Joseph Kanon has made his mark in the literary thriller genre, starting with 1997’s Edgar-winning Los Alamos. His fascination with the post-WWII era continues in Stardust, which blends one man’s search for the reasons for his brother’s death with an eye-opening look at the machinations of the Hollywood studios during the Communist witch hunts.

Ben Collier (formerly Kohler) returns to the U.S. at the end of the war, taking the train from New York to California, where his brother Danny, a movie director, is hospitalized—supposedly after jumping from his fifth floor apartment. On the train Ben meets a producer who knows Danny and promises Ben he will help him with a movie he has been assigned to make for the Army—a short film dramatizing the horrors of the concentration camps.

Ben reaches the hospital in time to see Danny briefly come out of his coma, then die. Their father died in the Holocaust, and Danny later helped many Jewish Germans, including his own wife, Liesl, escape. At his funeral, Ben meets some of these emigrants who owed Danny their lives; Ben senses they are demanding some kind of justice.

Kanon thus sets the stage for the melding of these two plots: Ben’s search for his brother’s killer set against the backdrop of the politics and paybacks of the competing studios in Hollywood’s early years.

At the same time, the war’s aftermath is leading to the hunt for Communists all over the country—but nowhere is the hunt fueled by such fervor as in Hollywood. As Ben gradually unravels the intricate ties between Congress, the FBI and its informants, he simultaneously garners information about who might have wished Danny dead—information that puts him in danger, as well.

Once again Kanon has woven real-life figures—from Paulette Goddard and Jack Warner to Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann—into a taut thriller, all set against the background of one of the least laudable moments in our country’s history.

Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.

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