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The Ticket Out by Helen Knode – Review

May 23, 2020

Ann Whitehead is a film critic for a counter-culture rag in LA. What started as a dream job has become an unfulfilling nightmare. She has seen so many movies that the magic has gone. She has seen lives destroyed in pursuit of the Hollywood dream. Ann wants out, but the murder of a young film student, Greta Stenholm, will plunge her into the dark heart of the movie biz. Greta had been working on a script, now missing, about the real-life unsolved murder of the socialite Georgette Bauerdorf : ‘A Black Dahlia with class,’ quips one detective. Is this a case of murder imitating art?

Helen Knode is the ex-wife of crime novelist James Ellroy. Like Whitehead, Knode was a film critic for many years, writing reviews for the LA Weekly. She puts her inside knowledge of the film industry to good use. Greta Stenholm is loosely based on Kathryn Bigelow. Knode met Bigelow in 1989, when her directorial career was just taking off. Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow won her Oscar for directing a film in the traditionally male-dominated war genre. As Knode puts it, ‘I think that what Bigelow wants, which is to be a female director of action, is strictly speaking impossible, given Hollywood’s gender categories.’

Whitehead has a similar drive to succeed in a man’s world. But to do it, and to solve Greta’s murder, she will have to work closely with LAPD detective Doug Lockwood. Lockwood has a bad rep for his role in the Burger King siege, a scandal which did about as much good for the LAPD’s image as the Rodney King or Rampart affairs. Whitehead is apprehensive around Lockwood at first. She’s the bohemian liberal and he’s a cop in the authoritarian LAPD, but it’s not long before an attraction develops. This might seem like a cliche, but Knode makes it believable and, more importantly, likeable. Knode’s ‘feminist noire’ has a healthy dose of hardboiled romance: ‘I am obsessed with romance and men and women and the female principle and the male principle and how in this day and age, romance seems to have turned into something like pathology. Nobody believes in it, and yet people are falling in love all the time.’

The thin line between love and hate in Ann and Doug’s relationship is mirrored by the film critic’s soured view of the movies. This is brought home beautifully when Whitehead reminisces about a trip to the Viennale film festival in 1993. She has a potential dream-come-true moment when she meets the renowned cinematographer John Alton. Alton’s unconventional style, such as ominous low camera shots, made him a legend to film noir buffs. By the time Whitehead meets Alton though he is a jaded nonagenarian completely bored with cinema:

Here was a guy, I thought, who’d worked for MGM in the 1920s; he’d grown up with the movies, he was as old as the movies almost. But he couldn’t have cared less about them. I pointed this out, and he agreed. He’d left Hollywood in the early ’60s because he was finished with pictures. I asked why. He said it was because pictures were bad. Why bad, I’d asked – in what way, bad?

We were sitting together at a small table. Alton had put both his hands on my forearm and he’d said, “There was no longer any Art.”

I first read The Ticket Out a few years ago. I reread it again recently as I felt drawn back to it with the rise of the MeToo movement. The novel is not about sexual abuse, but it brilliantly dissects show-business hypocrisy. Knode’s style is less outrageous than Ellroy’s, but it is just as gutsy, maybe even more so. After all, Ellroy is fond of portraying long-dead Hollywood figures from the 1940s and 50s who can’t call their lawyers and sue him from the afterlife. Knode has some thinly-veiled portrayals of Tinseltown’s living legends which are so scabrous that it will leave you shaking your head and asking – could she really mean that guy? I mentioned this to Knode once and her response was tantalising: ‘Sacred cows make for the tastiest hamburgers, Steve.’

The Ticket Out is a gripping noir thriller that will leave you wanting to read more about Hollyweird culture and the indomitable Ann Whitehead (fortunately for us, there is a sequel). By the time you get to the last page Knode will have you thinking that, in noir terms at least, John Alton may have been wrong – there still is Art.

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