The Jazz Bird
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The Jazz Bird

3.7 4
by Craig Holden

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An exquisitely written novel of love and betrayal, of money and power, set at the apex of that time of glitz and innocence known as the Jazz Age


Lawyer George Remus became the country's biggest bootlegger, grossing over $80 million until his arrest. Upon his release from prison, he learns that his beautiful wife, Imogene, has left


An exquisitely written novel of love and betrayal, of money and power, set at the apex of that time of glitz and innocence known as the Jazz Age


Lawyer George Remus became the country's biggest bootlegger, grossing over $80 million until his arrest. Upon his release from prison, he learns that his beautiful wife, Imogene, has left him and that his bank accounts are empty. On the morning of their divorce, he runs her car off the road in the middle of rush hour in Eden Park and shoots her to death.

Shocked and fascinated by this horrible crime, the country gears up for a sensational trial pitting the man known as ""the king of the bootleggers"" against Chief Prosecutor Charlie Taft, the youngest son of the former president. The trial is a national spectacle, a lens focused on the fabulous rise and fall of the Remus empire and the tragic love story within it, and an attempt to answer some tantalizing questions: What actually happened to the fortune? What are the motives of the federal agent who brought Remus down? What complex emotions and desires, leading ultimately to the ruin of three men, really lie within the heart of the woman known as the Jazz Bird?

Based on a true story, The Jazz Bird is at once a love story, a crime novel, and the tale of the courtroom battle between two powerful men whose respective futures hang in the balance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A striking, meticulously evoked Jazz Age saga that holds its own with the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara.... The novel is quite a departure from Holden's previous gritty contemporary for one key aspect: the care with which he crafts his characters." — Los Angeles Times

"Haunting and beautiful." — People

"Part historical thriller, part courtroom drama, part love story, it's a book that begs a single-sitting read." — Time Out

"The Jazz Bird sings an intriguing melody to which you can't help but succumb." — Detroit Free Press

"Assiduous research combines with racy dialogue, intriguing characters and, best of all, a story that is reluctant to impart the facts until it absolutely has to — in other words, a stylish, sizzling page-turner." — The New Zealand Herald

"Outstanding." — Publishers Weekly

"A tour de force from a writer who gets better with every novel." —
The Barnes & Noble Review
Few writers in recent years have garnered as much praise as Craig Holden, the superb novelist of the harrowing thriller The River Sorrow and the riveting police procedural Four Corners of Night. From The New York Times to The Washington Post and from bestselling authors as diverse as Robert B. Parker and Michael Ondaatje, the critics are unanimous: Holden is a voice to be reckoned with.

The Jazz Bird, Holden's fourth novel -- and his first foray into the genre of historical fiction -- is a brilliantly executed, character-driven page-turner set amid the glamour and turbulence of the 1920s. Based on actual events, it revolves around a popular Al Capone–like Cincinnati bootlegger, George Remus, who brutally guns down his sexy, blue-blooded wife, Imogene, on the day of their divorce. Minutes later, Remus turns himself into the police and confesses to the murder.

Cut-and-dried, right? Maybe not. Remus pleads not guilty. "What I did was justified," he says, "and that shall be my defense. Morally justified homicide." Enter Chief Prosecutor Charlie Taft, a hotshot lawyer who is the youngest son of former president and Supreme Court justice William Howard Taft. Riddled with self-doubt and having a lot to prove, Charlie knows that the case against Remus is going to be a circus for the press and that if he fails to get a conviction, he can kiss his political ambitions goodbye. A fiery court battle ensues, against a backdrop of high society and Prohibition's alluring and dangerous underworld. Soon, Charlie and the public begin to realize that the angel-voiced Imogene -- the Jazz Bird -- may not have been as innocent as first thought.

Atmospheric, taut, and populated by wonderfully drawn characters, The Jazz Bird will undoubtedly draw comparisons to E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Is it that good? Well, not quite. But if Holden's writing doesn't equal the range of these two masters, his book is, on it's own, a work of pure beauty -- a literary thriller that enchants you, seduces you, and ultimately scratches at your skin. This is, by far, Holden's best work yet. (Stephen Bloom)

