DOING TIME ON PLANET SLADE: THE PAUL SLADE INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)

One look at Paul Slade’s web-site (Planet Slade) is all you’ll need to understand the author of the new tome, UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM. You will see that Paul is not only one of the busiest men in the realm of journalistic endeavor, he is also one of the most inquisitive; that innate need to know has taken the man down some very dark backroads and alleys, into the sewers of London and the very bowels of England’s Parliament; that need to know has forced this gentle being to explore the warped psyches of criminals and vicious murderers. The time and effort put into researching the subject matter for his essays (which fall into three basic categories: “Murder Ballads,” “Secret London” and “Miscellany,” which Slade describes as “anything else I damn well feel like including”) is a full time job in itself; turning that research into entertaining pieces on significant or historic events is an art form. Working and living on Planet Slade led Paul to the idea of turning the “Murder Ballads” page of the site into a book on the subject. And, now, without further ado, we’re off to visit Planet Slade to discuss, among other things, Paul’s new book (the interview was conducted via e-mail; Iv’e kept intact the original English spellings from Paul’s replies)…

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW

THE MULE: Paul, thanks for the great book and for taking the time to answer a few questions. First, let’s get into a bit of personal history. You’ve been a journalist for nearly 35 years. What led you down this path? Where did you start your journalistic career and what were the first stories you covered?

PAUL: When I finished my Business Studies degree in 1980, I had no idea at all how I wanted to make a living. The Watergate affair of the early 1970s had left me with a rather romantic view of journalism and I’d always enjoyed writing, so that was one of the very few areas that appealed to me, but I had no idea how to go about making that dream a reality. Then I stumbled across the media recruitment ads which THE GUARDIAN carried once a week and realised for the first time that it was possible to apply for entry-level reporters’ jobs on magazines and newspapers all over the UK.

I spent the next six months or so applying for any job in that section that looked remotely feasible and eventually struck lucky at CHEMIST AND DRUGGIST, a weekly trade magazine for retail pharmacists. They took me on to write a couple of pages of business news every week and that’s where I got my start. I was reporting company results, industry rows, boardroom changes and that kind of thing. The editor there drilled the basics of good journalistic practice into all his young team, so it proved a very good foundation.

I spent four years on C&D, then got a job on a new launch called MONEY MARKETING, which took off very rapidly and won several awards. That led to some freelancing for the nationals’ personal finance sections and the occasional bit of freelance music writing. Gradually, I managed to shift my output more towards the popular culture journalism I really wanted to do, and PlanetSlade followed in 2009.

THE MULE: I’ve been listening to music – including several of the songs chronicled in UNPREPARED TO DIE – for a very long time and, I must admit, the term “Murder Ballad” was unknown to me until Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS version of “Delia’s Gone.” Can you give the readers a quick definition of the term and a brief history of the oral and lyrical traditions involved?

PAUL: I suppose a murder ballad would be any song which tells the story of an unlawful homicide – whether that story is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two. That’s a very wide field, though and I knew I’d have to adopt a tighter definition for my own work if I was ever going to do more than scratch the surface of any given song. Hence, I limit myself to those songs which tell the story of an identifiable real murder. I also decided to concentrate on songs which had been covered many times by many different artists, as these varying interpretations add an interesting extra dimension to the song’s history.

I always envisage this process as roping off a single square of turf in an enormous meadow and digging down as deep as I can in that one area alone. If I tried to excavate the entire meadow, I’d never penetrate more than an inch or two below the surface, which would not be very satisfying for either me or my readers.

Although the word’s used much more loosely these days, a ballad is actually a strict poetic form with its own rules – just as a sonnet or a limerick is. The basic structure is provided by alternating three-beat and four-beat lines, with the second and fourth lines of each verse rhyming. The opening verse of “Knoxville Girl” is a good example and here it is with the beats marked:

I met a little girl in Knoxville,

That town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening,

Out at her house I’d dwell.

The ballad form is fairly bursting with narrative momentum, which makes it an excellent way of telling a story. In the case of that “Knoxville Girl” verse, we’re only four lines into the song, but the story’s already well underway and we’re anxious to find out what happens next. The words’ steady rhythm means they’re half-musical already and easy to remember, so small wonder written ballad verses are so often transformed into songs. Whether used by the gutter poets of the Victorian age or by great artists like Coleridge and Wilde, the ballad form is irresistible.

