The James Deans

by Reed Farrell Coleman

Published by Plume

288 pages, 2005

Digging James Dean

by Robert Eversz

Published by Simon & Schuster

288 pages, 2005  










What Exhumes a Legend Most?

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


James Dean, James Dean,
You bought it sight unseen
You were too fast to live, too young to die,

-- from the Eagles song "James Dean"


"As one strives to make a goal in a game,
there should be a goal in this crazy world for all of us."

-- from "My Case Study," James Dean, age 17


Even now, almost 50 years after actor James Dean took that fatal last spin in his Porsche Spyder, his restless ghost -- or at least his myth -- is still riding with us, conjured up in everything from televised blue-jeans commercials to ambitious rock groups desperately seeking second-hand cool. And recently, Dean's legend has been central in two fine but very different mystery novels: Robert Eversz's Digging James Dean and Reed Farrell Coleman's The James Deans, coincidentally released almost simultaneously. Each, in its own tangential way, does justice to the memory of the young cinematic rebel from Marion, Indiana.

Oh, there's nothing so tacky or obvious in these books as James Dean's ghost or worse, Dean himself, popping up and acting like a detective. Given the vagaries of the publishing biz and the recent penchant for retrofitting every brand-name celebrity from Jane Austen to Eleanor Roosevelt as an amateur sleuth, we can at least be grateful for having been spared that, although I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we're subjected to a fictionalized Dean stumbling around like some sort of 1950s-era cool-cat Jessica Fletcher. Rebel Without a Clue, anyone?

No, what both Eversz and Coleman have inadvertently demonstrated is how, even close to half a century later, James Dean still ranks, and how much cultural weight just dropping his name carries.

Heck, you don't even need to read these two books to recognize that. A mere glance at the covers, with their totemic, almost fetish tic eye-bites of his iconic face in the artwork will tell you all you need to know. Just the top of his head and his blond hair are rendered on the cover of Eversz's novel, in a suitably Warholian pop-art way, while a grainy black-and-white photo of Dean's mouth and lower face, caught in half-sneer and smoking a cigarette, is presented on Coleman's. But such is the cult of the forever-young rebel, locked in youth like a jeans-clad Peter Pan, that even those partial fragments are enough.

As obsessed fan and author David Dalton wrote in his 1974 landmark wet-dream of a biography, James Dean: The Mutant King:

"There is something unnerving about the kind of force Jimmy ... could magnetize in his roles; not only do they seem 'more real than life,' but they carry on an unconstrained life of their own, especially after death. This is, I suppose, just what ghosts are ..."
* * *

In Reed Farrell Coleman's book, the ghost is especially shadowy, a disembodied specter hovering around the edges, invoked by name only. "The James Deans" is the moniker of a would-be gang of would-be rebels who inhabit the undersized but affluent New Jersey town of Hallworth in the 50s, playing a small but pivotal role in the ultimate solution of Coleman's compelling mystery. The back-handed tribute to Dean also clearly demonstrates just how strong an influence he was on the youth--particularly the white suburban youth -- of the postwar Eisenhower era, even though this novel itself is set three decades later and a good hour's drive away, in Brooklyn and environs in 1983.

And the hero of The James Deans is, at least at first glance, a pretty far walk from the eternally young WASP rebel, as well. Moe Prager is a middle-aged husband, father and relatively successful small-business man, a non-practicing Jew who runs a couple of Brooklyn wine shops with his brother, Aaron. Oh, sure, he used to be a cop, and yes, he still has his private investigator's license somewhere; but Moe's not exactly living life on the edge. Hell, his departure from the ranks of New York's finest was the result, not of a slimy corruption scandal or some cinematic bloody shootout, but entirely due to injuries sustained when he slipped on a piece of carbon paper down at the stationhouse. Carbon paper!

That's not to say Moe is completely edgeless. Although he's a faithful hubby and a devoted dad (to Sarah, "the smartest, most beautiful child on earth"), there are things that tug at him, everything from the pain of wife Katy's recent miscarriage to an old lefty's uneasy guilt about his newfound prosperity ("I had my doubts about Reaganomics, but the money seemed to be trickling down at least as far as our cash registers"). Still, all in all, it's a good existence, and though he occasionally misses being a cop, he's more than content to let life just go on. As he confesses, "I'd worked my one case as a private investigator and gotten the notion out of my system ... all I'd got for my trouble was bruised kidneys and a trunk full of other people's secrets. Who needed the grief?"

