It’s 1943 and Private Investigator Toby Peters is contacted by Bette Davis’ test pilot husband who has been warned that his wife will be kidnapped and an embarrassing recording released that'll ruin his wife’s Hollywood career unless he hands over the secret plans of a new bombsight. Peters is named as the preferred go-between because the potential kidnappers know that he knows that such a recording exists as he was responsible for secretly capturing for posterity Davis’ affair with Howard Hughes. Not long after agreeing to take the case Peters is warned by a local seer that Davis will be kidnapped twice and himself three times before the case is resolved. And so it comes to pass as a tough, caustic, witty and cynical Davis and a Chandleresque Peters are pursued by a group of third-rate, wannabe actors who form a hapless Nazi spy ring, falling in and out of their grasp as they try to recover and destroy the offending record and foil the blackmailing plot.
Based on extensive research of Bette Davis’ career, The Devil Met a Lady blends facts concerning her life with the fictional world of Toby Peters to produce a screwball comedy that Davis’ would have excelled at playing. Kaminsky captures Davis’ character perfectly, Peters is an engaging, nourish PI who stumbles from one crisis to the next, and there are a host of assorted, odd but well drawn characters including a massive former wrestler, a dwarf, a cranky landlady, and host of failed, hammy actors. The dialogue is excellent and the story is engagingly written and zips along at a jaunty pace. The blending of historical fact with fiction is very well done (perhaps not unsurprisingly as Kaminsky was a Professor of Film History), and one feels dropped into 1940s war time Los Angeles. I though the first half was excellent and while the second half was compelling the screwball element slipped away a little and the ending didn’t quite rise to the crescendo I was expecting. All in all though a very enjoyable read and I’ll be keeping an eye out for other books by Kaminsky (who unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks ago after a highly productive writing career).