Who doesn’t love a tale of secret identities, impersonators of kings or heiresses, or body-doubles. Mary Miley in her “First Crime Novel” award winning story, The Impersonator, gives us just that. It is the tale of a down-and-out vaudeville actress who is approached by an unscrupulous uncle to take on the identity of his niece, the heiress Jessie Carr, who mysteriously disappeared seven years ago. If actress Leah Randall can convince Jessie Carr’s family that it is she, Jessie, who has returned, she stands to inherit a fortune on her upcoming twenty-first birthday. Leah/Jessie wins over the family–all but cousin Henry–who is the one who knows Jessie’s true fate. The tale is told through Leah’s eyes as she likens the challenge to the greatest acting role of her life, but with life-and-death stakes if she fails. The backdrop of events is early 1920’s Oregon in a world of Prohibition, bootleggers, jazz age costumes, and larger than life stars of vaudeville. It’s a good tale despite seeing some of the twists and turns coming down the road beforehand, and will keep a reader engaged to the end in order to see if Leah/Jessie pulls it off. The narrative voice of Leah is fun, if somewhat unbelievable. The story sometimes drags a bit when the author puts all she’s learned about the era into the mouth of a character for a long exposition on a topic, but it is forgivable. Miley has done her homework on the vaudeville era of the early ’20’s (but I did catch a few phrases that were not likely used at that time.) The ending is very dramatic (no spoilers) and reads more like a romantic thriller perhaps, than a murder mystery. Miley has followed up with a second novel out this year which continues this character’s story called “Silent Murders,” focusing on the silent movie era.
Tag Archives: Jazz Age
Bill Bryson has an amazing talent for taking the mundane facts of history and weaving them into a funny, thrilling, fascinating and readable work on non-fiction. His topics have ranged from travel adventures such as his exploration of the Appalachian Trail and the Australian outback, or the examination of social history from his own childhood memories to the history of his house. Bryson’s recent work, One Summer America 1927 takes the reader on a chronological trip through the summer of 1927 in America, carried along by a host of events and characters from the era including sports legends, political figures, “heroes” and criminals. The structure of the work starts with the contest to over-fly the Atlantic ocean from New York to Paris in early May and ends with a fall from grace for America’s hero, Lindbergh, in late September. Interwoven in this adventure are all the other stars who appeared on the public stage during the summer of this particular year: Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge, Sacco and Venzetti, and many others. These people defined an era and helped form and characterize a nation before the Great Depression. What I found particularly compelling were the similarities between the mindset of the late 1920’s and today. Although this book would not be listed as one of Bryson’s best in my opinion, it was an interesting and very worthwhile read. I was appalled and disappointed to learn, however, that most of these larger-than-life sports and other historical figures were truly reprehensible people in many regards. Why, you ask? You’ll have to read the book.
“The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago” by author Douglas Perry is an education in the miscarriage of justice in the 1920’s era, during an epidemic of “gun girl” murderers who got off based solely on their looks and style. In the Cook County Jail in 1924, a “murderess’ row” housed a group of women, most notorious of whom was Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, two married women who had shot their lovers. Despite physical evidence, their own confessions, and a host of other compelling facts pointing squarely to their guilt, both women walked away from the charges. During the trials, the media maintained an intoxicating love affair with their stories, following every move, lovingly describing every detail of their dress, their hair, their comportment in the court room. Beulah was dubbed “prettiest” and Belva “most stylish,” and based on the inability of an all-male jury to convict an attractive or sophisticated lady, that these two murders hoodwinked the public and were freed. One newspaper writer, however, was not taken in by their wiles–Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who wrote scathing, satirical reviews of events. Watkins, a rare item herself being a female police reporter, later penned the play “Chicago,” which debuted in its namesake’s city in 1927 to rave reviews. The author of “Girls of Murder City”, Perry, presents this well-known story in a fresh way, exploring the events of the murders, but also the societal influences at the time which accounted for the city’s love affair with two murders and the juries’ inability to convict. He raises the issue of the view of femininity at the time–that an essentially good woman, who was weak (as they all are), could be lead astray by liquor and a strong male influence. The women were too pretty and too classy to be truly brutish murders, so after all, it wasn’t really their fault. The press fueled this skewed defense by playing up Beulah’s looks and, based on those looks, her certain girlish naiveté. Conversely, an older and rougher female inmate was characterized by the press as a dirty, hulking beast, capable of incredible brutality and clearly quite dangerous. The courts, not surprisingly, convicted this woman and recommended the death sentence with much less evidence of her guilt. One observer commented that the “refined murders” did not scare the men like the rough ones, and therefore were deemed harmless. Perry does a wonderful job wrapping up this 1920s package of mob bosses, flappers, gin joints, and corruption into an atmospheric tale of Chicago in the Jazz Age, and raises some serious questions about the power of the press to sway public opinion. Has anything really changed? If you liked “Devil in the White City” and “American Eve,” you’ll likely enjoy this book as well.
Have you every had the experience of learning something new or encountering a fact, and then, miraculously, you seem to run into it everywhere? I have had that experience lately in every book I’ve picked up to read. The theme I keep encountering is Paris in the early Twentieth Century. Not an unpleasant place to be sure: the descriptions of a vibrant new art scene, fresh literary voices, radical social ideas… The first book which brought me to the art world of Paris early in the new Twentieth Century was, curiously enough, called Jerusalem’s Maiden by author Talia Carner. It is the story of a young Orthodox Jewish girl (Havedi) living in the old city of Jerusalem during the waning years of the Ottoman empire. It is a beautifully descriptive novel of the girl’s struggle between her God-given artistic talent and self-expression, and her religiously-dictated limited role as a woman in that society. At every turn, the heroine, Esther Kaminsky, sees her actions and motivations through the lens of God’s will for her, even when disaster strikes. How does this bring us to Paris? In a startling turn of events, Esther finds herself in Paris of the early 19th century, pursing her love of art. Not wanting to spoil the story for you readers, I pose this question for consideration: How does Paris itself, almost as another character in the story, impact Esther’s decisions? Despite some problems I had with the novel, not accepting the motivations of some of the characters, it is still a beautiful, lyrical piece of writing and provides enormous fodder for a discussion of some of life’s thornier issues.
The next Paris-themed novel encountered was Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti. This non-fiction account of the theft of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting reads like a modern “caper novel thriller” crossed with the best historical account. It not only gives one a taste of Paris in the very early days of the Nineteenth Century, but provides amusing accounts of all the characters involved in the theft and recovery. Not least of these was Picasso! The police prefect leading the investigation, Louis Lepine, was a larger-than-life persona, whose activities during the great Paris flood of January 1910 are also chronicled in the book Paris Underwater: How the City of Light the Great Flood of 1910 by Jeffrey H. Jackson. I highly recommend these to get your fill of Paris!
Last in our Parisian tour is a new book of an entirely different nature, called The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston. Why should the kids have all the fun with comic books and graphic novels? This is a book told in luscious vintage clippings, advertisements, and pictures from the early to mid-1920’s, chronicling a young girl’s adventures towards adulthood during the Jazz Age. Frankie wins a scholarship to Vassar, has a relationship with an older man, escapes to Paris and meets none other than James Joyce and starts her career as a writer. The plot unfolds through text and pictures in a stunning new way of story-telling. A quick read you’ll come back to savor over and over again.