Which explains why Moe keeps his P.I. license in the back of his sock drawer. But of course, a bleeding heart isn't something to be switched off and on, and under the skin of middle-age, the fire can still burn. When Thomas Geary, a local big shot, tries to strong-arm Prager into going on the hunt for Moira Heaton, a young woman who disappeared more than a year earlier, Moe's first instinct is to refuse. An intern for Steven Brightman, an ambitious and promising Democratic state senator, Moira left his office on Thanksgiving Eve, 1981, and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Moe wants no part of this potentially salacious case. But in the end, "it wasn't Geary's threats or the potential size of the retainer" that changed Moe's mind. Instead, he confesses, it was "the human cost. It always was."

So perhaps it's no surprise that Coleman's characters are so deftly drawn and so endearingly human -- even when they're not always particularly likable. The fragile relationship between Prager and his wife is handled with great sensitivity and subtlety, and Moe, as always, is an appealing and convincing character: a once-failed father, trying to get it right the second time around, still wrestling with the decisions he's made in his life, both personally and professionally.

Coleman also displays a keen-eyed attention to detail, bringing early 80s New York City to life in all of its tawdry glory. Yes, he may play it a little too cute with the nudge-nudge wink-wink historical foreshadowing -- offering Reagan-era takes on the ill-fated World Trade Center towers and an up-and-coming "southern politico" from Arkansas named Clinton -- but fortunately such incidents are few and far between.

Even better, the noir-tinged mood that Coleman creates, one of loss and a sort of world-weary fatalism, sets up a wonderfully, morally ambiguous and surprisingly effective ending.

What bothers me, however, is how we reach that ending. In The James Deans, the mystery itself simply isn't up to the standards of the two previous Prager yarns, Walking the Perfect Square (2002) and Redemption Street (2004). The retro-regurgitated Gary Condit/Chandra Levy plotline here doesn't quite hold up. Moe seemingly pulls the solution to Moira Heaton's disappearance out of thin air, helped along by a way-too-cute coincidence or two; but because that mystery is resolved relatively early in the book, you just know there's a subsequent twist on its way, and sure enough it (along with Hallworth's James Deans) pops up right on schedule--although by that time, it's not much of a twist anymore.

Which is too bad, because Moe Prager deserves better. Like Michael Connelly, whose blurb features so prominently on the front cover, I find Moe to be my kind of private eye, too: a compassionate and decent man who does more than give lip service to his ideals; a brooding, philosophical man with a hard-bitten sense of humor that barely conceals a quiet, simmering anger at the ultimate unfairness of life.

At one stage of this tale, an aging Hallworth reporter offers Moe a sharp, concise take on the whole Dean mythos:

"It was the fifties, Mr. Prager, and James Dean was a Hallworth kind of hero. The boys in an affluent town like this couldn't relate to guys who played it tough like Brando or Lee Marvin or even Vic Morrow, but James Dean ... And when he died in a car crash, it just sealed the deal."

It's the pointlessness of that 1955 car crash in California, the ultimate uselessness of such a tragedy and the reporter's cynical tossed-away summation of the James Dean cult, that's exactly the sort of quandary the always philosophical, always brooding Moe could really sink his teeth into. Because, in the dark, submerged angst of Moe's world, no deal is ever really sealed. While glib, easy answers are everywhere, real answers are a lot more difficult to find, and there's always one more hard question to ask. And Moe is just the rebel to ask it.

* * *

Meanwhile, a couple of decades later and 3,000 miles away, in sunny Southern California, the connection to Dean, made in Eversz's Digging James Dean, is less tangential, more corporeal, more flesh and blood--or at least ashes and dust. The wigged-out teenage wannabes who comprise the membership of Hollywood's Church of Divine Thespians figure that, like in the Eagles song says, their lives "would look alright/If [they] could see it on the silver screen."

They figure to achieve this noble end by exhuming the actual physical remains of Dean (as well as other dead movie stars), and tapping into their supposedly mystical powers. (And you thought the contestants on American Idol were desperate and pathetic!) The only person who apparently stands in their way is Nina Zero, Eversz's kick-ass series heroine, who at least seems to be cut from the same cloth as Dean--a brooding, misunderstood rebel who's trying to make a place for herself in a world that rarely makes sense to her.

Like Dean, Nina shows a deft talent for reinvention. How else to explain the ongoing transformation of Mary Alice Baker, the poor little good-girl baby photographer and perpetual victim, into the spike-haired, multi-pierced, street-hip ex-con punkette paparazza Nina Zero, who's bound and determined to never be anyone's punching bag, literally or figuratively, ever again?

"Physical pain," our heroine tosses off at one point, "is easy to endure."