This novel, based on real-life events, opens in 1927, when infamous bootlegger George Remus guns down his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Imogene, on a city street with witnesses all around. Put on trial by prosecutor Charles Taft (son of the former president), Remus claims insanity as his defense. Crazy or not, he turns out to have had plenty to be angry about: The trial reveals that Imogene had taken up with federal agent Frank Dodge while Remus had been serving a two-year jail sentence. Imogene and Frank conspired to take Remus' business for themselves, trying to get Remus deported to Germany. Holden's novel features a series of flashbacks into the passionate, troubled stories of the trial's participants. Although the book is purportedly about the glamorous rich-girl-gone-bad Imogene (the book's title is her nickname), the reader is never really allowed inside her troubled head. Holden keeps both her and the larger-than-life Remus at a remove. Considering what a tawdry tale Holden has here, the book is awfully antiseptic. It's easy to read, but it's not the kind of novel you would recommend to anyone else or be likely to remember much of the next day.
—Chris Barsanti

Publishers Weekly
With a gruff, streetwise voice that would make a perfect narrator for any good film noir, veteran reader and Tony Award-winning performer of the Broadway show Contact, Gaines does a fine job of capturing the hep, sassy world of the 1920s that Holden (Four Corners of Night) so precisely evokes in this tautly rendered tale of bootlegging and betrayal. As the story of whiskey baron George Remus and the murder of his wife, Imogene, progresses with several twists and layers of detail, Gaines dives into the daunting assignment of giving the wide array of characters personal, often subtle touches to distinguish them in listeners' minds. From the blunt, gravelly intonation of Remus's strongman to the delicate lilt given to Imogene (known among Cincinnati society as the Jazz Bird), Gaines demonstrates both range and a skill for consistency. During one particularly challenging scene, he changes character numerous times as the story weaves between narration and the voices of various prospective jurors. Despite the book's title and time period, the recording is exceedingly spare in production, and listeners might have expected to hear some lightly fanned cymbals and silky horn arrangements. But given Holden's intriguing story and Gaines's pitch-perfect presentation, there's really no need for anything more. Based on the S&S hardcover. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
$80 million during Prohibition as the biggest bootlegger in the country (possibly the world). Along the way he made some very interesting friends and married Imogene, a beautiful society woman. When George is released from prison on bootlegging charges, he learns that his wife is leaving him and the fortune is gone. On the morning when the divorce becomes final, he shoots Imogene to death in the middle of rush hour. The year is 1927, and George's trial to determine his guilt or innocence by reason of insanity is about to get underway in Cincinnati. The national spotlight focuses on his past empire and the spectacular death of his gorgeous wife, whose nickname was the Jazz Bird. The story seems to have everything: crime, love, jazz, and a courtroom drama featuring Charlie Taft, youngest son of the former president. Sadly, the tale is very choppy and hard to follow, with the past and present intertwined in a way that is puzzling rather than exciting. Narrator Boyd Gaines makes the listening experience even more bewildering with his flat, uninflected voice. A production that could have been great but, alas, isn't. Not recommended.-Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A consistently interesting fictionalized version of a real-life Jazz Age crime. After shooting his wife, George Remus, a.k.a. King of the Bootleggers, goes directly to the nearest police station and turns himself in, at which point the question becomes, of course, not who but why-and would he get away with it? The time was 1927, October 6, to be exact, the day when beautiful Imogene Ring Remus and her flamboyant husband were to bring a legal end to their puzzling, odd-couple marriage: until George ended it his way. Inevitably, when the trial began at last, the Cincinnati newspapers called it the "Trial of the Century," and certainly the requisite ingredients were there: murder, lust, endless betrayals, an exquisitely complex love triangle (enmeshed in it was Special Agent Frank Dodge, a star of J. Edgar Hoover's freshly minted investigative body, while Ohio's Chief Prosecutor was Charlie Taft, son of the former president), a lost, strayed, or stolen treasure, and enough headline-hunting principals to keep the Speed-Graphics boys popping flashbulbs to a fare-thee-well. Soon enough, the Defense made its strategy clear: not guilty by reason of insanity. But that strategy came only after Remus, a busy member of the Cincinnati bar in his pre-rum-running days, decided to let wiser friends prevail and backed away from his original chest-thumping stand that "Remus's lawyer shall be Remus" and accepted the hard-nosed, high-profile Carl Elston as co-counsel. The courtroom battle was finally joined, the tides sweeping back and forth until the very day of the verdict-which, when it came, came fast: in 15 minutes. A little long and a little slow, but with a Gatsby-like quality that lifts it way abovethe average. Once again, Holden (Four Corners of the Night, 1999, etc.) proves he can do the job. Author tour

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Black for Mourning

Already, the telephone in the study was ringing. They had just come in the front door from a glorious month at the family cottage at Murray Bay, Quebec: the clear frigid water with its walleye and bass and muskie, the autumn trees, the brisk air, the children. Ten years they'd been married, Charlie and Eleanor Taft, but instead of a second honeymoon they'd chosen to take the children along, and it had so been the right thing.

