When tailor Marvin Gottschalk abandoned New York City for the brash boomtown of silent-film-era Hollywood, he never imagined he’d end up on screen as Martin Brentwood, one of the fledgling film industry’s most popular actors. Five years later a cynical Martin despairs of finding anything genuine in a town where truth is defined by studio politics and publicity. Then he meets Robbie Goodman.
Robbie fled Idaho after a run-in with the law. A chance encounter leads him to the film studio where he lands a job as a chauffeur. But one look at Martin and he’s convinced he’s likely to run afoul of those same laws—laws that brand his desires indecent, deviant… sinful.
Martin and Robbie embark on a cautious relationship, cocooned in Hollywood’s clandestine gay fraternity, careful to hide from the studio boss, a rival actor, and reporters on the lookout for a juicy story. But when tragedy and scandal rock the town, igniting a morality-based witch hunt fueled by a remorseless press, the studio brass will sacrifice even the greatest careers to defend their endangered empire. Robbie and Martin stand no chance against the firestorm—unless they stand together.
I thought that this well-researched story about the silent movie era Hollywood was utterly fascinating. It’s 1921, and we’re immediately introduced to a young, naive Idaho farmboy named Robinson (AKA “Robbie”) Crusoe Goodman, who escaped to Hollywood. From what exactly he is running away is a mystery, one that is slowly revealed as the plot unfolds.
Robbie manages to land a job as a chauffeur for actor Martin Brentwood. The story then alternates between Martin’s and Robbie’s POV, and we learn that both men are extremely attracted to each other but give the era, they have to be careful to hide their feelings as it could not only ruin their careers but land them in prison.
It’s important to remember that this was a time when being gay had life-threatening consequences. It’s a time when morality-based censorship and witch hunts occupied first spots in the newspapers, morality clauses played a prominent part in Hollywood contracts, and queer people were beaten and even killed by the police. But despite the dangers, Robby and Martin embark on a cautious clandestine relationship, which becomes even more complicated when Robby is thrust into the limelight of Hollywood, and his place in the motion picture world becomes more prominent.
It’s interesting that during this time period, there still wasn’t a word for being queer, and instead, someone who had gay tendencies was referred to as “being in the life.” You still hear this term occasionally, though in recent years, it’s fallen out of favor. It reminded me of the period of my own coming-of-age during which being gay was often called “being a friend of Dorothy.”
It was so much fun going behind the scenes of the golden age of silent film and learning firsthand about the rich history of this period and the machinations of the movie industry. Though our two main characters are fictional, many of the elements, including the scandals and tragedies, are based on actual events that affected real people, all of which the author explains in the novel’s addendum. For instance, the author includes circumstances surrounding the murder of William Desmond Taylor as well as Fatty Arbuckle’s famous trials for rape and manslaughter. These tidbits added a riveting extra layer and dimension to the story, which I especially enjoyed.
In Silent Sin, we got to experience the “real” Hollywood — the Hollywood behind the flashy movie stars and all the glamor. In this way, I thought the world-building was phenomenal. It was so much fun experiencing the movie era that was still in its infancy and was just beginning to take off, still, as of yet, on unsure footing. The author really brought this story to life for me, and I continue to ruminate over it several days later.
I also thought that the author exhibits an uncanny insight into the human condition, and parts of the novel were a pretty honest and raw commentary on humanity. I was amazed at the way Russell was able to weave together historically accurate renderings of the times with a series of unlikely events and coincidences in a way that felt absolutely authentic.
Silent Sin hits at such a visceral level that it’s hard to describe with words, and parts of the book were so emotive and moving that they left me gutted. It’s a rich story that deals with very loaded issues like grief, homophobia, fear, hatred, regrets, the oftentimes difficult journey of personal growth and loss; but also with courage and the opportunity to start anew. It’s eye-opening — and heartbreaking — to witness how the systemic prejudice and homophobia our characters deal with every day has affected their lives in both small and big ways. I was also surprised by the profound impact the story had on me.
Note that though there is a romance between our two main characters, the romance takes a backseat to the historical aspect of the narrative. This is a low-heat story with all the lovemaking taking place off-screen. So if you’re looking for a steamy romance, you won’t find that there. What you will find, however, is a sweet and tender romance between two gentle and charming souls living in a time period where being their authentic selves could prove deadly.
All in all, I found Silent Sin to be an exceptionally unique, surprisingly profound, and beautifully written story that is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s a well-written and smoothly plotted novel of many layers with fully realized and endearing characters and will undoubtedly appeal to historical fiction lovers. I also felt that the ending is perfect, and there were definitely tears of happiness and a wonderful grin plastered across my face during those last final pages.
This is the second book that I’ve read and loved by this author, and I definitely plan on reading more of their books. This one is a gem!
Heat Level: 1