Murder stories aren’t the only ones ballads tell, of course, but it’s only natural that this form should have been selected when 17th, 18th and 19th century British people had a murder tale to tell. Printed ballad sheets telling the killer’s story were sold at public hangings all over Britain until around 1850 and sometimes sung by the sellers to advertise their wares. The most popular sheets sold well over two million copies.

Folk singers have always loved the ballad form too, and are never happier than when a good juicy murder is the ballad’s subject. Traditional songs like these are polished by each new generation of singers which adopt them, constantly editing the song till only the core of the story and its most memorable images remain.

Many of the classic American murder ballads have their roots in much older British songs recording real murders. Early settlers took these songs with them across the Atlantic, later adapting them to their new surroundings. “Knoxville Girl” traces directly back to a British ballad called “The Bloody Miller,” which was written around 1683. “Pretty Polly” began life as a British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy,” which dates back to the first half of the 19th century. In their new Americanised form, these songs retain not only their ballad structure, but also much of the language and imagery coined by their original versions – sometimes word-for-word.

Just as happened in Britain, the American songs were taken from town to town by travelling musicians. Home-grown American ballads could be used to spread news from one isolated rural community to another. This was a time long before radio, remember, when even those people who could read might have access to a newspaper only on their monthly trips to the nearest town. Ballads were sung to tell all kinds of stories, but a good sensational murder always been hard to beat for grabbing the audience’s attention. Murder songs’ appeal springs from the same quirk in human nature which makes us watch cop shows on TV or read true crime stories in tabloid newspapers.

THE MULE: How much of your previous work can be seen as a genesis for the material in UNPREPARED TO DIE and on your website, planetslade.com? Where did your interest in the murder ballad genre originate? Which song, in particular, fueled that interest?

PAUL: I’d done odd bits of writing for the music press before turning my attention to murder ballads, but nothing that involved analysing individual songs in any depth. That’s about the extent of the heritage as far as subject matter is concerned. More important were the skills and good habits I’d picked up in journalism of all kinds. This work had taught me the importance of getting my facts right, given me the research experience to chase those facts down and allowed me to hone my writing to a point where I could articulate exactly what I wanted to say in a clear, gripping and entertaining way.

I think I also benefitted from the fact that I’m old enough to have worked for many years in the pre-internet era. Where younger writers might assume any information that’s yet to be digitised simply doesn’t exist, I knew to dig deep among the dusty book shelves of Britain and America’s bricks-and-mortar libraries too. For all the convenience of Google, there are vast swathes of human knowledge which remain stored on paper alone, and my advanced age meant I was lucky enough to realise that.

I can think of three things which got me started seriously researching murder ballads and they all date from the noughties. Two of these three prompts directly involve “Stagger Lee,” so I guess I’d have to say that was the single most important song which drew me in.

It all began when I heard the radio DJ Andy Kershaw mention on his BBC Radio 3 show that he collected recordings of “La Bamba.” The idea of collecting one particular song in this way appealed to me, so I began collecting different recordings of “Stagger Lee.” I can’t remember why I settled on that particular song, but I’m sure Nick Cave’s stunning 1996 version of it played a part. Also, I already knew there were an awful lot of recordings of “Stagger Lee” to collect, which made finding as many as possible of them an intriguing challenge. The internet was then still in its infancy, so hunting out obscure records hadn’t yet become too easy to provide any satisfaction.

About a year later, I bought THE EXECUTIONER’S LAST SONGS, a 2002 Bloodshot Records compilation put together by Jon Langford of the Mekons. He’d taken the album on to raise funds for a death penalty moratorium project in Illinois. Langford’s approach was to team the best of our era’s Americana performers with classic murder ballads of all kinds: “The idea was to use death songs against the death penalty”, he told me.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Cover for Bloodshot Records' 2002 compilation, THE EXECUTIONER'S LAST SONGS)

The album’s highlights include Steve Earle’s version of “Tom Dooley,” the Handsome Family’s take on “Knoxville Girl” and Neko Case doing “Poor Ellen Smith.” Hearing so many great versions of these ballads on a single album got me thinking about the songs much more deeply and noticing the strands they had in common. Often, the killer’s logic seemed to be, “I love you, therefore I must kill you” and that stuck in my mind. What an odd way to look at the world.

