When Lily Kessler, a spy for the OSS, returns from Europe to the United States she learns that her late fiance's younger sister, Kitty has gone missing from her Hollywood boarding house, Lily heads to L.A. to put her investigative skills to good use. When Kitty's corpse turns up under the Hollywood sign, Lily sets out to unravel the mystery of the young starlet's disappearance and brutal murder. 

Along the way Lily will meet Kitty's former friends and housemates, her admirers and coworkers, along with gangsters and members of L.A.'s seedy underbelly. Teaming up with a well-meaning news photographer and a handsome detective, Lily slowly uncovers the details of Kitty's life leading up to her tragic, untimely death in her adopted city of angels. 

  1. Throughout the course of the book Lily, Harry and Pico each take a serious interest in finding Kitty's killer and bringing him to justice. What motivates each character in his or her quest? What do each of these characters have riding on the investigation? Who is depending on them?
  2. Though Kitty is the character whose life and death propels the action in the story, she is only actually a character in the first few moments of the narrative. By what means do we, along with Lily, fill in the blanks of Kitty's life in Hollywood? How did you, as a reader, decide which sources were trustworthy, and which warranted closer inspection?
  3. How did actual, historical events and figures referred to in the novel help you relate to the characters and contextualize the story?
  4. For many women, World War II opened doors professionally and personally that had only been open to men before the war; for many the barriers went back up when the war ended. Of this Lily says, "We're not helpless simpering creatures that have to be protected. We've held down jobs, traveled the world. Seen people die. Nobody's innocent anymore" (Page 67). In what ways has Lily's gender role been affected by the time she spent in Europe? Do any of the other female characters in the book strike you as feminist? How do you think they were affected by the war experience?
  5. The narrator often refers to smells to help describe scenes and characters in the novel. The killer smells of black rubber; Kitty's room smelled like "newsprint, cigarettes, talc, and stale perfume" (Page 24). Why do you think Denise Hamilton took pains to include such vivid descriptions of scent? How is scent tied to memory?
  6. Though the narrator throughout the book remains third person, the point of view shifts among many of the characters, and the narrator is never completely omniscient. How did this affect your reading of the story? Did you think this lent the narrative further mystery? Was it helpful to see the story from several standpoints?
  7. Like every good mystery writer, Hamilton sets up circumstances that would support the reader being suspicious of just about anyone. Which leads did you find most compelling? Who did you think had the most motivation to kill Kitty? How did your suspicions change when more girls turned up dead under the Hollywood sign?
  8. On page 197 Pico thinks of Lily as, "Feminine. And yet so hard. Like a steel blade wrapped in crushed velvet." How is this metaphor suited to Lily? How does she use her OSS skills to help solve Kitty's murder? Can you think of an apt metaphor for any other characters in the story?
  9. When Pico and Lily are first getting to know one another he says, "Maybe home's not a physical place, but something we make in our heart and carry around with us" (Pg 165). Do you think that this applies to Lily? What become "home" for others in the novel? In what ways do Pico and Lily come to represent home for each other?
  10. In this novel, Hamilton takes us behind the scenes of Hollywood's Golden Age, exploring the secretive world of stop-motion animation and its technical whizzes. How did Max Vranizan's obsessions and eccentricities make him both a genius and a legitimate suspect in Kitty Hayden's murder? What did you learn about Hollywood special effects and its practitioners?



1—Research some of the historical figures that Denise Hamilton refers to in THE LAST EMBRACE: 

Pio Pico: 
The Black Dahlia: and
Ray Bradbury: 
Benny Siegel and Mickey Cohen: 
Ray Harryhausen— 

2—THE LAST EMBRACE recalls Noir films popular in the 1930s and 40s. If you enjoyed this novel, why not watch a DVD of a noir classic? Some noir favorites (and a few modern selections) include: 

The Postman Always Rings Twice 
The Big Sleep 
Double Indemnity
L.A. Confidential
In a Lonely Place
Out of the Past
Mildred Pierce
Sunset Boulevard
Ask the Dust 
The Big Heat
Crime Wave
Hollywood Story
The Damned Don't Cry
Touch of Evil
The Long Goodbye
The Maltese Falcon 

An excellent site to explore film noir is run by my good friend, "The Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller, a multi-talented impresario who writes fiction, non-fiction (The Art of Noir, his gorgeous coffee table book, was an instant classic), biographies and runs noir film festivals in SF and LA. 

3—Listen to some of the music that was popular during the period THE LAST EMBRACE is set. (Songs mentioned in the book are designated by *) 

"Again" by Vic Damone
* "Baby It's Cold Outside" by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban
"Autumn in New York" by Frank Sinatra
"It All Depends on You" by Frank Sinatra
"Some Enchanted Evening" by Frank Sinatra
"Careless Hands" by Sammy Kaye and his orchestra 
* "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" by Carol Channing
"Far Away Places" by Bing Crosby with the Ken Darby Choir
"Forever and Ever" by Perry Como
"I Can Dream, Can't I?" by Patty Andrews with Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra
* "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" by Les Brown and his Orchestra
"Mule Train" by Frankie Laine
"Riders in the Sky" by Vaughn Monroe
"With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming" by Patti Page
"You're Breaking My Heart" by Vic Damone