Charlie carried a couple of bags, though the staff was unloading most of them. Now he dropped them in the doorway and raced to catch the call.

"Charlie," Eleanor said. "You're still on your holiday! How important — " But he was gone.

"Taft," he said. It was one of his assistant prosecutors. As the man spoke, Charlie watched through the front window.

"Samuel!" Eleanor called.

Sam paused on the running board of the Pierce-Arrow as he reached up toward the canoe tied to the rooftop, his cuffs extending out from his coat sleeves. Charlie had always noticed how dark those white cuffs made Samuel's skin look, as dark, almost, as a Negro's. He was the darkest Asian Charlie had ever seen. He'd come to work for the family when they lived in Manila, in 1904, when Charlie's father was governor there, under Roosevelt, when Charlie was six and Samuel was seven and orphaned.

"Can you come move these, please?" Eleanor said. "Charlie's blocked the way."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I see," Charlie said into the phone. "Give me half an hour."

When he came out, Eleanor said, "What is it, dear? You look pale."

"George Remus," he said. "You remember him?"

"The bootlegger."

"That's him."

"I met his wife, once. Lovely lady. Imogene. She hosted a luncheon at the Sinton — "

"He's just shot her to death. In Eden Park."

"Oh my God. Charlie."

"On the way to the divorce court."

Eleanor sat down on the sheet-covered Queen Anne sofa.

"They're taking him back up there, now," Charlie said. "To the park. I'm sorry, but I should go — "

"Of course you should, dear," she said. Sweet, pretty Ellie.

"I'm sorry. All this — " He waved around at the mess of the closed-up house.

"Never mind it," she said. "We'll get it taken care of. You go. Oh, that poor woman."

"Yes — "

"Charlie, this will be very big, won't it?" She understood these things implicitly. She simply knew, and how she did he did not quite understand, for he told her little.

"Yes, dear, it will. If he chooses to fight it."

They were both silent a moment, contemplating this. Charles P. Taft II, third child, second son, of former governor, ambassador, judge, and U.S. president, now Supreme Court chief justice, William Howard Taft, had a straight road to the very top, wherever that was — the Senate, the federal judiciary, even perhaps the presidency. His major competition was his own brother, Robert, editor-in-chief now of the Enquirer. But Charlie held his own, and his election, at only twenty-nine, to prosecuting attorney last year in this, their home city, proved it. Still, it was one step at a time, and now the next step was this. This, coming off the last step, which had been a stumble, a locked-up case of another bootlegger-murderer, "Fat" Wrassman, who had gunned a man down in a speakeasy. He'd been defended by a one-time assistant prosecutor named Carl Elston. Though the police pressed for aggravated homicide, Charlie wanted a conviction for first degree. He'd have won it, too, if the main witness to the shooting hadn't disappeared the day before he was to testify. In the end, Elston tied them up in knots, and Wrassman had walked.

So now it was to be Remus, the bootlegger lawyer. And who, Charlie knew, had become something of a publicity hound these past few years. This would be national news. Except for the finale of Lindbergh's cross-country publicity tour, this might be the biggest news. He'd have to call the chief justice and let him know before it hit the papers.

"It will," he said again to his wife.

"Then it's an opportunity," she said. "Isn't that what your father would say?"

"That's just right," he said. "A chance to shine."

"There's the thing," she said. "My Charlie." She stood up and placed her hand on the back of his neck and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"The end of the honeymoon," he said, and she smiled at him.

He had lost the Wrassman case, but the public gave him that. He was young and new and, though that didn't excuse anything, they'd give him one, anyway. But this, this was too big, and he had already played the grace card. This one had to be a win, however it turned. Maybe Remus would confess and look for some plea. Life instead of death. The public would buy that. Remus was a kind of hero to a lot of these people. As long as he went away, Charlie didn't care. But if Remus fought, it could be ugly. Charlie had no doubt that Remus would fight. And he had no illusions that he could let this one slip away. The election wasn't for another three years, but they'd never forget.

When he came downstairs after changing, Ellie said, "Your black suit."

It had become his custom since the election to wear black when visiting the dead. So Charlie didn't need to tell her that, in addition to going to the crime scene while the police questioned Remus there, he was also going to pay a visit to the morgue.


