Imagine a novel based on a sensational and highly-publicized real-life courtroom drama involving a celebrity defendant accused of killing his beautiful wife; where the defense strategy involves putting the victim herself, and her hedonistic lifestyle, on trial.
O.J. Simpson, you say?
"I was very aware of the parallels to the O.J. case as I wrote," said Craig Holden by telephone from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But Holden's novel The Jazz Bird (Simon & Schuster) was inspired not by the Simpson affair but by a much earlier event: the 1927 "trial of the century" of bootlegger George Remus for the murder of his wife--a case prosecuted by the youngest son of former president William Howard Taft.
The Jazz Bird, Holden's fourth novel, is a top 10 selection of the January/February Book Sense 76.
Early word on The Jazz Bird is good. Mary McCarthy, of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Shorewood, Wisconsin, describes it as: "A murder mystery where you know who the killer is and why he did it, but all of your assumptions will be challenged by the book's end.... the Jazz Age and its excesses are magnificently captured. This terrific book is perfect for all who loved The Alienist or Ragtime."
Holden--born and schooled in Ohio, with a master's from the University of Montana writing program--is no stranger to such praise. His previous novels (The River Sorrow, The Last Sanctuary, Four Corners of Night) all earned high marks from critics and readers. But the author wanted to make his fourth work something of a departure from the three "literary thrillers" that preceded it.
"While you do have the trial, with its courtroom scenes, and the suspense of the unfolding plot," he said of The Jazz Bird, which is told through alternating points of view that shuttle back and forth in time, "what it is really is a love story--one that begins right after the man has killed the woman he loves."
Holden came upon his compelling story in roundabout fashion, he said. At first, all he knew was that he wanted to write a book set in the 1920s, whose music he liked and whose atmosphere he was drawn to in part from stories told by his grandparents (to whom The Jazz Bird is dedicated).
"Initially," he said, "I thought of doing something that took place in Detroit, which was a big center of bootlegging traffic. It's right on the river. But as I read different histories of the period, I kept coming across these separate accounts of the Remus affair, as sort of sidebars; it seemed such a colorful story. When I eventually sat down to write a novel, that's what came to mind. I had to go back and check to see if the story was really as amazing as I'd remembered it."
In life, though, Holden discovered, Remus was a pompous-sounding, stiff-talking fellow ("He always referred to himself in the third-person"); his wife was a former secretary with social aspirations. Holden used these actual people as starting-points for his more complex characters, and the story he devised diverged in crucial ways from historical truth.
The Jazz Bird, with its wealthy bootlegger, extravagant parties, and class-crossed lovers, inevitably brings to mind The Great Gatsby.
"My character Remus, of course, is nothing like Gatsby," Craig Holden said. "But some people think--though others vociferously deny this--that the real George Remus may have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's creation of Jay Gatsby. Remus was at the height of his fame when Gatsby was being written. Fitzgerald certainly would have known who he was."
Holden said he did a good deal of research for his novel: reading books about--and newspapers of--the period; making trips to Cincinnati, where much of The Jazz Bird takes place; consulting catalogs and menus of the time.
"You want to make sure you get things right," he said. "If you have somebody come into the room and make a telephone call--well, how would he do that? Do you have to ring the operator? Do you just pick up the instrument and dial?"
Holden also reread fiction of the '20s, he said, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald: "Not to mimic them, but to get a sense of how people talked then, of speech patterns."
The result of all this research can be found in The Jazz Bird's convincing vision of 1920s America.
But, as with much art that convinces, its sources are also often personal.
Complimented on a description of prosecutor Taft's office--"The walls were paneled with a thick veneer of wormy chestnut, and the desk and other furniture had all been cut and milled from a single lot of finely grained Ohio black walnut"-- Holden (whose parents were teachers) said: "I don't remember where I got that idea of the single lot of walnut. But I grew up in a house that used to be a speakeasy; and that's where that wood paneling comes from."