Sunday, April 10, 2005

Glimpses of Paradise: 1920s Los Angeles

Glimpses of Paradise, by James Scott Bell, is a stand-alone novel that brings more of Bell’s historical fiction: early 20th century Los Angeles and courtroom drama. (Click here for an interview with the author about this book) Starting in 1916 in rural Nebraska, the story follows the lives of two young people – Doyle Lawrence, son of a well-to-do lawyer; and Zee Miller, a wild preacher’s daughter. Through various circumstances during and after World War I, the two find themselves out in Los Angeles, where most of the story takes place. Zee pursues an acting career in the silent-film era of Hollywood, and Doyle bums his way to Los Angeles as a down-and-out doughboy.

“Kit Shannon” series fans will enjoy this book, which introduces the lawyer again: now in her early forties, widowed, and still practicing law. Yet she is clearly not the star of this book, but more in the background. The courtroom drama is also at a minimum in this book – a few scenes of a pre-trial hearing, but nothing more. As with the previous books, the author does a decent job of portraying the setting – in this case, early Hollywood, bootleggers and the general crime of the early 1920s, within the Los Angeles setting. Bell’s research in Christian Apologetics and history is well done, too, with some biographical information about evangelist R.A. Torrey. Torrey is the only historical character in this book (aside from brief references to well-known movie stars, never directly featured, such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford), yet Glimpses of Paradise brings forth interesting information about this man. The information on Torrey, though – including a brief biography at the end of the book – is generalized, without reference to his particular beliefs; no mention is made of his involvement with the Keswick movement (part of the Holiness movement, a precursor to modern-day Pentecostalism).

The main weakness in Glimpses of Paradise is perhaps that the main characters are not particularly likeable, especially at the beginning. We all know about the returning soldiers from war, including the ones that had trouble readjusting to society. Yet these typically included soldiers that came back without a leg (or other physical impairment) and/or those that lacked strong family support. Doyle returns physically unharmed, and has plenty of love and support from many family members. He isn’t exactly shell-shocked, but just seems to have an incredibly bad attitude (exhibited to some degree even before the war), as he callously rejects and runs away from his family. Zee Miller doesn’t seem any better – a selfish, self-centered brat who takes rebellion to a level not usually demonstrated by young women raised in small-town America before World War I.

For all these initial shortcomings, the story does improve later on. We soon forget the original setting and focus on the activities of both characters in Los Angeles. Some new, likeable characters, such as Molly, are introduced along the way. The author uses the characters Doyle and Zee to provide great contrast in character study, as we observe how they react to their circumstances. Indeed, both characters left to themselves are hopeless and sinful (as we all are), yet through the grace of God at least one character changes and grows. Still, both Doyle and Zee have to learn life the hard way.

Glimpses of Paradise is overall a nice addition to Christian historical fiction. It offers fans of Kit Shannon a follow-up, and for readers generally an interesting story about life in Los Angeles (and the depths of depravity) during the early 1920s.

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