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Murder at the Oscars? Don't worry, it's only a book.

February 22, 2009 | 10:14 am

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Listening to Joan Rivers flay the fashion choices of celebrities on the red carpet, it's easy to think she might just have imagined one or two of them dead. That's exactly how her new co-written novel, "Murder at the Academy Awards™," begins -- with a starlet dropping dead on her way into the Oscars. Joan's fictional alter-ego, Max Taylor, is right there, holding the mike as the girl slurs, falls and stops breathing.

The dead celebrity is Halsey Hamilton, an amalgam with the alliteration of Lindsay Lohan, the notoriety of Britney Spears and the acting talent of Angelina Jolie. There are a few other characters that have been invented to make this mystery work, but Rivers and co-author Jerrilyn Farmer also throw real celebrities across the pages like so many Swarovski crystals.

The glittering names serve, sadly, as mere walk-ons; at the center of the story are Max and her daughter Drew, who bears no small resemblance to Melissa, Joan's real-life daughter. Max tries to find out how Halsey Hamilton ended up dead, how Drew's ex-fiance was involved and how, most importantly, to finally get into the Vanity Fair after party. It'll all end with a dangerous tussle among Max, the villain and Max's Yorkshire terrier.

It seems like it might be a behind-the-scenes Hollywood romp, but it's no fun. When Max is on the red carpet in the opening chapter, her perspective is both self-absorbed and self-important. Telling a story that centers around such obvious fictional stand-ins for Joan and Melissa comes off as self-serving and self-promotional.

And if Rivers once had sharp wit, it has grown rusty. About Drew and her ex-fiance: "They were incompatible. She was a Pisces, and he was an ... ." That's one of the better jokes; it was fresh back when people regularly talked about horoscopes and dating, say, 30 years or so ago.

I rarely advise putting down a book in favor of the TV, but in the case of "Murder at the Academy Awards™," watching Joan Rivers will be more fun than reading her.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Joan and Melissa Rivers. Credit: Michael Caulfield / Associated Press

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