Book: Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby
Author: Sarah Churchwell
Genre: Non-Fiction/Literary Criticism/F.Scott Fitzgerald/Biography
Summary: “May one offer in exhibit the year 1922!” exclaimed F. Scott Fitzgerald. “That was the peak of the younger generation, for though the Jazz Age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth.” A hinge point for the carefree American born out of the devastation of the First World War, 1922 was also a year that altered the direction of Fitzgerald’s own life - and the year in which he chose to set his masterwork, The Great Gatsby. The autumn of 1922 found the young novelist at the height of his fame, just twenty-six years old and publishing his fourth book, Tales of the Jazz Age. A spokesman for the nation’s pleasure-hungry youth, Fitzgerald made his home in the glamorous and reckless streets of New York - a city dizzyingly defiant of Prohibition, bursting with the nation’s expanding economy and growing ambitions. Those final incredible months of 1922 were full of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald drinking and partying and quarreling at a frantic pace, all against the backdrop of financial crises, literary milestones, car crashes, and media scandals in the Jazz Age metropolis. That same autumn, a horrific crime engulfed the city and commanded the nation’s attention: a brutal double murder in nearby New Jersey, compounded by a preposterous police investigation and an array of celebrity-hungry suspects. Proclaimed the “crime of the decade”, the Hall-Mills murder case was never definitively resolved and has been almost wholly forgotten today. Yet the enormous impact of this bizarre crime reverberates through The Great Gatsby - a novel that Fitzgerald began planning in the autumn of 1922 and whose plot he ultimately set within that fateful year. Careless People is a unique literary investigation: a thrilling double narrative that reconstructs the farcical inquiry into a gruesome crime, as well as a passionate, scrupulous search for the roots of America’s best-loved novel. Overturning much of the received wisdom of the period, Careless People blends biography and history with lost newspaper accounts, letters, and newly discovered materials. With great wit and insight, acclaimed scholar of American literature Sarah Churchwell constructs a different framework for the novel we know so well, revealing new ways of thinking about the moment and the world that defined Scott Fitzgerald’s most consummate work. Most important, Churchwell offers fresh perspectives on the infamous relationship of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, providing for the first time a detailed account of their life at the end of 1922, when the couple’s legendary existence began to splinter, even as Fitzgerald’s marvelous novel began to emerge. Interweaving the biographical story of the Fitzgeralds with the unfolding investigation into the Hall-Mills case, Careless People is a thrilling combination of literary history and murder mystery, a mesmerizing journey into the dark heart of Jazz Age America. - The Penguin Press, 2013.
I was nervous about reading this book because it, too, fell under the umbrella of “non-fiction books I would actually read because the subject matter interests me”. After my dalliance with “Invention of Murder” however, I was nervous about picking up another non-fiction book. But, I bit the bullet and dived in.
Thankfully, this book was an easier read. Churchwell outlines her thesis very clearly and has a solid outline for the book, making her thought processes easy to follow. The outline is simple. She frames the writing of the Gatsby story within the year it takes place, giving the historical background for the novel alongside the novel itself. She explains the context and lifestyle that the characters of Gatsby while giving background to Fitzgerald’s own doings that year.
The book is focused more on the novel and Fitzgerald than on the murder mystery mentioned in the summary so don’t expect too much information on it. It’s not only because of the fact that it’s unsolved, but because there’s not much to say about it after it took place. It turns out the investigation was botched to begin with and as it became more unraveled, the less relevant it became. So, even though the summary mentions it, don’t expect a ton of the book’s focus to be on it. The connection of the murder to Gatsby is pretty dubious and fizzles out very quickly. You can make the assumption, as Churchwell does, that it inspired Fitzgerald, but it’s a risky connection.
Though it is not necessarily required, knowledge of the novel and of the 1920s helps deepen the experience of the read. If you don’t know much about the 1920s, you’ll be getting a nice, intimate portrait of the period through the eyes of Fitzgerald and his friends.
The writing is very easy to read. It flows well and sometimes is even reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s writing. It’s not academic at all in tone. It’s very conversational, which I think contributes to the easiness of the read.
Overall, it’s a nice read. I wouldn’t say it’s a life-changing, eye-opening read, but it’s still a pleasant book. Fans of the Gatsby novel or even just fans of Fitzgerald would enjoy the book the most.
I give Careless People an A-.
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