Kendall Kulper’s A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife opens in 1934 Chicago, in an America damaged and wearied by the Great Depression. Only trips to the movies keep 18-year-old Henny going, because “I wasn’t Henrietta Newhouse who scrubbed the washrooms and clutched at every saved penny. . . . I was just a pair of eyes and a pair of ears, taking it all in.”
Fans of the author’s Murder for the Modern Girl (2022) will recognize the Newhouse name; that book’s protagonist, Ruby, is Henny’s older sister. Ruby prowled Chicago solving mysteries, but Henny is set on California. “I wanted to be a literal star, something huge and bright and fierce and burning,” Henny says, “that turned everyone who came close to it warm and glowing.”
Declan Collins is far less passionate about being a stuntman, but as his best friend and manager, Pep, reasons, it’s a good gig for a man who cannot be injured. It’s getting harder for Declan to hide his invincibility, so Pep arranges a screen test with Henny. To her delight, she’s signed by Silver Wing Studios as the next big starlet while, to his chagrin, Declan is enlisted as her faux boyfriend.
Their chemistry sparks steamy sidelong glances and hot-tempered spats, making for an entertaining will-they-won’t-they energy. Eventually, the two share secrets: Declan is helping a PI search for a missing actor named Irma, and Henny has been seeing ghosts. The first was her friend Midge, who supposedly quit Hollywood and moved home; she’s soon joined by a heartbreakingly large group of young women who also disappeared after being signed by Silver Wing. Can the duo find out what happened without getting harmed themselves?
A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife is an engrossing supernatural murder mystery, a fierce ode to feminism and a potent reminder of the dark underside of glamour and fame. Indeed, Kulper writes in her acknowledgments, “So much of this book was inspired by the real activists, whistleblowers, truth-tellers, and courageous survivors who spoke up about the injustices of the Hollywood system. . . . Your bravery, hope for change, and dedication to equality, fairness, and justice push us all to work harder and do better.”