Fast forward now to San Francisco in 2003, where I was enjoying a holiday. I spent one afternoon there mooching around in the basement music section at City Lights, the legendary counter-culture bookstore, where I found a copy of Cecil Brown’s STAGOLEE SHOT BILLY, a book telling the true story behind “Stagger Lee” itself. Reading that in a bar the same evening, I understood for the first time that many of the classic murder ballads were based on real crimes – and that those crimes were often recent enough to be researched in the newspaper archives. I started writing about murder ballads on my website a few years after that, and it’s those essays which eventually led to the book.

THE MULE: Your research into the eight ballads included in the book is painstaking. How long did the research into the true facts in this collection take? The murder ballad seems to be, primarily, a phenomenon of the American South. Did the origins of one tale prove more difficult to trace than the others? Did you discover information about these eight stories that surprised you?

PAUL: It’s hard to put a firm timescale on this. I started researching murder ballads properly in 2009, when I was getting PlanetSlade started, and finally published my book at the end of 2015. I was doing all sorts of other writing throughout those six years as well, though.

The bulk of my early work on murder ballads went into PlanetSlade’s essays (but again proved very useful when the book deal came up). Whenever I could manage a vacation trip to the US, I chose a city with links to one of my chosen ballads, where I’d spend a few days visiting the murder scene and all the relevant graves. These trips took me to Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Indiana.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family's eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family’s eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)

Writing the book ate up most of 2015, though I took a month away from the keyboard for one final research trip. The area around Winstom-Salem and Charlotte seems to be “Ground Zero” for the killings that inspire songs like these, so I gave myself three solid weeks in North Carolina researching “Tom Dooley,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Murder of the Lawson Family.” As on all my research trips, I took the opportunity to interview local historians and musicians there, as well as to walk the killers’ own streets and make them as real as I could in my own mind.

On my way down to North Carolina, I paused in New York for a meal with the country singer Laura Cantrell, who I knew was particularly interested in “Poor Ellen Smith.” Laura gave me some useful clues on the song’s origin, but I had a lot of difficulty tracing these back to the song’s birth. With the book’s deadline looming, I’d resigned myself to admitting this failure in print. I did decide on one final plunge into the newspaper archives before giving up altogether, though, and this time a lucky chance produced exactly the information I needed. A few hours later, I had not only found the 1893 article which printed this song’s first-ever lyrics, but also identified the jailbird mule thief who wrote them. That was a very satisfying moment.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)

There were surprises in the research for every song. I’d had no idea how deeply the “Stagger Lee” killing was embroiled in Saint Louis’ party politics, for example, with Republicans determined to see the killer hang and Democrats lobbying for his early release. The central role syphilis played in “Tom Dooley’s” murder of Laura Foster came as a shock too, as did the revelation that “Pretty Polly’s” parent song was so closely tied to Britain’s Royal Navy. I hadn’t known that “Frankie and Johnny’s” Frankie Baker had sued two Hollywood studios over distorted adaptations of her song’s story either – let alone that she’d dragged Mae West into one of those actions.

THE MULE: Obviously, this book was not written in a day or two. From the time the idea came into your head ’til you finished it, how long did you work on this project? Did your research and work extend to other ballads? Would you be interested in working on a sequel?

PAUL: As I said above, I’d been researching murder ballads – at least intermittently – ever since 2009. The bulk of the book’s work got done in 2015, though. I started writing it in February that year and delivered the finished manuscript six months later.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula's grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula’s grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

It was a fairly tight deadline, so I had to keep all my focus just on the eight songs covered in the book, which are “Stagger Lee,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Tom Dooley,” “Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” “Murder of the Lawson Family” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I was determined to interview at least one relevant musician for each of the songs, which gave me a good excuse to arrange conversations with favourite songwriters like Billy Bragg, Dave Alvin and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey.

I do have one idea for a follow-up book, this one looking at the British gallows ballads which were sold at public hangings, but it’s a bit too early to talk about that.

THE MULE: The psychology behind these acts is as interesting as the stories and historical references. Was there one story that caused you to reevaluate your stance, once you researched the psychological aspects of the parties involved?

PAUL: There was one song that really got to me, but it’s one I wrote about on my website rather than in the book. It’s called “Misses Dyer, the Old Baby-Farmer” and it tells the true story of a woman in Victorian London who took in disgraced girls’ illegitimate babies, promising to give them a home. As soon as she had the money the girl paid her for this service, she’d simply stifle the baby and dump it in the Thames. This happened at the end of the 19th century and she’s thought to have murdered more than 40 babies in all.