But, like Ecclesiastes says, "Man is as born to suffer as the sparks fly upward," and you just know Nina's life isn't going to proceed quite as smoothly as she'd like, no matter how tough she talks. As Digging opens, a no-problem candid snap of Chad Stonewell, a has-been actor, at a Los Angeles restaurant leads to Nina being roughed up and her camera smashed by a couple of the actor's bodyguards.

Meanwhile, the good news just keeps on coming. It turns out she's being evicted from her Venice Beach apartment, her parole officer is on her case (again) and the dysfunctional family she has spent the previous books in this series trying to escape from comes crawling out of the woodwork. And what lovely family members they are: Gladys, her long-suffering mother, whose death from a stroke sparks Nina's reunion with her violent father and her older sister, Sharon, whom she hasn't seen in more than 20 years. But the happy reunion is brief--Nina has nothing to say to her dad, who she blames for her mother's death; and Sharon, after spending a single night at her apartment, "catching up," rips Nina off for $19,000 and then splits, only to be found beaten to death in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, following a foiled raid on the crypt of silent-movie legend Rudolph Valentino. It's only par for the course that Nina becomes the cops' prime suspect in Sharon's slaying.

Things go from weird to weirder when it turns out that the Valentino break-in connects to the recent assault on James Dean's small-town Indiana grave, a story Nina has been covering for Scandal Times, the sleazy tabloid for which she works. According to Frank Adams, her reporter pal at the paper, somebody dug up Dean's remains, intent on "cloning him from the DNA in his bones."

"Really?" asks a skeptical Nina.

To which the ever-cynical Frank replies, "Who knows anything for sure anymore ... but it's going to make one hell of a story."

And Digging James Dean is one hell of a story, too. A full phalanx of Hollywood-style crazies and eccentrics is on display in these pages, everyone from English occultist Aleister Crowley and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, to space-alien worshippers, star-obsessed teenage runaways, charismatic gurus, and more bizarre religions and cults than you can shake a telephoto lens at -- although the Church of Divine Thespians, which seems to be behind the grave robberies, will be hard to outdo. On top of all those, the ever-creative Eversz delivers desert car chases, narrow escapes from blazing infernos and even a daring rescue mission to save a wayward teenager or two.

Fans of this series (which began with 1996's Shooting Elvis) will be glad to know that not just Frank Adams, but the other regulars in Nina's new life are present and accounted for here, particularly "the Rott," Baby, Nina's amazing toothless wonder dog, and Ben Turner, the retired ex-county sheriff's deputy who first made his appearance in last year's Burning Garbo, and whose burgeoning friendship with Nina is as unlikely as it is genuinely touching. Nina even makes a new friend in Digging -- or at least gains a mentor -- in the chain-smoking, dark-clad Vulch, who's a living legend among his fellow paparazzi.

But, as with Coleman's book, the real star here is the investigator. Nina's journey of self-discovery and reinvention is one of the real feel-good treats of modern detective fiction, made all the more entertaining because author Eversz refuses to lapse into Pollyannaism. Nina, a self-confessed "recovering fuck-up," does the dance with her grief and guilt and anger and rage, but it is one dance where she'll lead. And though it may be a fucked-up world out there, Ms. Zero will be damned if she'll let it fuck with her ever again. Or those for whom she cares deeply.

* * *

So what, if anything, do either of these books really have to do with James Byron Dean? His persona may seem completely incidental, his name invoked mostly as a sort of cultural shortcut to another time and place, his persona shunted aside to focus on his celebrity for its own sake, or his name dropped just to gain a little hip cachet, perhaps. But beyond that, look at the power Dean's myth, or cult, or whatever you want to call it has on the characters in these stories, and on the reading public who will, I'm sure the publishers fervently hope, latch onto the Dean name.

In a revised edition of The Mutant King, David Dalton called Dean "the coherent icon of our time," and likens him to a brand "like the Coke bottle." And that's true enough.

However, if you go back to the source, revisit the actor's three great film roles--as the bad son trying to do right and finally win his father's love in East of Eden, the misfit ranch hand turned heart-broken oil tycoon in Giant, and most of all, as the eternal lost boy looking for a home and himself in Rebel Without a Cause -- it's unfair to cast Dean as just another dead actor turned posthumous shill. The pampered youths of Hallworth or the star-struck wannabes of Hollywood's Church of Divine Thespians may have quite misunderstood Dean, but not our detectives. James Dean looked hard at a cold, often unfair world and dared to ask, "Why?" It's a question both Nina and Moe would understand. | April 2005


Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site.