I was so interested recently to see that Barbara Hambly had written a historical murder mystery, Scandal in Babylon, that appeared to draw very heavily on characters and setting from her much earlier fantasy novel Bride of the Rat God
In fact, I was curious enough that I read the mystery, then went back to re-read the fantasy.
Now, I should say, I like this fantasy novel a lot. I liked it a lot the first time I read it and I still like it. The silly title is a deliberate riff on early silent films, particularly films that aren’t very good, so don’t let yourself be put off because of the title. The setting of both books is identical: Hollywood in the 1930s during the making of a not-very-good silent film and almost all the characters are involved somehow with the film industry.
So, now, once you get beyond the setting, how similar are these two books? In some ways, they are very similar!
The characters are as follows:
Emma/Norah – a British woman of good family, Emma/Norah married a Jewish man, Jim, who very soon thereafter died in the war. Her brother, Miles, also fought in the war and returned very badly hurt. Her immediate family then died in an influenza epidemic, more distant relatives cut her off because she married a Jew, and Emma/Norah lost everything. She too was very sick, and when she recovered, she had no choice but to seek employment. She was employed as a companion by a demanding, hypercritical, unpleasant woman named Mrs Pendergast. That’s backstory. Emma/Norah, deeply lost in grief and without support, was on the verge of suicide when –
Kitty/Christine – Jim’s sister, an exceedingly beautiful young woman, sweeps in and rescues Emma/Norah. Kitty/Christine, despite her total lack of acting ability, has parleyed her looks plus her cheerful willingness to sleep with Hollywood producers (as well as any handsome young man who catches her eye) into a major film career. She is a featherbrain, but not without a certain native cunning. And she is genuinely kind. She also owns three Pekinese: Chiang Ming, Black Jasmine, and Buttercreme.
The dogs, while well drawn in both books, play a very minor role in the murder mystery, but an absolutely crucial role in the fantasy novel. It turns out that little lion dogs like these were in fact bred to hunt and kill demons. When a demon turns up, they first alert and protect, but if the danger becomes greater, they turn into lion-sized demon-hunting Fu-Dogs. You absolutely want these little dogs around if you are threatened by, for example, a demon known as the Rat God. Naturally I was delighted by the role of the dogs in the fantasy novel and therefore not keen on their necessarily much reduced role in the murder mystery. In the mystery, they’re just little dogs who happen to be around in some scenes. They bark now and then. That’s it.
In addition to the above, we have
Zal/Alec, a cameraman, Jewish, with a steady temperament, fast reflexes in a crisis, and an inclination to make modest, kind advances toward Emma/Norah. I think Zal comes off a bit better than Alec, but both are perfectly decent male leads for the romance subplot. That subplot is both simpler and stronger in the mystery, as Hambly hands Emma, but not Norah, an invitation to go back to Oxford and settle into a quieter, calmer, much more respectable life. Emma’s character arc therefore involves an important choice about her future in a way that Norah’s just doesn’t.
Another secondary character, the producer of the film, is largely unimportant in the fantasy novel, but a major red herring in the murder mystery. We also have an elderly admirer of Kitty/Christine, who is entirely unimportant in the fantasy novel, but a crucial secondary character in the murder mystery. Shifting importance in the other direction, an elderly Chinese man is barely present in the murder mystery but plays the role of the Sage Who Understands Demons in the fantasy novel. The cursed necklace that marks you as the rightful prey of the Rat God is just a necklace in the mystery.
Both books begin with a scene from the movie in progress. In the murder mystery He swept her into powerful arms and pressed his lips to hers as she gasped and struggled to turn her face aside. The necklace, though totally unimportant, does gleam around Kitty’s throat in that scene. In the fantasy novel, Christine stumbles to an exhausted halt at the top of a cliff, raises a hand to the necklace she wears, and shortly thereafter topples to her doom. Both stories bring you into the world of 1930s Hollywood, the frenetic pace of filming, the crazy mishmash of colliding fictional and real worlds. Of course, the fantasy novel hands you a fantasy plot with Fu-Dogs and Rat Gods and all the trimmings. The mystery is just a mystery.
Barbara Hambly has written a good many mysteries at this point, since the Benjamin January novels are mysteries as well as amazing historicals. Under the name Barbara Hamilton, Hambly also wrote three historical mysteries where Abigail Adams is the protagonist. Plus the vampire novels have a mystery component – all of them, I think, but certainly most of them. (Simon Ysidro is, by the way, my very favorite vampire in all of fiction.)
As a rule, the mystery itself is not as important to me – and I think not as important to Hambly – as the setting and the characters. In the “Barbara Hamilton” mysteries, the mystery itself was never that mysterious. That was much less true here, as I didn’t have a clue who had framed Kitty for murdering her ex-husband until the end. I think the clues were there, but thoroughly hidden behind the red herring and even though I didn’t buy the herring, I couldn’t see what was really going on. So, a pretty good mystery in that respect. In contrast, the reader would have to be EXTREMELY DIM not to catch on to the basic outline of cursed necklace / demon / demon-hunting dogs / Chinese sage. Not a subtle story at all in that regard, but certainly fun and well-written, and the B-movie plot fits the setting perfectly.
So … I guess I’m giving both stories a thumbs up, and while I’m not sure why Hamby decided to pick up practically identical characters and setting and re-cast the story as a mystery instead of a fantasy, she did a good job with it. If you read Bride of the Rat God – wow, first published almost thirty years ago! – then I think there’s a good chance you’d get a kick out of Scandal in Babylon. And if you never read the earlier work, it really is interesting to read these two books back to back and see how Hambly handled the shift in genre.