Eden Park Drive came south into the park from the crown of Mount Adams, then halfway down its descent curved nearly 180 degrees back to the north, to its intersection with Fulton at the reservoir, before leaving the park to the west. Here, just after the curve, the detectives watched as Remus planted his feet, formed his hand into a gun, and mimicked the recoiling of the weapon. Charlie spotted Frank Dodge hovering away from the group, beyond the gazebo, toward the edge of the reservoir, out of Remus's view. Dodge was the Justice Department agent who had hounded Remus clear to the federal penitentiary for whiskey violations. It was in the aftermath of this that Imogene Remus had come to him to plead for her husband's early release. Ultimately, she left Remus and became one of Dodge's star informants.

Later that afternoon, as Charlie fought his way through the crowd that had formed outside the doors on the south side of the courthouse that led most directly to the county morgue in the basement, he saw Dodge again, standing at the double doors, watching out over the crowd.

"Amazing, this," Charlie said.

"Everybody likes a freak show."


"Are you going in?"

Dodge nodded, but only moved to take a Lucky Strike pack from his pocket. He fingered the last one free and crumpled the packet and threw it on the ground. Charlie struck his lighter and held it out. Dodge leaned forward.

"They called me, you know. First," Dodge said.

He'd been lying on his bed, smoking a cigarette, when a cop he knew phoned. "The crazy bastard's done it. He just plugged her in Eden Park!"


"Remus. His wife. They took her to Bethesda."

At the hospital, he found her friend Laura sitting on a bench in the hallway, hands pressed between her knees. She just shook her head when she saw him. He tried to get back to Imogene, but they wouldn't let him. "It's too late, pal," a doctor finally told him. "I'm sorry."


Charlie said, "I heard someone came into the precinct house and started screaming at him. You hear about that?"


"Well, come on." Charlie knocked on the door.

Though the labs were downstairs, the smells of the business of that place seeped up to the landing. The men walked down in silence and then along the marbled length of the dim main corridor. It was only when they came to the double doors at the end, where the smells were strongest, that Dodge said, "You're going to go for the chair, aren't you?"

"We'll see, Frank. It's awfully early."

"I mean, if ever there was a case for it — " A steady ticking came from somewhere deep within the great building. "They say she wore black. Did you hear that?"


"To a divorce." Dodge shook his head. "I assume I'll testify?"

"I imagine," Charlie said. "I mean, we're not there yet — "

"No, I understand. What I mean is, even though I may testify, I want you to use me if you need some legwork."

"Good," Charlie said. "Yes. Thank you, Frank." He smiled. He had once thought Dodge looked very young, though he was ten years older than Charlie, nearly Remus's age. Now, though, Dodge looked to be in his fifties, with violet smudges beneath his eyes and a tightly drawn mouth. He had been handsome, and had held that for a longer time than many men, but it was gone now. It was not an easy job being an untouchable in a world where both sides, the law and the outlaws, despised you.

"Right now," Charlie said, "let us go in and see to this poor woman." Dodge held the door for him.


He picked up an Enquirer on the street. A copy waited at home, but he wanted to read during the ride. The story, of course, was front and center. A file photo of the thick-necked Remus, wearing a homburg, and one of Imogene. Charlie looked at her for some time before he began to read, comparing this vital image with the sad blue face, the opaque, half-opened eyes he had just observed. She was pretty, to be sure, but there was another quality, of guile, of mystery, or danger, especially in her eyes. The story described the sensational events of the morning, then filled in the background of the couple: Remus, forty-two, the one-time wealthiest bootlegger in the nation; Imogene, thirty-two, his young bride, his second wife, a war widow herself, and the daughter of a prominent local lawyer named Alfred Ring, who had also died tragically, seven years earlier.

Charlie read a few lines further then came back to this. He'd known Alfred Ring, or had at least met him. It was some years ago. And he remembered later hearing about the death from his father, but that would have been when he was back in New Haven, in law school, after his return from the war. Then, with a start, he sat forward and said, "Oh, God."

"Sir?" said Samuel, from the front.

"I met her."


"What?" Charlie said. "I'm sorry, Sam. Talking to myself."

He sat back. And as if through some conjuring trick, an image of that long distant afternoon came back to him as clearly as if he were seeing it now. He had been perhaps sixteen, a year from Yale, from meeting Eleanor, a few years from the horrors of France. It was at a reception in his aunt and uncle's downtown Cincinnati mansion, undoubtedly in honor of his father's presence in the city that the family considered its home, though Charlie had himself lived here only occasionally.