I spent about a week researching this squalid, nihilistic tale and writing it up. By the time I’d finished I had a very bleak view of the human race and just wanted to scrub my brain clean of the whole tale. I often wonder how spending a full year or 18 months immersed in the life of a serial killer must affect the writers of these people’s biographies. Inviting Jeffrey Dahmer into your head to write a book about him is one thing, but persuading him to leave again when the job’s done may not prove so simple.

THE MULE: I was surprised to learn that both “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” were based on events from just across the Mississippi from my home. The story of Frankie Baker, in particular, touched something inside me…. the fact that at least three movies have used the lyrics, or simply the song title, as a jumping off spot for their script, but her real story has never been told in any meaningful way. Why do you believe her story remains largely unknown?

PAUL: I think the fact that the song’s twice been a chart hit – once for Elvis Presley and once for Sam Cooke – has worked against the real story. Neither of these chart versions bear any resemblance to what really happened, and all the movie adaptations just create further confusion. In Presley’s version, Frankie’s a singer working the Mississippi riverboats, in Sam Cooke’s she’s rich enough to buy Johnny a sports car and in Mae West’s 1933 film she marries an FBI agent. Plus, of course, she’s always a white woman.

The real story – young black sex worker kills her pimp in self-defence – is far more interesting than any of these sanitised versions, but it’s been obscured by so many distortions over the years that the genuine Frankie Baker gets lost.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)

The quote from Frankie herself that lingers most strongly with me came when she was protesting yet another cavalier Hollywood treatment of her story and the unwelcome attention which these films always brought. “I know that I’m black, but even so I have my rights,” she pleaded to one reporter. “If people had left me alone, I’d have forgotten about his thing a long time ago.” The humility and resignation of that remark breaks my heart every time I hear it.

THE MULE: Aside from your very entertaining pieces at PlanetSlade, what future works can we expect to see from the mind and desk of Paul Slade?

PAUL: I’m working on a new PlanetSlade essay at the moment, which springs from a very interesting artefact I recently discovered. It was made to commemorate a real 19th century US murder of the 1880s and, like all the best objects of this kind, leads anyone researching it into some very interesting tangents and unexpected discoveries. I don’t want to say anything more about that piece for the moment, but it looks set to keep me busy for at least the next month or so. After that, who knows?

PART THREE: UNPREPARED TO DIE

(Paul Slade; 290 pages; SOUNDCHECK BOOKS, 2015)

Front cover

Let me begin by stating, “What a great read!” Most of us have heard at least one version of at least one of the eight ballads discussed in UNPREPARED TO DIE, whether it be the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” or Sam Cooke’s “Frankie and Johnny.” I hadn’t heard the term “Murder Ballad” until it was used in reference to “Delia’s Gone” from Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS in 1994; I certainly didn’t know that tunes so named were based on actual killings (after reading Slade’s book, it’s kinda hard to call some of the cases “murder”). Maybe it was because songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagger Lee” and “Tom Dooley” were such fixtures on radio and television and in the movies when I was a kid that I never really paid much attention to the dark stories told through the lyrics. Whatever the reason, those tunes were simply background noise in my youth, with a melody so stunningly simple yet so immediately captivating that they ended up getting lodged in the old brainpan and tended to make their way to the top of my internal playlist at the oddest times. I now have a deeper understanding of where those songs originated and more than a passing respect for the original balladeers and the musicians who have kept the songs alive for so long… in some cases several hundred years.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)

Slade’s writing throughout these eight essays, while scholarly in its depth, is very conversational in its delivery. In other words, he manages to get to the heart of the matter with decades (or centuries) old facts without boring the reader. As it turns out, the least compelling story is the one surrounding Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which tells of the sadistic murder of a 51 year old barmaid in Baltimore in 1963, the year Dylan wrote the song. Miss Carroll was black, her attacker was a wealthy and arrogant white man. While reading Slade’s account and history of the brutal act, as well as the grossly inappropriate sentence meted out to her attacker, one thought that ran through my mind was, “None of this right! This should never have happened,” but, I also thought, “Let’s get back to some more of those hundred-year-old cases.” I hate to say it, but… it appears that Hattie Carroll’s murder was just too recent and too mundane to keep my interest. Obviously, though, it piqued enough interest in both Dylan and Slade to be the subject of a song and a chapter in UNPREPARED TO DIE.

