Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Dust Off the Bones

By Paul Howarth – Responsibility, redemption, and squandered chances are among the themes in Paul Howarth’s second novel, which will live in your memory long after turning the last page. Just as indelible is the portrait of the Australian outback—the dust and drought—and the hardness and hardiness of the people who take up residence in such a hostile environment.

Billie and Tommy McBride, ages sixteen and fourteen, respectively, arrive at their remote home to find their mother and father shot dead, and their younger sister Mary, dying. The Native Police arrive to investigate, headed by a sociopathic white inspector named Noone. The police claim to believe that the crime was committed by an aboriginal group called the Kurrong, and set off in pursuit, taking the teenagers with them.

Eventually, they find the group and slaughter them—men, women, and children alike, upwards of a hundred people, except for a few women they keep alive for other purposes. The boys are made complicit in these depredations and the subsequent revisions of events. The rest of the novel is about how the McBride boys cope with that guilt and horror.

Noone remains a dominant presence in their lives, even though they rarely see him. He has insisted the boys split up and have nothing to do with each other or he will return and kill them, any family they have, and everyone they care about. They believe him.

Billie marries successfully to a widow with a sizeable station. Tommy, with his black companion Arthur, has a job on another distant station, where he’s putting up fencing under the thumb of a vindictive overseer. In a confrontation Tommy inadvertently kills the overseer. He and Arthur flee, and, with the telegraph likely one step ahead of them, lie low.

What modest successes either young man achieves are tainted by the anxiety that the annihilation of the Kurrong will come to light, that Noone will decide they are a risk to his position and he and his minions will track them down, and, in Tommy’s case, that the murder he committed will come out. If you’re familiar with the writing of Cormac McCarthy or Donald Ray Pollock, you may find Howarth’s bracing writing style similar. Reading this book is like having all your veins and arteries cleaned out, cleared of everything easy and soft. While the writing is hard as a diamond, it’s also beautiful and properly paced to magnify the weight of the men’s actions.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

Guest Blog: Author Claire Matturro

The new book by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing), deals with society’s treatment of “difficult” females. Husbands and fathers may no longer have carte blanche to exile their prickly wives and daughters to mental hospitals. Yet, institutions like Claire and Penny’s fictional Talbot School for Girls persist. I’ll be reviewing Wayward Girls here in early October. Here’s what Claire says about the inspiration for this important book:

As noted in a CrimeFictionLover.com review, Wayward Girls is a “book with a strong sense of purpose.” It’s a loud warning about the oversight and accountability needed by delinquent/troubled teen facilities, boarding schools, and “wilderness schools,” because abuses continue to occur in such places, and adults continue to disbelieve the kids who cry out in protest.

What led Penny Koepsel and me to write the book does not arise so much from our own experiences at boarding school, but in the history of a Texas wilderness school for troubled teens, Artesia Hall. In the early 1970s, at that remote locale northeast of Houston, a 17-year-old girl ingested poison. Rather than immediately seeking medical treatment for the girl, the school’s owner allegedly had her put into a straightjacket and tied to a chair. She later died in hospital. Previously, escaped students had told of abuse, including a “GI bath,” where they were plunged naked into a trash can full of ice water and scrubbed with a wire brush. No one believed them. They were, after all, troubled. Kids who lied.

But these kids were telling the truth. After the teenager died and more students escaped to speak of dire mistreatment, officials finally listened. The State closed Artesia Hall.

Decades later, I—along with other former students from a Florida boarding school—reconnected as we organized a reunion. Our boarding school had existed at the same time as Artesia Hall, and both schools closed the same year. Yet they were as different as the sun and the moon. As reunion activities developed, Penny Koepsel, a psychologist from Texas, and I—a lawyer from Florida—met and formed a fast friendship. We had been students at the Florida boarding school, but at different times.

At the reunion, while groups of former students told tales from our school days, not one of us mentioned abuse, poison, rape, or anything approaching a GI bath. Few of us had ever even heard of Artesia Hall. However, Penny, a Texan, knew about the notorious school, and told us of the horrors there.

One of us said, “Let’s write a book!” Perhaps it was too much wine, or too much hubris, but the idea took hold. After all, I had already authored a series of legal thrillers published by HarperCollins, and Penny’s short stories and poems had been published in literary journals.

That’s how Wayward Girls came to be. The book deals head on with a sexual predator who targets petite teen girls at the fictional Talbot School for Girls and incorporates some of the horrors officials came finally to believe about the Texas wilderness school. Wayward Girls weaves in some of the playful hijinks from our Florida boarding school experience too.

While fictional, Wayward Girls stands as a warning. Schools for so-called wayward kids should not be unlicensed or easily licensed, and they must have strict oversight. Above all, adults should listen when kids speak up about abuse.

Historical Mysteries II

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The journal of Mystery Readers International, which includes essays on various authors’ response to a theme, compiled by Janet Rudolph, are consistent interesting and insightful. I reviewed part 1 of a pair of issues on historical mysteries a few months ago. The second one was released not long ago. The writers represent multiple points of view and provide lots to think about for other writers as well as readers looking to discover new authors they may like.

