“The Last Great Crime Novel of 1975?: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino” (by Kevin Mims)

In a follow-on to his March 10 post for this site entitled “The Greatest Year in the History of Crime Fiction” (1975),  essayist and short story writer Kevin Mims reviews one of 2021’s new books as if it were a release from that earlier era. . . .—Janet Hutchings

I recently read Quentin Tarantino’s book Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a novelization of his 2019 film Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. I can’t tell you how it ranks against other crime novels of 2021 because I haven’t read enough yet. But on March 10 of this year, I contributed a post to this blog arguing that 1975 was the greatest year ever for crime fiction. And I believe that Tarantino intends for us to treat his novel as though it were an artifact from the 1970s. Why? Let’s look at the clues.

The book, like the film, concerns itself, in part, with the murderous “family” of Charles Manson. Since the book provides us with an alternate history of Manson’s clan and their killing spree, it naturally had to be written sometime after 1969, when the murders occurred. But Tarantino’s book, which was released as a paperback original, doesn’t present itself as a contemporary paperback. In the back pages of the book, we find full-page advertisements for a variety of popular 1970s books: Erich Segal’s Oliver’s Story (published in 1977), Elmore Leonard’s The Switch (1978), and Peter Maas’s Serpico (1973). Anyone familiar with mass-market paperbacks of the era knows that those books usually carried advertisements in their back pages for other recent titles from the same publisher. Usually they were for books of the same vintage and in the same genre. Which makes the back-page material in Tarantino’s novel seem inauthentic. Tarantino and his publisher (Harper Perennial Paperbacks) seem to be trying to make this novelization look like a relic from an earlier age. Because it carries an ad for a novel (The Switch) published in 1978, we have to assume the illusion they want to create is that this paperback was published no earlier than that. 

The Manson Family story gained new cultural currency in 1974 with the publication of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter, a nonfiction account of the murders. The book was a bestseller and won the 1975 Edgar Award for Best True Crime Book. If Tarantino’s novel had in fact been published in the 1970s, 1975 would have been the ideal year for the hardcover to appear. The book is perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of that year. As noted in my earlier essay, many of the most successful crime novels of 1975 were, like Tarantino’s, inspired by real-life crime stories. These include E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (the year’s best-selling novel), Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (the year’s fourth best-selling novel), and Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (the eighth best-selling novel of the year). 

Following the illusion, the publisher seems to be trying to create of 1970s publication for Tarantino’s book, let’s suppose that there had also been a hardback and that it had appeared in 1975.  Viewed as a 1975 crime novel, how well does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stack up against the rest of the Class of ’75? Could it have stood out in a year so rich in masterpieces? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes.

Though literary purists might object, I believe Tarantino’s novel compares favorably with Doctorow’s masterpiece Ragtime. Doctorow’s novel is loosely tied to the real-life murder of famed architect Stanford White, who was killed in 1906 by Harry Thaw, the deranged husband of legendary beauty Evelyn Nesbit, whom White had allegedly sexually assaulted when she was still a teenager. Though Thaw and his crimes are mentioned in Ragtime, Doctorow seems much more interested in exploring a particular time (the turn of the twentieth century) and place (New York City and its environs). And he seems most interested in interweaving the real-life stories of various celebrities of the era with the fictional stories of his own invented characters. This is pretty much what Tarantino does in his book. He explores a particular time (late 1960s) and place (Hollywood and environs) and weaves together the real-life stories of various celebrities (Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Bruce Lee, James Stacey, and others) and the stories of his own invented characters. Doctorow is the more careful prose stylist, but there’s something endearing and addictive in Tarantino’s more conversational, expletive-laden, narrative style. It’s like he’s sitting in the room with you, telling a compelling story but interrupting it often to interject equally compelling commentary on movies, music, pop fiction, etc. 

Younger readers may look at an old hardback copy of Doctorow’s Ragtime—with its ornate lettering and unillustrated cover; the flap copy describing a book set in a long-gone era—and come away with the notion that this was a fairly sedate historical novel. But they’d be wrong. Ragtime is filled with horrific violence, most of it race-related, and it is probably just as relevant to our present-day predicament in America as it was in 1975. The well-mannered prose belies an angry, incendiary story about a Black man who retaliates against a racist society by trying to violently overthrow its government. The prose works in counterpoint to the ill-mannered behavior of many of Doctorow’s characters.

Tarantino, on the other hand, doesn’t try to keep any kind of distance between the narrator and his characters. Tarantino is, for all intents and purposes, a character in his own book, perhaps the main character. His expositional asides about such things as the films of Akira Kurosawa are as full of foul language as the rants of the characters are. But Tarantino’s prose is appropriate to the historical setting of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What’s more, Tarantino’s prose isn’t at all bad. 