He remembered little of the affair, held as always in the great music room, except the image of this young woman on the porch beyond the series of portals in the east wall. He'd been watching her, staring really, since she had come in. Though she was older, and, he learned, engaged, he couldn't stop himself. As she leaned against the railing overlooking the gardens, her hair lifted in the breezes passing through the open house, and the sunlight seemed to gather itself around her head in a kind of golden bonnet. At that moment she looked up at him.

He remembered flushing and looking away, then chastising himself for acting this way. Later, she came over and introduced herself. She was simply pleasant, he remembered, and bright, and interested most in the myriad places he'd visited around the world. She told him how lucky he was, an adjective he'd grown sick of hearing by the age of six. When she said it, though, it hadn't sounded condescending or admonitory, but wistful, full of her own longing. She had been to London last year, she said, her first trip to Europe, and she couldn't wait to go back.

He tossed the paper aside and watched out the window. Ellie had mentioned meeting her once, at a luncheon. As Imogene Remus. She'd been nearly as well known as her husband, at the peak of their power. Charlie had heard of her, though he'd never paid much attention and certainly never made the connection to the girl he once met. How was it, he wondered, that he'd never put together these facts, that this woman was the daughter of a friend of his father's? But then he realized that that wasn't really the question. It was, How had this well-bred girl, this fortunate daughter, gone from the top of Cincinnati society to being the moll of a bootlegger, to end up being shot dead in the street? That was a journey Charlie could hardly begin to fathom.

As Sam pulled into the drive, Charlie picked up the paper, tore off the corner with her photo, and tucked it into his case.


He found Eleanor at the dining room table, her lips tight with disgust. She said, "They're saying she was pregnant."

He nodded and shrugged. He hadn't heard that.

"Was she, Charlie?"

"I don't have the report yet. I don't know."

"And he was drunk? It's disgusting."

"Where are you hearing this?"

She pointed at the stack of papers on the table. The tabloid on top screamed out "WHISKEY KILLER!" She said, "I was at Elder Street today, the Findlay Market. It's all anyone's talking about. Someone said he tried to kill himself in the jail but they stopped him. Maybe they shouldn't have."

Charlie put his hand on her shoulders. "That part," he said, "we'll take care of soon enough."

Copyright © 2002 by Craig Holden

Meet the Author

Craig Holden is the author of four previous novels: The Jazz Bird, The River Sorrow, The Last Sanctuary, and Four Corners of Night. He lives in Michigan.

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Jazz Bird 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
BookmavenDB More than 1 year ago
Keeping in mind that this is historical fiction (especially regarding the female protagonist), it is well written and offers a look into Cincinnati's place in bootlegging during prohibition. To a curious reader, it will lead to further investigation into the true story of George Remus and his activities as the King of Bootleggers. It was eagerly discussed in our book club where we were able to have a guest speaker well versed in the actual history of George Remus and his business dealings, murder trial and final days.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a book club selection and I enjoyed it. Interesting look at the bootlegging business and society in the 20s as well as an interesting look at the justice system of the time. The Remus trial was the "trial of the century", at least in the southern Ohio, northern KY area, and this book brought that to life.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In October 1927 in Cincinnati, bootlegger George Remus kills his beloved spouse Imogene, known by all as THE JAZZ BIRD. Immediately following the homicide, George goes back to his specially modified Packard, but his misunderstood rambling leads his driver to take him back to his home in Eden Park. Afterward, a stupefied George grabs a cab and goes to the police station to turn himself in for killing his wife.

Prosecutor Charlie Taft is assigned the case of a lifetime. Already in the limelight due to the pedigree of his father, the only person to have served as president and Supreme Court chief justice, Charlie believes this case is his big break to the national game though the culprit copping a plea of insanity somewhat muddies the water. As Charlie begins to sift through the evidence and gain a complete picture of George and Imogene, he wonders whether the former¿s feelings of deep betrayal from a three-year-old incident led to a calculated homicide?

THE JAZZ BIRD is a legal thriller based on a real case. The engaging story line is exciting with the trial filled with twists and the key characters (Mr. and Mrs. Remus and Taft) quite fascinating as readers see beyond their public masks to the real person. Along with fans of legal thrillers, the historical fiction (the Jazz era comes vividly alive) audience will agree that Craig Holden has written a fabulous novel that requires time for a one sitting read.

Harriet Klausner