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Interview

Not So Elementary, Our Dear Holmes

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After spending hours trying to come up with a worthy introduction that would encapsulate the wildly varied career and larger-than-life personality of Rupert Holmes, I have to admit defeat. I could mention his amazing accomplishments: his work as a composer and songwriter, his highly acclaimed television series Remember WENN, and his conquering of Broadway as the author and lyricist of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Or I could go on about his natural charisma, about how he can riff endlessly on the jalapeño burgers at Hamburger Hamlet, the moral ambiguity of reworking classic films, or the hidden secrets of Disneyland. Suffice to say, Holmes is a walking pop culture museum, tossing out clever asides and hilarious bons mots just like, well, one of his characters.

Explaining why he is driving through a mountain range on his way to Los Angeles from San Francisco, he said, "If I don't see Fresno firsthand every now and then, I feel a deep emptiness in my life." He is on a whirlwind tour to promote his new book, Where the Truth Lies, an entertaining whodunit laced with Hollywood gossip and sharp humor that has already won raves from critics and been optioned by filmmaker Atom Egoyan. While it's surprising that such lighthearted entertainment is receiving such heady praise, even more surprising is that this is Holmes' first novel, after over 30 years in the business.

It's hard to pinpoint what he is best known for, his resumé being remarkably eclectic even for an entertainer. He made a name for himself in the 1970s as a songwriter and producer, working with entertainers as varied as Barbra Streisand and The Partridge Family. Holmes was also responsible for composing and recording the unbelievably catchy tune "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)." There have been more notable accomplishments, of course. He was the only person to receive Tony awards for book, music, and lyrics of the same play, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in 1986. And on the small screen, he created and wrote all but four episodes of the Emmy-winning series Remember WENN. As Holmes put it, "I've had several careers in my career."

So why write a book now? "I've been very lucky in that I've always done things just when I was old enough and observed enough to be able to do them. I could have written a novel in my 30s, but it wouldn't have been like this," said the now-56-year-old. "I feel like I've progressed from writing stories in three-minute song form with a fade ending to two hours on a Broadway stage with an intermission and four years on television and finally to a full-length novel." Holmes was commissioned to write the book in 1995, but other projects kept intervening. "I wrote the pilot for Remember WENN and thought I might write a couple more episodes and ended up writing all but four," he said. There were also other plays; in recent years, Holmes penned Say Goodnight Gracie, a one-man show starring Frank Gorshin as George Burns, a musical version of Marty starring John C. Reilly, and the recent thriller Thumbs.

The years of experience serve him well in Where the Truth Lies, which is filled with insider information. Set in the 1970s, the story centers on a sexy, sharp-tongued female journalist known only as O'Connor, who is hired to write the biography of a faded but still charming star named Vince Collins. In one sequence, Collins takes her to Disneyland and shows her a secret entrance to a restaurant called Club 33, the only place in the theme park where alcohol is served. "It's absolutely a real place," said Holmes. "Next time you go to Disneyland, just Xerox what I said in the book and you'll find the secret door. I managed to discover it when I was performing at the 25th anniversary of the park. I love Disneyland, and I had it put into my contract that I would get to wander around a little bit. I got to see places most people don't see. In addition to Club 33, I actually got to go in the room where they kept all the tape loops for every character in Pirates of the Caribbean. They're probably replaced with digital recordings now, but there was a wall full of labels like 'obscene pirate' and 'laughing dog.'"

But isn't the notoriously tight-lipped Disney going to be displeased with Holmes for exposing these secrets? "They're secrets, but they're not legal secrets," he noted. "There are a couple of other Disney secrets I know, but I'll save them for another book."

Holmes clearly isn't concerned with burning bridges. After all, two of his main characters bear a striking resemblance to a certain beloved comedy duo. See, Vince Collins once made up one half of a wildly popular comedy team; the other half was Lanny Morris and his pratfalling antics. The book details the sexual escapades and rowdy lifestyle of the two as they host telethons together, make buddy pictures, and headline at casinos. Sound familiar? "The characters are in part inspired by the success of the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and by the reverence America has for them," Holmes admitted. "But this is not a roman à clef or a Valley of the Dolls. By the time the book is over, it's a very sympathetic depiction of two men, I think." And of course Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis never found themselves embroiled in a nasty murder mystery like Collins and Morris, a twist that drives the plot of Where the Truth Lies.

But there's more reason to read Where the Truth Lies than secrets to the Magic Kingdom and thinly veiled tales of superstars. The book's central mystery is a genuine page turner, and the text is filled with witty asides, terrific one-liners, and astute observations on the celebrity life. Take the passage in which O'Connor deals with a dim-witted restaurant employee: "I gave the hostess my name and she went searching for it in her reservation book, almost certainly the only book she had ever read through to the very end," writes Holmes. "'O'Connor, O'Connor,' she murmured, pleased to have learned a new word."

It's moments like this that have critics from Newsweek to Entertainment Weekly highly recommending the book, a reception that leaves Holmes slightly stunned. "I must be related to the man at the Chicago Sun-Times or mentioned him in my will without realizing it," he joked. "It's staggering how the response has been. I wrote something that I hoped would be entertaining and maybe a little intriguing. My hero for my whole career has been Hitchcock, who I feel is as profound a director in purely enjoyable movies like North By Northwest as in deep thrillers like Vertigo. If I could ever do something on that level and at the same time really divert people from the woes of day-to-day life for a while, that would be an incredible achievement. Given a choice between writing something people will appreciate and something they'll be entertained by and forget they have a dentist appointment later, I'll always opt for the latter."

Perhaps its because Holmes set out only to entertain that the book's enjoyment factor is so contagious. "I was a bit giddy while I was writing it, relishing things I could do in this medium that I can't do in others, and I think you can tell the author was having a high old time coming up with this story. I suddenly realized two pages into the book that I was writing for an audience of one. I've never done that before. It's always been for 150 people in a nightclub or 1,500 people in a Broadway theatre or 15 million people on television. Here, I was writing like a shared diary, taking one person and making all the little asides and ironic comments that I might make if I were strolling down the street. Writing it was an absolutely intoxicating experience."

The same can be said for reading it. BSW

Where the Truth Lies

by Rupert Holmes

Random House

Hardback 388 pages,

$24.95,

ISBN 0-679-45220

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