room, however, for an underlying strain of irony:

The scenario called for Erno, on horseback, to hoist little Fay onto the saddle in front of him and ride the elderly gelding they had rented from Potts’s livery stable into the setting sun, which would have been in the west, beyond the woods, if the sun had actually been setting. Erno reached for Fay’s waist, but, alas, he knew so little about riding that even that ancient and dispirited horse shied and tried to bite him.

The author is careful not to overdo this tone, which could have quickly gotten tiresome, but the sense of a fish out of water, or maybe a whole school of fish, shines through.

Emily soon discovers that just about every character in the book has a motive for the murder. This makes her situation no less complicated, but all the more enjoyable for the reader. Moreover, the novel’s social milieu is fascinating. The film industry in the early 1900s was a cutthroat business, and with Edison in league with George Eastman’s Kodak company, film stocks were as tightly controlled as camera patents. The situation could not be tolerated for long, and it wasn’t; a group of independent filmmakers soon moved to the west coast, far from Edison’s reach, and settled their businesses in an obscure southern California town called Hollywood.

The Edge of Ruin doesn’t concern itself with these developments, although with a sequel promised, who knows what might happen? This book well deserves a follow-up. With Emily Weiss coming into her own as a strong, sensible heroine, it would be a shame if her story were allowed to end after just one reel.

RATING 7 / 10