UNPREPARED TO DIE ("They all were buried in a crowded grave." Paul Slade at the Lawson family's plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (“They all were buried in a crowded grave.” Paul Slade at the Lawson family’s plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

The other pieces, “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” in particular, really managed to keep me involved in the stories of both the victims and the killers. In the case of Frankie Baker, who was charged with murdering her boyfriend, Allen Britt, for “paying attention to another woman,” the song is far more famous than the actual Saint Louis case. The song actually led to Miss Baker leaving Saint Louis, settling first in Nebraska, then moving on to Oregon; it seems that wherever she went, the song and the rumors followed. It’s amazing that, in the nearly 120 since Frankie killed Allen, at least three different movies (one starring Mae West, another Elvis Presley) have been produced based on the “Frankie and Johnny” song, but not one has bothered to tell the real story. “The Murder of the Lawson Family” is a gruesome tale of mental illness, probable incest, a guilty conscience and – after the fact – unimaginable greed. On Christmas Day, 1929, North Carolina tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson slaughtered his wife and six of their seven children before killing himself. Slade’s examination of the case presents several possible scenarios for what led to such a very bloody Christmas present, including an earlier brain injury and an incestuous rape of the Lawson’s oldest daughter. The latter theory posits that Lawson’s wife, Fannie, had discovered that daughter Marie was pregnant and that Charlie was his grandchild’s father. These and other factors led to a perfect storm of despair in Charlie’s mind, leaving only one solution. Several moneymaking schemes from Charlie’s brother and nephew after the tragedy are nearly as grotesque as the actual killing spree.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)

Along with the retelling of events for each of the eight killings (more than a few are of the jealous rage or “you done me wrong” variety), are interviews with historians and, more compelling, many of the musicians responsible for keeping the “Murder Ballad” alive as a viable musical genre. Insight into the art form and the songs themselves is offered from Dave Alvin, Billy Bragg, Laura Cantrell and others. Following each chapter is a list of ten of the most iconic versions of the song discussed therein, dating from the early 1920s through to some of the most recent versions, performed by many of the musicians interviewed for the book. And, like most good releases nowadays, UNPREPARED TO DIE includes several bonus features, which can be found here. The bonus material includes additional thoughts from the various musicians on each song, the genre in particular and much more (like Dave Alvin’s musings regarding killer bees), as well as play lists for each chapter. Whether you’re a music fan, a history fan or a true crime fan, UNPREPARED TO DIE should be right up your dark alley. UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM is available directly from Soundcheck Books, Amazon or any of the usual outlets.


THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA

(Bret M Herholz/Rori Shapiro/Peter Simeti; 74 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2008) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

cover

In younger days, my parents and I would gather around the television on Sunday evenings to enjoy a PBS program called MYSTERY!, an anthology of murderous delights hosted by Vincent Price and, later, Diana Rigg. That sentence is relevant to this review on a few levels: First, this story is a murder mystery; second, it features artwork inspired, no doubt, by Edward Gorey, the creator of the original opening animation for the show; third, though the story takes place in Massachusetts, there is something very British – like most of the tales presented on MYSTERY! – about the style of storytelling used here. And, finally, of course, is the fact that the convergence of those first three, added to my already professed enjoyment of the MYSTERY! series, means that I really like A SINISTER AURA and would certainly like to see more of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 1 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 1 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

The story itself is “loosely based on real events” that occurred in 1899, updated here to 1929 and featuring the fictional amateur sleuths Polly Plum and her very prim, very proper, very British valet, Montgolfier Handgraves. As befits such a tale, it is a dark and stormy night as the pair seek refuge from the inclement weather in a small town just outside Worcester. The intrigue is well underway upon their arrival, as the police have arrived at the Hampstead mansion across from the inn. It would seem that the Hampstead’s only son, Lionel, on the virtual doorstep of matrimony to Ivy Proust, the eldest daughter of the town’s other leading family, has committed suicide because, according to newspaper headlines, he was “to timid to marry.” Miss Plum is, apparently, much more than an amateur sleuth, as she begins to have visions of two men, one with a wound amazingly like the one suffered by the younger Hampstead. The visitors find the police to be vague, tight-lipped and just a bit shady. With minor subterfuge from Handgraves, Polly sneaks past the local constabulary and into the Hampstead home to investigate the scene of Lionel’s demise. Unfortunately for Polly, the one police officer who senses that all is not right, Detective Fiske, catches her moments before the man of the house walks into the room. Outraged, Mister Hampstead demands Polly’s removal. As the case moves into a second night, Polly has another dream of another supposed suicide, this time Ivy Proust’s mother; Fiske contacts her to join him at the cemetery, the scene of the… incident. Things begin to fall into place after Handgraves interviews a person close to both victims and Polly and Fiske confront Hampstead once more. The wrap up is quite satisfying without cutting any corners.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 2 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 2 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

