You don’t have to be a movie lover to enjoy Jeffrey Cohen’s Some Like it Hot-Buttered, but it helps. It helps because as you read about Elliot Freed, whose dream (now reality) has always been to own an old style movie theater showing only comedies, you are mentally remembering the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks movies you’ve enjoyed yourself. Having your own movie memories to add to Cohen’s equation makes the entire reading experience a richer one – and the whole set up is a unique and clever one. Elliot himself is kind of a classic mystery character in that he’s almost a complete outsider – he’s divorced; he owns a business that’s, to put it charitably, struggling; and he doesn’t have a cat or even own a car. When someone is discovered dead in his movie theater after a showing of Young Frankenstein from eating poisoned popcorn, Elliot’s odyssey of detection and personal discovery begins.
This whole set up would be far too gimmicky for words if Cohen wasn’t such an accomplished writer. The humor, which flows from the characters and the situations, at least appears effortless, and it’s like a lubricant for the entire novel. If Cohen sometimes takes a while to get where he should be going you won’t really care because you’ll be chuckling away to yourself. He also has the unfortunately all too rare gift of being able to make all the sidebar characters – in this case, everyone but Elliot – memorable themselves. Even his ex-wife’s husband, Gregory, who never appears on the canvas, so to speak, is memorable. Even though I never had the chance to “meet” him as a reader, I still knew that he was bald.
The plot is suitably complicated, with curveballs thrown Elliot’s way in the form of pirated DVDs in his theater basement; a missing employee (the only other one who knows how to thread the ancient projector); and the comic relief of Sophie, who mans the candy and popcorn counter in perfect teen goth fashion. There’s a lot of heart here too; Elliot is a believable, loveable schlub whose moral compass – brought back into focus by his ex wife, no less – won’t let him abandon the missing film geek employee whose innocence Elliot believes in passionately. The cops aren’t so sure about him, though, so finding him and proving that he’s innocent takes some doing.
As you read you will certainly be remembering your own favorite movies – it made me want to go out and rent Some Like it Hot for the umpteenth time – and it brought another memory up for me, as well. Elliot’s theater is one of the old style palaces, with beautiful plaster work and a balcony and a painted ceiling, and it made me remember a favorite movie theater of mine, in Minneapolis, that had twinkling stars and clouds that actually moved across the painted sky on the ceiling. The stars twinkled through the whole film and gave the lucky viewer the feeling of being in movie heaven. Reading Cohen’s book is a little bit of mystery heaven – don’t miss it.