Tabloid Tinseltown

The city of Los Angeles, the Mother Church of noir film and fiction, has rarely been more gloriously crummy than in Robert M. Eversz's Killing Paparazzi (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95). This sequel to Shooting Elvis (1996) is as scabrously funny as Eversz's first novel featuring Nina Zero, née Mary Alice Baker, a young woman whose impatience with moral corruption is only a little less powerful than her hapless attraction to its many L.A. practitioners. Zero's is a wonderful fictional voice -- supple-minded, sexy, by turns tender and vulnerable and, when necessary, adroit at using punk attitude as a shield or a club.

A onetime Angelino, Eversz has lived in Prague for most of the last nine years, but his feel for L.A.'s essential creepiness has never been more acute. During daylight hours, the city's sidewalks -- this is Zero's first-person narrative -- "look merely empty. At night, they look neutron bombed. Humanity diminishes to dash-lit faces framed by automobile glass, and the ragged figures of the homeless racking up shopping-cart miles... This was the city I liked best, an absence of cars, of brightly lit store interiors peopled by mannequins, a city where the few survivors gathered at gas stations like frightened animals to drink their fill and vanish back into the night."

No, most of the people who gas up at 3 a.m. in L.A. aren't really "frightened animals" -- they probably just work late or early -- but the noir style is, above all, about point of view, and Zero's is warped. She escaped an abusive poor family only to place her trust in the wrong men, including a boyfriend whose scams resulted in a five-year prison term for Zero after she shot several bad people and inadvertently blew up a section of LAX.

"I'd always been a good liar, even when I thought I was telling the truth," Zero says, so she should have been wary when Gabriel Burns described himself as "a complete rotter. Haven't told the straight truth about anything for twenty-two years and counting." On parole, Zero agrees to a green-card marriage to Burns, an English photographer with visa problems, in return for the $2,000 she hopes to use to launch her own career in photography. During their Las Vegas "honeymoon," Zero falls for Burns, in her own confused way, and then is devastated when he turns up beaten and stabbed to death.

The background to Burns's and other murders in Killing Paparazzi is "Chinatown"-style corrupt politics and real-estate maneuvering, but the foreground is nearly as blood-curdling: the supermarket-tabloid celebrity-photo business. Burns is one of its aces, and he brags that "most people just call me 'princess killer.' " Zero's pal and mentor, Frank Adams, has fled a left-wing weekly and moved to the tabs, "which he thought contained the most radical writing in America. The alternative newspapers had sold out to a radical chic consumerism as bourgeois as mainstream culture but the tabloid press he thought a great medium for ridiculing the American obsessions with wealth and fame".

These would-be Swifts and Menckens, if you buy that line, can land in hot water when, like Burns, they cultivate "a talent for the unflattering shot" -- or if a shot is worse than unflattering and could end the career of a star pulling down $20 million a picture, and extortion and blackmail enter into the mix. As Zero goes after Burns's killer -- naturally she's mistrusted and unloved by the L.A. cops -- she admits to herself that she isn't "a professional investigator or even a talented amateur. My greatest asset was desperation," she says. That desperation, along with Eversz's considerable talent, infuses this terrific thriller with tension and feeling, and will leave readers wanting more of Nina Zero.

Reviewed by Richard Lipez
Sunday, December 16, 2001; Page BW13