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Dying to be Famous: A Pop Culture Murder Mystery

“Dying to be Famous” is a murder mystery that musters all the tension of a Scooby-Doo caper.

Murder on the Dancefloor

Dying to be Famous

The plot is simple. During the early rounds of “Star Maker” (an obvious parody of “American Idol”) the most promising candidate is found dead in his room, drugged and asphyxiated. Was it the pizza delivery boy? Was it one of the other talentless hacks competing to become America’s next throwaway sensation? Was it that egotistical lead judge with a British accent? Or was it some random third party contrivance?

Well, Jim McNamara, gumshoe to the stars, reluctantly flies to Los Angeles all the way from the East Coast to crack the case.

McNamara’s a loaded deck of eccentricities and clichés. He’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he doesn’t own a cell phone and— gasp!—he hates “Star Maker.”

Author David Hiltbrand tells this wannabe sordid tale in first person and his lead character, McNamara, acknowledges he’s no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot; he’s a former music industry talent scout turned private eye.

At least he’s honest. Since Hiltbrand is fond of constantly throwing pop culture references to his readers, here’s one right back: Lacking the intrigue of an Agatha Christie mystery or the controversy of a Dan Brown conspiracy, Hiltbrand’s latest has all the urgency and the shelf life of a novelization of a made-for-the-USA Network movie.

Here’s another: Perhaps Hiltbrand was shooting for something along the lines of Gregory Mcdonald’s hip journalist-sleuth, Fletch. But he misses that target by several miles.

Who Did It? Who Cares?

“Dying to be Famous” is a mystery/parody that doesn’t strive to rise above its shallow source of inspiration in order to give itself some appearance of authority; instead, it’s content to wallow in the superficial muck.

Those who hate “American Idol” will quickly grow tired of the novel’s lightweight shenanigans and fans of “American Idol” will likely be turned off in the early going as they come to realize they’re the butt of many jokes.

What’s worse, though, is the utter lack of suspense. There’s no real sense that any other contestant might be in danger; indeed, not a single threat is made toward any other contestant following the murder of the top contender, Matt Hanes.

Up until the fairly ludicrous conclusion, it never feels like McNamara is in any particular danger. And the rather sloppy and rushed denouement makes one think even Hiltbrand was tired of the situation he created.

Blood on the Carpet

At best, “Dying to be Famous” is a way to kill a couple hours, pun intended; it’s most suitable for a coast-to-coast flight or an afternoon on the beach, or maybe even to bide time while stranded during a blizzard.

But consider all other options first.

Hiltbrand’s bio boasts that his “years as a journalist reporting on music pop culture have given him inside perspective on celebrity culture” and he’s “interviewed everyone from Paul McCartney to Metallica’s James Hetfield” (whatever that might mean). Hiltbrand has written for New York Daily News and such shallow symbols of American pop culture as People, TV Guide, and—yikes!—“All My Children.”

That sounds rather impressive, but Hiltbrand turns right around and during the course of “Dying to be Famous” slams another pop publication, USA Today. Careful there, Hoss. There’s irony in somebody writing for People then taking pot shots at “McPaper.” It’s kind of like that clichéd analogy of the ol’ pot calling the ol’ kettle black.

As it stands, all that experience has become nothing more than an excuse to make pop culture references left and right, dropping names such as Donald Trump, Papa Roach, U2, Phil Jackson, and so many others with reckless abandon.

In fairness, Hiltbrand can put words together. But the end result of this modern-day version of the throwaway dime novel is not compelling in any way.

Rating: 1.5/4

“Dying to be Famous: A Pop Culture Murder Mystery” was published in December 2006 by Harper.

• Originally published at

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