Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’

Sarah Churchwell. Penguin Press, $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59420-474-6
University of East Anglia literature professor Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) evokes the Jazz Age in all its ephemeral glamour and recklessness in her latest book. Drawing on newspaper articles, correspondence, diary entries, scrapbooks, and newly discovered archival material, the author presents “a collage” of Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds’ world and a social history of the times. Churchwell focuses on 1922—the year the couple moved to Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, and a gruesome, unsolved double murder (the Mills-Hall case, “the crime of the decade”) took place in nearby New Jersey. She excels at providing rich period details—drugstores selling illegal liquor, ubiquitous car crashes—to show how the patchwork quality of the times affected Fitzgerald’s thinking as he composed The Great Gatsby. Indeed, the book highlights how accurately Fitzgerald intuited what was to come: the damage being done to American society by focusing on wealth; the way mass media would give rise to a celebrity culture. Yet, in an effort to find a new angle on The Great Gatsby, Churchwell strains to establish a close connection between the Mills-Hall murders and Fitzgerald’s work on the book, with little evidence to support the tie, other than the fact that they occurred around the same time. Illus. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency.(Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/14/2013
Release date: 01/23/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
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