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

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who knows me knows that The Great Gatsby is one of my very favorite books. I absolutely love the fresh look Careless People brings to the well-worn mythology surrounding Gatsby and its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. This careful analysis of Fitzgerald as a writer immersed in the milieu of 1920s America and Europe amazingly finds new ground to cover thanks to author Sarah Churchwell’s use of many primary sources, including newspapers and magazines of the time.

Careless People uses as its framework a cryptic list Fitzgerald scribbled into the back of a novel he owned near the end of his life. From this list, Churchwell gives us nothing less than a fascinating window into Fitzgerald’s life and times, including newspaper stories of a lurid double-murder that surely would have caught Fitzgerald’s eye. The Hall-Mills double murder, which occurred in 1922 (the year in which Gatsby was set) had as its victims an adulterous couple: a church rector married to a wealthy woman and his lover, a restless, ambitious woman from his congregation who was married to a drab, unsuitable man. The crime was never solved, likely thanks to poor investigative techniques and a failure to secure the crime scene.

Churchwell points out how telling details of the Hall-Mills murder may have found their way into Fitzgerald’s subconscious and therefore, into the text of Gatsby, which also ends in the murders of two adulterers. Along the way, the reader learns more about the Jazz Age and the romantic and social entanglements of its beautiful and doomed literary figures as they waltzed their way towards the precipice of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Very highly recommended.

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