The book is full of gripping scenes. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which Hollywood stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) picks a fight with legendary martial artist Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of the TV series The Green Hornet. The same scene appears in the book, but here Tarantino slows it down and gives us the thoughts of both Booth and Lee. The men have decided to have a contest. The first one to knock the other on his ass twice wins. In the book we hear Cliff’s strategy running through his head. He decides to let Lee knock him down easily in their first clash. If it happens easily, Cliff figures Lee will get lazy and try the exact same assault tactic the second time around. But once Cliff knows the tactic, he’ll be able to anticipate it and knock Lee on his ass. In the book (unlike the film) we learn that Cliff is a World War II vet who killed more Japanese soldiers in up-close combat (with his hands and a knife, usually) than any other American. He isn’t even slightly fearful of Lee. But Lee doesn’t know this at first. He attacks and easily knocks Cliff on his ass. And, as expected, he comes back with an identical second assault, but this time Cliff easily defends himself, throwing Lee up against a car and causing injury to the martial artist. Suddenly Bruce understands exactly what has happened. 

Bruce also quickly recognizes that, while Cliff wasn’t anywhere near as skilled as the opponents he fought in any of his martial-arts tournaments, he was something they weren’t. In the film it is strongly suggested that Cliff might have murdered his wife. The book leaves no doubt about it. Cliff cut his wife in half with a spear gun meant to kill sharks. And she’s not the only person Cliff has killed since the end of the war. 

The book also abounds with gripping scenes that aren’t in the movie at all. One such scene takes place between two and three in the morning at an upscale home in Pasadena. Manson has brought some of his acolytes with him to watch as they put the youngest member of the family, a teenager named Debra Jo “Pussycat” Hillhouse (a fictional character probably based on Leslie Van Houten, played by Margaret Qualley in the film) through an initiation ritual they call “the kreepy krawl.” This involves breaking into a home at night and wandering through it, possibly even interacting with the occupants if they are awake. As the rest of the family stand outside, Pussycat goes around back, jimmies open the sliding door, and enters the dark and silent residence. The next several pages are very tense. Tarantino does a fine job of demonstrating how thoroughly Manson is able to colonize the minds of his followers. Though “Charlie” remains outside, Tarantino writes, ominously, “She [Pussycat] can hear Charlie’s grin in her brain.”

Just as there are scenes in the book that aren’t in the movie, there are scenes in the movie that aren’t really in the book, including perhaps the biggest scene of the film. In fact, this is Tarantino’s gutsiest move. The film’s climax is a scene in which fictional TV star Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, and Booth’s dog Brandy violently dispatch with several Manson Family members who have broken into Rick’s home. We get a brief mention of that episode early in the book but it isn’t dramatized and never comes up again. The book arrives at an ending that employs something rarely seen in a Tarantino film: subtlety. The book’s ending is soft, moving, and sweet.

Although I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, much of my enjoyment derived from the many cameos involving celebrities from my youth, people such as Robert Conrad (star of The Wild Wild West), Otto Preminger (first known to me as Mr. Freeze on Batman), Dennis Wilson (drummer for The Beach Boys), and many others. The book is also filled with references to Elmore Leonard, T.V. Olson, Marvin H. Albert, and other pop-fiction writers whose works I devoured back in the day. As a teenager I felt guilty about enjoying the music of The Monkees more than the music of The Beatles, but Tarantino convinced me (through his loving portrait of Sharon Tate) that this wasn’t uncommon. Will a twenty-five-year-old reader who has never heard of the pop group Paul Revere and the Raiders enjoy Tarantino’s book as much as I did? Hard to say. I read Ragtime back in 1976. I found it a chore to get through. I re-read it last year, while researching my essay about the crime fiction of 1975, and found it brilliant. In 1976, I’d never heard of the Stanford White murder or most of the other people and events referenced in the book. Over the subsequent forty-five years I’ve learned much about American history that I was never taught in school. And so, naturally, I derived much more enjoyment from Doctorow’s novel. When Ragtime was published, the events it depicted were sixty-nine years in the past. The events depicted in Tarantino’s book are now fifty-two years in the past—pretty much ancient history from the perspective of a millennial. But because much of the cultural material described in Tarantino’s book is preserved on film or audiotape and is easy to access, it might not seem quite as remote to today’s twenty-somethings as the trial of Harry Thaw seemed to me in 1976.

But how might Tarantino’s novel have fared had it been published in 1975, crime- fiction’s annus mirabilus? Well, a lot would have depended on how it was presented to the public. If it had been given plenty of promotion—just as Ragtime, Mr. Goodbar, and The Choirboys were—I’m convinced it would have been a sensation. Readers whose minds had been blown in 1974 by the incredible forensic detail of Helter Skelter might have been in need of a good alternative history, a book that posits what might have happened if an alcoholic, has-been TV star and his stunt double had somehow managed to kill off a few of the Manson family before the group could wreak the havoc for which they became notorious. 

I can’t say that Tarantino is as good a novelist as he is a filmmaker, but that’s only because he is an excellent filmmaker. But as a writer of film novelizations? Well, with his very first effort he may have just established himself as the greatest of all time.

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1 Response to “The Last Great Crime Novel of 1975?: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. jeffbaker307 says:

    The cool thing is that we’ve been watching “Lancer,” which plays a part in the book and movie.

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