Herholz’ home town history and his imaginative retelling of the story goes a long way toward proving that much of the best comics and graphic novel material is coming from independent sources like the phenomenal Alterna Comics. Likewise, Bret’s art (ably aided by Rori Shapiro’s gray tones and the unique lettering style of publisher Peter Simeti) offers something beyond the Manga and drawn-by-a-five-year-old styles that are prevalent in some of the majors’ books (uh… cough, cough… Marvel!… cough). As mentioned above, his style reminds me very much of the masterful Edward Gorey; but, I also see elements of another master of the understated macabre… Charles Aadams himself (something about the eyes and the mouths and, of course, those creepy mansions). At first glance, the art doesn’t seem all that elaborate or complex but, dig a bit deeper and check out those odd perspectives and the minute details hiding in the background ink lines and cross-hatching. Miss Shapiro’s work on the original pen and ink adds a certain eerie depth to Herholz’ stark black and white art, a real plus on this particular story. Bret’s (and Rori’s) work is also on display in several other graphic novel titles from Alterna, including a Sherlock Holmes mystery and an anthology called CONFESSIONS OF A PECULIAR BOY.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 3 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 3 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

As for this book, it does come with some “bonus material.” A message from Herholz regarding his desire to do something based around the 1899 murders in his hometown of Spencer, Massachusetts that became the focal point of A SINISTER AURA, in which he takes us through the creative process. Of note is the creation of the fictional members of the story, particularly Polly and Handgraves. It was always Bret‘s intent to make Polly the defacto leader of the pair, with Handgraves becoming, as he puts it, “the and… ” of the team. There’s also a bonus short piece called THE AUSTEREFIELD FAMILY REUNION, another bleak look into family dynamics. This time around, the story reads like a fairy tale and Herholz’ art is unadorned by the gray tones of the title feature, which seems to work best for this peek into the morally corrupt Austerefield clan. Unfortunately, the print version of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA is no longer available but, you can still pick up a digital copy from ComiXology. Do it now… your eyes will thank you (and, by extension, me, so… you’re welcome).


TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE, AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD

(William J Mann; 463 pages; HARPER BOOKS/HARPER-COLLINS PUBLISHERS; 2014)

9780062242167

William J Mann’s new book is an historical, scholarly and meticulously researched look at the earliest days of Hollywood that reads like one of the best murder mysteries you’re likely to come across this year. The story delves into the lengths that an entire industry would go to to cover up a scandal… any scandal. As “moving pictures” or “flickers,” as they were called, began to take hold of a public looking for the next new thing in entertainment, there were no rules; churches and civic groups didn’t like that and began crusades to censor the industry in hopes of crippling it to the point that it would fold in upon itself and just go away. Those moguls who were making money hand over fist were, naturally, not inclined to let that happen.

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

Beginning in 1917, and through 1923, drugs, suicide, murder, rape and lasciviousness of every nature befell the motion picture industry, as the hard-living individuals who appeared on the nation’s silver screens carried on their private lives. In retrospect, these things were happening in virtually every walk of life but, the utility worker down the street stepping out on his wife wasn’t as glamorous or newsworthy as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s reportedly drunken soiree where a young actress named Virginia Rappe was one of the guests. Arbuckle was, famously, accused of raping the young woman in a drunken stupor, his enormous weight causing her bladder to rupture, leading to her death. The courts (and three separate juries – the first two unable to come to a verdict) eventually acquitted Arbuckle of all charges, but his career was, ostensibly, over from the time he opened the door of his hotel room to the revelers on that day in September, 1921 when Virginia Rappe took ill. He was brought back to Paramount Studios on a probationary status; the studio released one of the movies Fatty had made before his arrest and all seemed well… until the 1920s’ version of the thought police threatened to close down every theater that would show such filth as a Fatty Arbuckle comedy. The Roscoe Arbuckle story and trial play as a backdrop to the real tale here.