In that last category, I’m itching to read some of the work of Joe Gores after Catherine Accardi’s tempting essay in the summer 2021 issue. Similarly, David Clark opens the door on a fascinating period when he discusses Michael Russell’s Stefan Gillespie novels set in the nascent nation of Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, when the politics were rough and convoluted.

One of the benefits a well written historical novel can bestow is to bring the murky events and people of past decades into sharp relief enabling readers to see their choices and, one hopes, learn from them (without getting preached at!). As Harald Gilbers writes in the current issue, “The fact that a society with a high cultural level can descend into barbarism is a warning example and I think it is important to tell people how this could happen.” Similarly, Rebecca Cantrell writes about her World War II novels, “People always ask me how ordinary Germans could have allowed this to happen. How democracy could have been so fragile. How hatred and violence could have triumphed over truth and reason. How a civilized country could run to its own destruction.” Good questions worth thinking about. Then the kicker: “No one asks me that now.”

In “Should I tinker with the facts?” Jim Fusilli describes the tension between absolute accuracy and storytelling, when in one of his novels, reversing the timing of two events would enable a stronger narrative. “But doing so would make the story seem less real to me, making it more a work of speculative fiction.” When he wrote this, he was still deciding how to handle this dilemma. Gilbers, by contrast, has made his choice. “I am not allowed to change history for the sake of my narrative.” He see his challenge as recreating a world for his characters that nearly exactly matches what people at the time faced .

What these diverse authors and their stories have in common, is something all historical mystery writers face. As Clare Whitfield put it so well, “The events might be far away, but the people are much closer than you think.”

Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

Managing the Message, 16th Century Style

You think world leaders are using considerable creativity (at times through outrageous lying) to shape public opinion? Imagine the problems of emperors and kings before the 24/7 news cycle, before the Internet, before broadcast, before . . . before . . . before.

No, there weren’t websites and news analysts, and tell-all best-sellers. But that didn’t matter—hardly anyone could read anyway. That’s one reason Shakespeare was such a hit. He told it like it was in a form any rowdy theater-goer could relate to.

Last week, I took a zoom class with art expert and teacher Gene Wisniewski on how Elizabeth I used her portraits to get her political messages across. Today, we’d call them propaganda. She used the portraits to solidify her role as the head of state and the Church of England (after the rather tumultuous succession after Henry VIII) and as a leader on the world stage. Admittedly, she wasn’t in the breaking news business. It takes a while to produce a portrait, especially one where the subject is so elaborately garbed in gems and pearls.

A good example is the portrait above. Gene says to look at it left-to-right, like a cartoon panel. There in the left background is the Spanish Armada, sailing in splendor. Then there’s Elizabeth, dominating the middle, then the Armada on the right, blackened and sinking in defeat. Even subjects unable to read can get the message. Oh, and the hand on the globe. Not just anywhere, either, the Americas. There’s a message.

Gene took us through a succession of the paintings of the queen and what they were meant to convey. Below is was one of my favorites. Do you think Elizabeth wanted her subjects to know she had her eyes and ears on them?

Jewels That Made History

American Ancestors recently featured an entertaining session with author Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine and author of Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends. As jewelry is considered one of the decorative arts, it often hasn’t been taken seriously. Volandes likes to look below the surface to uncover what the piece was designed to convey. Immediately, you think of Madeleine Albright and her carefully curated collection of pins!

Now I look more closely at Queen Elizabeth II, too. Her predecessor, Elizabeth I, used her jewels to express her power. That association was the reason the Justinian code said only the emperor could wear pearls, sapphires, and emeralds. Charles I was beheaded wearing his pearl earring, a symbol of his power & status. With the development of the cultured pearl industry, which accounts for virtually all pearls sold today, they are less rare and, therefore, less precious.

Volandes credited Queen Victoria with creative use of her impressive supply of jewelry, pointing to her use of a coronet (small crown) as a holder for her hair arrangement, as shown in an 1840 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Not just royalty has made a statement with their jewelry choices. Volander said the development of Art Nouveau, which influenced all the decorative arts, can be linked to the opening up of Japan, which inspired a whole new aesthetic tradition. Receptivity to Eastern influences was, in turn, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

When the French wanted to erase the legacy of their aristocracy, the leaders planned to sell the crown jewels. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of New York’s Tiffany & Co., palace of breakfasts, bought many of them in the 1800s. He knew his clientele was hungry for items with a royal provenance, and the act brought him the sobriquet “King of Diamonds.”

One of Tiffany’s best-known gems today is the 128 carat yellow diamond that Lady Gaga wore at the 2019 Academy Awards. She was only the third person to wear it. Tiffany paid $18,000 for it (uncut) in 1877. Now, it’s “basically priceless.”

Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, 2009. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends, by Stellene Volandes, 2020. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore