“Murder at the Academy Awards” by Joan Rivers

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
February 22, 2009

Can we talk? Joan Rivers’ latest book — a murder mystery set in hedonistic Hollywood — is a fun mystery where the reader can’t help but hear Rivers’ raspy voice narrating the drama. That’s not a bad thing in this over-the-top whodunit.

In Murder at the Academy Awards (Pocket, 320 pages, $24), Maxine Taylor is a thin, husky-voiced comedian who has no qualms about getting a nip here or a tuck there. Along with her pretty daughter, Drew, Max interviews celebrities on the red carpet at events like movie premieres and award shows. Some are friends and some just pretend to be. Regardless, Max isn’t afraid of skewering anyone if she deems their outfit to be a crime of fashion. But when 19-year-old It Girl and Oscar nominee Halsey Hamilton literally drops dead at her feet, Max makes it her mission to find out who killed the girl, even though public sentiment points to a drug or alcohol overdose.

Much of the book is written in an over-the-top manner, but it works here. Rivers ably captures both the glamor and the seediness of Hollywood with her vivid vignettes. When she describes the swag room at the Oscars, the excess is almost pornographic. Max is awed by the splendor she’s allowed to take home, but she’s also a little disgusted. (Just a little.) Max may be famous now, but she is constantly fearful that she is just one bad telecast away from being fired. The reader has to go with the flow and suspend their belief in reality to get through some of the plot devices, such as when Max is admitted to Halsey’s rehab clinic to try to find clues.

Written with mystery writer Jerrilyn Farmer, Murder at the Academy Awards has a biting, breezy style that isn’t unlike Rivers herself. Clearly, Max and Drew are the fictional versions of Rivers and her real-life daughter, Melissa. It’s difficult to read the book without visualizing the Rivers women, not just because of their physical likeness on the book jacket, but because of the descriptions of the characters in the book.

Though there are plenty of cliched bits in the book, the writers have to be given credit for how the mystery plays out. Is the murderer Halsey’s ex-boyfriend, who also was romantically involved with Drew? Could she have been poisoned by someone at her rehab clinic? Or is it possible that she was offed by someone to whom she owed money? The reveal of the killer turns out to be rather juicy and worth the wait.

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