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Mysteries

Saga Builds on Flamboyant Details of a Jazz Age Murder Trial

January 16, 2002|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Craig Holden's "The Jazz Bird" (Simon & Schuster, $25, 317 pages) is a work of fiction based on an infamous Cincinnati murder trial of the 1920s, in which world-class bootlegger ($80-million gross) George Remus, a disbarred lawyer accused of killing his socialite wife, argued in his own defense.

Adding to public interest, the prosecutor was Charles P. Taft II, the youngest son of the former president and then-chief justice of the Supreme Court. In an acknowledgement, the author notes that while the book deals with real people and events, "I invented freely...." This may be an understatement.

Historian Carl Sifankis, in the "Encyclopedia of American Crime," states that the Remus trial is usually cited as a "farcical" example of justice, in which the accused was allowed to defend himself on a plea of insanity. There's nothing remotely farcical about Holden's version.

Using the trial as a starting place, he has created a striking, meticulously evoked Jazz Age saga that holds its own with the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara. At its heart is the question of why Remus killed his wife. We're given a simplistic reason upfront: She was unfaithful while he was in prison.

As Holden would have it, there is a considerably more complex sequence of events leading to the crime that he carefully unfolds, layer by layer.

Simultaneously, he reconstructs to his own design an assortment of memorable characters. Chief among them are the flamboyant, Gatsby-esque Remus; the well-born Charlie Taft, whose marriage is shaken by his growing obsession with the victim; and, most stunning of all, Remus' wife, Imogene, the aristocratic and quixotic flapper whose penchant for the music of the day earned her the sobriquet "the Jazz Bird."

The novel is quite a departure from Holden's previous gritty contemporary thrillers, "The River Sorrow," "The Last Sanctuary" and "The Four Corners of Night," save for one key aspect: the care with which he crafts his characters. That elevates novels set in any decade.

"Someone to Watch Over Me" (Morrow, $24, 230 pages), Book Three in Jill Churchill's new series featuring self-described "sleuthing siblings" Lily and Robert Brewster, takes us to upstate New York in the Depression '30s. Churchill, a pen name selected by Janice Young Brooks with the idea that her novels would be shelved next to Agatha Christie's, did a fair job of updating and Americanizing Dame Agatha with her previous series, the award-winning mysteries featuring Jane Jeffry, a Chicago single mother who solves crimes in a Miss Marple-like manner.

That series' punny titles include "Grime and Punishment" and my favorite, "Silence of the Hams." With titles based on pop songs of the period ("Anything Goes," "In the Still of the Night"), the new series seems to be something of a departure from the Christies. Not in its characters: Lily and Robert, born to wealth but impoverished by the Great Depression and unqualified for labor, were any available, have been forced to leave their beloved Manhattan for the rural rigors of the upstate village of Voorburg-on-the-Hudson.

They're there at the behest and the bequest of a wealthy uncle who's left them the temporary usufruct of an estate that will become theirs in a decade, provided they find some way of earning a buck in the meantime.

They, the estate's pleasant but tight-fisted guardian, a lawyer named Prinney, his busy-making wife and the other townspeople, eccentric and mundane, all might comfortably be relocated to Marple's St. Mary Mead.

But nothing I've read in Christie comes close to the mood of darkness and near-despair that Churchill captures in her description of the Depression's devastating effect on small-town America.

There's a particularly harrowing episode in which the editor of the Voorburg newspaper (part of the Brewsters' inheritance) travels to D.C. for a story on the unemployed World War I veterans gathered to demand the government fulfill a pledge allowing them to borrow against their federal insurance policies. He's there when, in a less-than-magnificent moment in this nation's history, President Hoover sends in the Army, under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to disperse the crowd, which the soldiers do with glee, burning tents and using bayonets on men, women and children.

It's a riveting, grim sidebar that threatens to overwhelm the double-murder mystery that Lily and Robert are trying to solve at home. On the other hand, it provides the novel with a substance and depth not usually associated with cozy mysteries.

Thanks to smaller publishers such as Crippen & Landru, the mystery short story, which for a time seemed to be sharing the fate of the eight-track cassette, has been given a slightly longer lease on life.

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