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Craig Holden
The Jazz Bird
1314 pages
On October 6, 1927, while on the way to the divorce court, the one time wealthiest bootlegger in the country, lawyer George Remus, has his chauffeur follow and harass the taxi in which his wife is riding. When the cars finally stop, he goes to the door of the cab, Imogene flees, and George follows and shoots her dead right there in Cincinnati's Eden Park. Remus, apparently aware enough of what he has done, turns himself into the police.

It is up to Charlie Taft, the youngest son of William Howard Taft, former president and the then Chief Justice, to try this shocking case as Chief Prosecutor. At first it seems that he's handed an easy win, a political benefit to his new position. During the arraignment proceedings, George Remus declares he is not guilty and can prove it was a morally justifiable homicide. Furthermore, George Remus will represent George Remus. Naturally, the state has no objection to this since they think they are being handed a gift.

It's not hard to imagine that Remus had true and deserving motivation to kill Imogene. While in prison for the previous three years, the "untouchable" Agent Frank Dodge turned Imogene into the government's star witness. Furthermore, she was said to have stolen and hid most of his money as well as selling off all his possessions and his businesses. By the time he was released from a series of incarcerations, he has nothing left, including his wife. But Charlie Taft believes that Remus is a smart man, a controlled man, and that if he can find evidence of how Remus would benefit from the murder, then he can prove it was premeditated. His team turns to Agent Dodge for help and he leads them to a clear motivation. He believes that Imogene was going to spill something big on the day of the divorce.

Meanwhile, Taft delves into a diary in which Imogene tells about her first year with George Remus. Taft is fascinated because Imogene is from his same privileged society. He is compelled to understand how this well-bred, fortunate daughter from the top of the Cincinnati society ends up the "moll" of a bootlegger.

Although this novel is based on a historical point in time and on real people, this is a true work of fiction. Out of a sensational trial with many of its own surprises, Craig Holden has rooted out the deepest, if not the most bizarre, love story, creating the strangest twist for what might normally be considered a simple crime of passion. In truth, not much is really known about Imogene Remus, but of what is known, Holden takes many liberties. In the process he creates an intriguing and memorable image of the enigmatic "Jazz Bird," as she is so nicknamed by Remus' men. He portrays Imogene Remus as a smart, restless woman, defiant against her own society and who at once defies and redefines the cold image created by the press during the real trial.

Added into this mix are the courtroom maneuverings and the whole notion of whether or not Remus is sane or insane. After the indictment is handed down, Remus throws the State off by taking on a co-counsel and then enters a plea of not guilty by means of insanity. So the lawyer George Remus declares he is sane enough to try himself yet the plea is that he was insane just before and leading up to the moment of the killing. So when the defense has their turn, guided by Elston, the co-counsel, witness after witness make statements reporting on his "insane" behavior. In courtroom outbursts George publicly tries to defend his sanity but privately feels himself slipping away.

Holden's approach to telling this story is to skillfully weave trial dialogue (although he says that he didn't use any from the transcripts - so this is all fiction as well) with flashback style scenarios of the actual event to help fill in the details and emotions. This clearly works better than a straight courtroom transcript because it allows him to jump perspective between characters and to jump time showing us the earlier years mixed with the current events of the trial. It also allows him to build the courtroom battle between the prosecution and defense, all the time manipulating us so that we come to see the final closing arguments in much the same way as the jury of that time.

The Jazz Bird succeeds in taking a step back in history during the fascinating Prohibition years, a time when the public is more sympathetic to the gangster than to the government. In the end, not even Charlie Taft is completely untouched.

Highly Recommended
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