by Sheridan Morley
(Simon and Schuster, 528 pages, $30)
When Sir John Gielgud died in 2000 at the age of 96, a substantial lot of theater lore and history was buried with him--for Gielgud was the one surviving bridge between the last embers of the Romantic theater (personified by Sir Henry Irving and Gielgud's great-aunt Ellen Terry) and late Modernism. Rounding the great career of "the voice" (Gielgud was once damningly praised as the greatest living actor from the neck up) was silence, from a walk-on as a sailor in a 1915 production of HMS Pinafore to a non-speaking role in David Mamet's filmed version of Beckett's Catastrophe, performed a few months before his death.
Sheridan Morley's authorized biography of Gielgud is by turns marvelous and frustrating. Having unlimited access to the knighted actor, Morley wisely gives over great chunks of his narrative to lengthy quotes from Gielgud, which have the power to resurrect the very tone of his famously melodious voice. We learn of Laurence Olivier's hardly cloaked jealousy of and contempt for his great rival, along with other salient and sordid bits of backstage gossip beloved by the stagestruck.
However, Morley's text is sloppy with repetitions and factual errors (Sir Ralph Richardson didn't die within days of Dame Peggy Ashcroft; it was actually the director Tony Richardson who died near Ashcroft, Sir Ralph having expired some eight years before). Morley also consigns his own mistrust of avant-garde work to his subject, presenting Gielgud as someone who simply didn't understand it. It's true he didn't immediately appreciate Waiting for Godot, but Richard Eyre quotes Gielgud in his recent book Changing Stages as making very acute connections between Pinter's No Man's Land and Beckett's Endgame.
Still, the "voice" comes through, with all of its wit and wisdom (not to mention the famous Gielgud faux pas). It's a life worth living vicariously. Steffen Silvis
by Randall Sullivan
(Atlantic Monthly, 324 pages, $25)
When a highly respected LAPD detective investigates the murder of an African-American police officer by a white undercover narcotics officer, he stumbles upon a complex web of lies and conspiracies that includes police corruption and the murders of two rap superstars.
As detective Russell Poole digs deeper into the shooting death of officer Kevin Gaines, his trail leads him to a powerful record-industry executives employing corrupt members of the LAPD, whose crimes range from drug dealing to bank robbery to murder, a fact that has apparently been kept secret by the chief of police.
But here's the most incredible thing: It's all true. Elaborating on the incredible article he wrote for Rolling Stone last year, Randall Sullivan pulls together the facts in an intense, gripping tale of crime and deceit in the City of Angels. In the process, he exposes the LAPD as a corrupt, racially divided police force, and the Los Angeles media as a spineless mouthpiece with no concern for actual investigative reporting. But most chilling is the case Sullivan builds supporting the theory that Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight had rapper Notorious B.I.G. murdered, and may have also been behind the murder of Tupac Shakur.
What could come across as a paranoid conspiracy-theorist's fantasy is instead a compelling indictment of the circles of power that rule Los Angeles. Who needs fiction? David Walker
deep in the shade of paradise
by John Dufresne
(W.W. Norton, 416 pages, $25.95)
The Deep South is one of the last bastions of everything good, bad and colorful in American culture. Spanish moss hangs off the trees, folks sip lemonade with extended family on the veranda while voodoo priests and jazz musicians practice their arts off in secluded corners. And even though them nasty, inbred developers are wheelin' and dealin' the werewolf-infested swamp into suburban development, the crickets are still louder than the noise from the interstate. Yes, home cooking still means something here, by golly.
This picturesque Southern backdrop has redeemed many a lavish and tortured story, but for John Dufresne, it's simply icing on an already rich cake. In Deep in the Shade of Paradise, Dufresne revisits the Louisiana community that he'd made the subject of a previous novel, Louisiana Power & Light, this time to celebrate the marriage of Grisham Loudermilk and Ariane Thevenot at Paradise, the Fontana family's ancestral home.
With a sprawling cast of characters, Dufresne retells A Midsummer Night's Dream with more than a few
twists. Puck's love-skewing magic has been replaced by a powder made from crushed hummingbird heart, and the magic is reversed not with a counter-potion but with the disillusionment that comes when infatuation fades.
Possessing a lighthearted yet firm touch, Dufresne lets his characters fumble around in the grip of his fantasy, tripping over and into the solutions to their problems with tragicomic combinations of intelligence and cussedness, grace and dumb luck. Here's an author who never lets his readers forget that he's just as mystified and bewitched by the proceedings as we are. Scarth Locke