The Jazz Bird by Craig Holden

“It never mattered what you had. All that mattered was what was out there in the world still. That’s what drove him, what had always driven him.”

The Jazz Bird is my third Holden novel–not my favourite. I first came across Craig Holden in 2008 with The Narcissist’s Daughter–a wonderfully nasty novel that explores the twisted, sordid marriage of an affluent doctor and his wife. After that, I went on to  Matala–another Holden novel that explores the dark corners of human motivation. This led me to an older Holden novel, The Jazz Bird, a novel which is going to rank as my least favourite of the three.

The Jazz Bird is based on the real-life murder of Imogene Remus by her husband, George–a man who had the dubious honour of being America’s biggest and most successful bootlegger. At one time, Imogene and George Remus were famous for their extravagant parties and hedonistic lifestyle, but their lavish spending came to a screeching halt when George was arrested and sent to prison. After George’s release, he discovered that Imogene had sold everything and that he was penniless. On top of that, Imogene filed for divorce.

Imogene Remus, a young woman from a prominent New York family, was on her way to divorce court when she was gunned down by her husband. With dozens of horrified witnesses to the event, no one could argue that George was innocent of the crime. George’s motive seems clear with the question of premeditation becoming central to the trial, and during some sensational revelations, ugly information is dredged up from the past. Gradually the motives to the crime become muddy. Just what is the involvement of the federal agent who contributed to Remus’s incarceration?

This is a fascinating story–made even more fascinating by the fact it was true. I’m not going to reveal the outcome of the trial, but it’s easy enough to find on the internet. Author Craig Holden is clearly fascinated with the subject of human motivation, and this real-life murder case certainly is intriguing. Incidentally Jay Gatsby, from The Great Gatsby,  is supposed to be modelled on Remus.

Remus is a middle-aged man who adores his wife as one would adore a precious possession. Imogene’s attraction to George seems to be based in the thrill of his illicit career. Given the age differences, and the differences in the social status between George and Imogene, the money, the parties, and all the whooppee-spending, perhaps it’s not too surprising that with George locked in the slammer, their relationship went south.

The novel goes back and forth between the present (courtroom scenes) and the past. Often a witness in the court case gives testimony and then this segues into the past. While both George and Imogene seem well-defined characters prior to his incarceration, afterwards, somehow both characters become a little more vague as the story develops–and this must in part be due to the fact that the novel becomes more speculative.  Both characters undergo a substantial change in behaviour, and as a reader, I found these changes unconvincing. While the novel argues for choices made due to certain motivation, this part of the story seems shaky. Consequently the flashbacks seemed much more vivid than the novel’s ‘present.’ Also a great deal of the novel becomes the courtroom drama. Perhaps that works well for the visuals of a film with all the subsequent  ‘objections’ and ‘overruled’ bits, but in the novel form, the narrative becomes bogged down in the intricacies and arguments of the case.

Written differently, let’s say in chronological order with the story of the Remus’s marriage, their lifestyle, the jail, the murder and then the trial, I would probably say that it was at its strongest and its most interesting for the marriage and their lavish bootlegging lifestyle. At these points the characters are succinct and clear. After the jail sentence, everything becomes less clear. But as it is, the novel goes back and forth and I found myself much more interested in the flashback sections. Then again, I wasn’t sure how much is speculation and how much is factual. 

The Narcissist’s Daughter very successfully delves into the darkest corners of human motivation. In The Jazz Bird, Holden seems constrained by the real-life event on which he bases his story. Remus was a highly successful bootlegger, showing real talent in bending Prohibition’s rules. He grossed 80,000,000 in 4 years, and threw legendary lavish parties. The fun stopped with his arrest and imprisonment, and while he was locked up, Imogene sold everything and the money seemed to disappear. Then she filed for divorce and Remus murdered her. These are the facts of the seemingly open and shut case which led to a shocking trial outcome.  The Jazz Bird interjects with speculation where perhaps no additional story was needed. 

Bottom line, I might prefer a non-fiction book on the subject.

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