Review of An Accidental Corpse in 27East

Oct 10, 2018
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In her nearly 30 years as director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, Helen A. Harrison has made it her mission to accurately depict the life and art of Jackson Pollock.

Now, she’s just finished a project in which she starts with the truth but flips it end over end, literally.

That’s what happens in the opening chapters of Ms. Harrison’s new novel, “The Accidental Corpse,” which begins with the infamous car wreck that took the artist’s life, and the life of one of his two passengers, on August 11, 1956, when a drunk Pollock veered off the road in his 1950 Oldsmobile convertible.

Though his wife, Lee Krasner, was in Paris at the time, in the car were Pollock’s 26-year-old mistress, Ruth Kligman, and her friend Edith Metzger, who had come out from the city for the weekend. After veering off the roadway, Pollock’s car pivoted and skirted over a couple of small trees that caused it to flip end over end back toward the road, until it came to a rest upside down on the side of Springs-Fireplace Road.

Kligman alone survived the crash.

In real life, the accident and deaths of Pollock and Metzger were ruled exactly that, accidental. In Ms. Harrison’s book, something else is afoot—specifically, murder.

“That part’s completely made up,” confessed Ms. Harrison in a recent interview at the Pollock-Krasner House.

It turns out that Ms. Harrison is not only a knowledgeable purveyor of all things Pollock, she is also an avid fan of murder mysteries. 

“An Accidental Corpse” is an intriguing whodunit set in the art world of the Hamptons circa 1950s. There are lots of well-known artistic names in the book—Alfonso Ossorio and Charlotte and James Brooks, for example—familiar local landmarks like Ashawagh Hall, and insider descriptions like that of the point at which Springs-Fireplace Road turns from concrete to pavement.

But there are also fictional twists and characters in the book, including its protagonists, New York City Police Detective Juanita Fitzgerald and her police captain husband, Brian, who find themselves involved in the investigation that follows the accident.

In the story, the Fitzgeralds and their young son, T.J., are vacationing at the Sea Spray cottages near Main Beach in East Hampton. One night while driving back to the cottages after dinner at Jungle Pete’s—a real-life but long-gone eatery in Springs—they witness (and are nearly involved in) Pollock’s fatal accident.

The following morning, they learn from the coroner that Edith Metzger did not die from injuries sustained in the crash, but was already dead when it occurred, having been strangled earlier in the evening.

“What I wrote about the accident is accurate. Pollock hit a tree, and his skull was fractured. Ruth was thrown clear, and the car rolled over on Edith and killed her,” Ms. Harrison said. “But I made Edith dead before the crash.”

While the story of Pollock’s life, his background and character is essentially what is already known, Ms. Harrison twisted the old information and found some that was new. “Details like the funeral records I hadn’t seen were very interesting,” Ms. Harrison said.

For readers, perhaps one of the most shocking real-life details of Pollock’s accident is the fact that his wasn’t the only deadly car crash that weekend—there was a total of 10 fatalities on the South Fork. Ms. Harrison notes that, in Southampton, a car full of people leaving a nightclub was hit by another vehicle, and four or five people died in that one accident alone.

That fact gave Ms. Harrison the opening to work in her fictional characters. With the local authorities stretched thin due to the high number of fatalities, the fictional Fitzgeralds are able to step in and lend their expertise to the Pollock investigation by assisting Earl Finch, the East Hampton Town patrolman who responded to the scene, as he investigates the case.

“After almost 30 years of research on the artists of this region, I had a whole backlog of information. I didn’t have to reach too far, but I had to doctor it to match the plot,” Ms. Harrison said. “The revelation is I don’t have to look it up if don’t want to. It was liberating—but it has to make sense.”

“What is truth? You only know what you know. I’m discovering things all the time as a historian, correcting old mistakes,” she added. “But history is different, because you’re aiming to be accurate.”

In writing the mystery, Ms. Harrison discovered new facts about what was happening in East Hampton in the summer of 1956. Among them were those records from Yardley and Williams funeral home (which handled the arrangements for Pollock and Metzger), the Blue Book in the Long Island Collection at the East Hampton Library that detailed what well-known people were here, and information on the hotel adjacent to the Sea Spray cottages that burned down in 1978.

“The East Hampton Library had postcards of it, and if you look in The East Hampton Star, you’ll see ads for Saturday night dances there,” Ms. Harrison said of the old hotel. “I was noodling around on the internet and I found a self-published memoir written by a guy who was a waiter there in 1959.

“He describes the TV set in the main room of the hotel and the dining room,” she added. “So, of course, I sent him a copy of my book.”

Other real locales in the book are Sam’s Restaurant on Newtown Lane and, of course, Jungle Pete’s, which is now the Springs Tavern. In the book, Ms. Harrison says that the name came from owner Pete Federico, who served in the jungle during World War II—but, in real life, Ms. Harrison learned it was coined in the late 1920s, when the restaurant was the only structure on the road.

“To get to it from Fort Pond Boulevard, you went through a jungle of trees and there were no houses,” Ms. Harrison said.

But playing loose with the facts is half the fun of writing a mystery, and it was a liberating exercise for Ms. Harrison. Incidentally, this is not the first time she has inserted a timely and fictional murder into the New York art scene. In 2016, she self-published “An Exquisite Corpse.” Set in New York City in 1943 among the inner circle of the Surrealists, Pollock and Krasner are featured as minor characters in the book, and this is where the New York City police couple are first introduced to readers.

“I thought, ‘These people have possibility. What more can I do with them?’ So I decided to bring them out here in 1956,” she said. “What’s more natural than having them witness the car crash?”

Dunemere Books is the publisher of “An Accidental Corpse.” The company, which was founded in 2015 by sisters Elizabeth Doyle Carey and Carrie Doyle and specializes in murder mysteries set in the Hamptons, now plans to release Ms. Harrison’s “An Exquisite Corpse” as a prequel. 

Also on the horizon is a third book, “Artful Corpse,” which will be set in 1967 at the Art Students League in New York, where Ms. Harrison was a student at the time. It is slated to be published in 2020, and together the three books are being called the “Corpse Trilogy.”

When asked why the leap from writing history to mystery, Ms. Harrison explained that her foray into the genre stemmed from a dissatisfaction with many of the books she had previously read.

“I’d be reading a mystery and say, ‘This isn’t right,’” Ms. Harrison said. “Often, there’s a coincidence or plot twist that just doesn’t add up or ring true. It shouldn’t be an unbelievable coincidence that makes it work. Even when I’m indulging in some factual inaccuracy or a little mendacity, it should drive the plot and it should make sense.”

So in the end, who was responsible for the fictionalized strangulation of Edith Metzger?

You’ll just have to pick up your own copy of “An Accidental Corpse” to find out whodunit.