‘Night Night, Sleep Tight’: murder in Old Hollywood

nightnightHallie Ephron grew up in Hollywood, but she put that life behind her to establish deep roots in New England, where she has become one of our top suspense novelists.

“Never Tell a Lie,” “Come and Find Me” and “There Was an Old Woman” have carved out Ephron’s own territory as a specialist in down-to-earth Hitchcockian suspense involving ordinary people any of us might know — that’s what makes the stories so gripping and so scary.

Now, for the first time, Ephron has used her background as the daughter of the movie screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron and the sister of writers Nora, Delia and Amy Ephron for a novel that shows the dark side of Old Hollywood.

“Night Night, Sleep Tight” (William Morrow, $26.99) is set primarily in the 1980s when the mysterious drowning death of a veteran screenwriter seems to be linked to a legendary Hollywood murder case 20 years earlier in which the brutal boyfriend of a superstar actress was killed by the star’s daughter.

Those who know Ephron from her very active involvement in the mystery community can easily forget her connections to Tinsel Town because she has lived on the other side of country for so many years.

“Yes, I worked at that,” Ephron said of establishing a life and career away from her Los Angeles roots. “It helps to live outside of Boston. I married someone who was not a writer…because I didn’t want that life.”

The writer now feels like a complete outsider when she visits her hometown.

“I feel sad and poor and old simultaneously,” she said, laughing. “What good is that?”

Up until she got the idea for “Night Night, Sleep Tight” Ephron didn’t write anything set in Hollywood “because it didn’t fit into what I wanted to write about.”

The protagonist in the new novel, Deirdre Unger, drives up from her home in San Diego to Beverly Hills to help her divorced dad get his house ready to be sold, only to be horrified to find his body in the backyard pool. When Deirdre’s childhood pal, Joelen Nichol, shows up out of the blue, she begins to wonder what possible connection her father’s death could have to the old scandal surrounding the murder of the lover of Joelen’s movie star mother.

Ephron found the seed of her novel’s plot in the murder of gangster Johnny Stompanato at Lana Turner’s Beverly Hills home in 1958. Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, was acquitted in a trial after claiming she was nightnight2defending her mother from Stompanato.

“Like any young girl growing up in Beverly Hills, I was fascinated by (the case),” Ephron writes in an author’s note. “I was ten years old, and I can remember poring over the pictures and articles that ran in the newspapers. The house where it happened was just a few blocks away from where we lived…”

The novelist makes it clear that she used the case and “my own visceral response to it years ago, as a jumping-off point for an entirely fictional story with fictional characters I could build from the ground up.”

In our chat, Ephron said she is amazed that so many people remember a murder trial from almost 60 years ago.

A case that did not have the benefit of the blanket network and cable TV coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial four decades later.

“I don’t really understand it. I will go to book groups and talk about what inspired (the novel) and everyone in the room knows about the case. Cheryl Crane was like the O.J. (of that era),” she said.

The celebrity murder trial inspired the Harold Robbins novel “Where Love Has Gone” and was re-worked by Woody Allen for his film “September,” both of which implied that Cheryl might have taken the fall for her movie star mother.

“I don’t see it that way. I don’t know what happened and I don’t really care. I stepped away from it when I wrote this book,” she said of a suspense story that only shares the rough outline of the Stompanato case. “The book is a hybrid. I started working on it to write about growing up in Beverly Hills. A lot of the stuff in it is personal. That made it harder to do than my other books. But I needed a murder because that’s what I do.”

(Hallie Ephron will be talking about “Night Night, Sleep Tight” at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison on April 9 at 7 p.m. and Bank Square Books in Mystic on April 10 at noon.)