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

Hollywood, in the ’20s, was a very different place than it is today; the movie industry was definitely more concerned with the public’s opinions of their stars. Paying off newspaper editors to keep their stars’ names out of the headlines, covering up evidence and flat out lying to the authorities was standard operating procedures from studio heads (one, in particular, Adolph Zukor of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount, was especially adept at keeping the tarnish off of his stars). One of the foremost directors of this early era of movie-making was William Desmond Taylor; Billy, as the ladies called him, worked for Zukor. Sometime around eight in the evening of February 1, 1922, Taylor was murdered in his home. The list of suspects in the crime was a crowded one, including stars and former stars of the film industry, friends, employees and former employees of the deceased, the haves and the have-nots and the power players of the Hollywood movie machine. The murder was virtually forgotten until 1964, when one of the original suspects made a dying confession to the son of a neighbor; still, it took years of digging and research before a definitive answer to an eighty year-old mystery could be laid to rest. As ghoulish as it may sound, the fun of this story is wading through the murder and the depravity that led to it. Mann is a master storyteller, delivering a riveting look at the early twentieth century’s movers and hustlers, all the while never losing sight of the facts of the case; sometimes those facts and the wildly over-the-top personalities involved seem far to bizarre to be a true crime story.

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

The suspects include the four notable women in Taylor’s life: Mabel Normand, a hard-living comedy actress (she was alternately known as was “the Queen of Comedy” and “the Female Chaplin”), best known for a series of films co-starring Arbuckle and a very public dalliance with cocaine and other illicit drugs, including bootleg liquor (it was, after all, the height of prohibition); Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, a struggling actress and two-bit scam artist who fell out of favor at the major studios after being arrested for prostitution in 1917, the first of the many scandals to hit the industry over the next six years (she tried to reinvent herself by trimming five years off her age and calling herself Patricia Palmer… she was marginally more successful); Mary Miles Minter, a teenage beauty touted as the “next Mary Pickford,” with an all-consuming schoolgirl crush on Taylor; Charlotte Shelby, a bullying stage mother who had forbidden her daughter, Mary, to see Taylor and threatened Taylor, telling him to keep away from her meal-ticket. Most of the circumstantial evidence suggested that Mary Minter’s mother was the guilty party, a fact exacerbated by a district attorney seemingly protecting her at every turn in the case. As much as the life and foibles of William Desmond Taylor are laid bare here, Mann, likewise, does his due diligence in uncovering even the minutest detail in the lives of these four remarkable women; no stone is left unturned.

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

Other candidates included Edward Sands, Taylor’s former valet, who was fired for forgery and other indiscretions (some believed Sands had been blackmailing the director, who’s secret life – lives, actually – would have destroyed him and embroiled the studio in another scandal); Don Osborn, “Blackie” Madsen or any of the other two-bit thugs and confidence men that “Gibby” took up with in her never-ending effort to be “somebody,” which to her, meant someone with an endless supply of cash; an unknown drug dealer that Taylor threw out of Normand’s house after the man tried to sell dope to the recovering addict; one of the many religious zealots who saw Taylor’s life and work as morally abhorrent. Some of the suspects were dismissed out of hand, particularly the cute, little eighteen year-old, Mary Minter, because… well, who ever heard of a little girl killing someone? Others were investigated and cleared, including the first suspect, Taylor’s then-current valet, Henry Peavey; that scenario seemed to make the most sense initially, as Peavy had a record (for soliciting young men for sexual purposes… not only was that illegal, it was “send-a-guy-to-Hell” immoral) and, of course, he was black.

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

As Mann relates all of the available information, peeling away the layers of cover-ups, lies, innuendo and downright fiction, he breathes life into the long-dead bones of, not only Taylor, but everyone related in any way to the concentric circle of his influence. Obviously, there is much more to this story than I’ve related here; my job is to pique your interest about the book without giving everything away. Any fan of the silent film era, of historic insights into the years leading up to the dawn of what became known as “the Roaring ’20s,” or of a good old murder mystery will find much to like about TINSELTOWN. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a boring, sterile thesis, offering the facts and nothing but the facts in a very precise, analytical fashion. But, then, who would want to read something like that? Certainly not me! Thankfully, William J Mann understood that and, without ignoring evidence and substance in favor of literary glitz, has written what is generally referred to as a “page-turner.”