Renting Silence

Written by Mary Miley
Review by Sarah Johnson

Miley’s third Roaring ´20s mystery delivers more zippy entertainment that taps into the spirit of the time when Hollywood’s silent film stars had audiences swooning and vaudeville acts traversed the country via rail. Fresh from her previous investigation, Jessie Beckett, assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, gets asked to solve another Hollywood murder. It seems an open-and-shut case: in her dying moments, Lila Walker had pointed twice to her friend, actress Ruby Glynn, who was found clutching a bloody knife.

However, Ruby insists on her innocence. A studio cameraman who sat on the jury that condemned her to death regrets his vote. Observing his tormented conscience, Mary Pickford asks Jessie to look further into Ruby’s situation, because the police won’t. Jessie can’t refuse her longtime idol, so she gathers her street-smarts and ingenuity and delves into Lila’s background. What she uncovers sends her back to her old haunts, on the vaudeville circuit across the Midwest, where she meets a variety of talented performers, shadows from her own family’s past, and hateful prejudice in the form of the KKK. Jessie also worries that her lover, David Carr, has returned to his old bootlegging habits.

Renting Silence makes good use of historical characters, from Miss Pickford and her debonair husband to the young Leslie Hope, a former amateur boxer turned song-and-dance man who debates changing his name to something more American-sounding, like Bill or Bob. Jessie’s travels bring to life the fascinating, vanished world of vaudeville, and it’s a lot of fun, but the investigation driving Jessie is quite serious and dangerous. The title refers to blackmail; as one person tells Jessie, “But you don’t buy silence. You only rent it. And the rent kept going up.” The novel makes plain how much people stand to lose if they don’t fit society’s norms.