Archive | 10:21 AM

Book Review: The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott (3/5)

24 Jan

I heard of this book when a friend from college, Becca, mentioned it on her Instagram page. I have a lot of family in Cincinnati and I love my 1920s bootlegger stories so it seemed custom made for me. I enjoyed the book a bit more than I think my rating lets on, but not enough to raise the rating to a 4. I’m a stickler like that.

0451498631.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SX500_The Ghosts of Eden Park: The bootleg king, the woman who pursued him and the murder that shocked Jazz Age America by Karen Abbott

Summary from Amazon:

In the early days of Prohibition, long before Al Capone became a household name, a German immigrant named George Remus quits practicing law and starts trafficking whiskey. Within two years he’s a multi-millionaire. The press calls him “King of the Bootleggers,” writing breathless stories about the Gatsby-esque events he and his glamorous second wife, Imogene, host at their Cincinnati mansion, with party favors ranging from diamond jewelry for the men to brand-new cars for the women. By the summer of 1921, Remus owns 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States.

Pioneering prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrandt is determined to bring him down. Willebrandt’s bosses at the Justice Department hired her right out of law school, assuming she’d pose no real threat to the cozy relationship they maintain with Remus. Eager to prove them wrong, she dispatches her best investigator, Franklin Dodge, to look into his empire. It’s a decision with deadly consequences. With the fledgling FBI on the case, Remus is quickly imprisoned for violating the Volstead Act. Her husband behind bars, Imogene begins an affair with Dodge. Together, they plot to ruin Remus, sparking a bitter feud that soon reaches the highest levels of government–and that can only end in murder.

Remus’s story reminded me of Gatsby in many ways and I think the parallels are justified. He had a persona, a larger-than-life life that everyone had to know wouldn’t last. I enjoyed hearing about his heyday as a bootlegging king more than I liked the trials that followed. I felt the story got bogged down in legal details toward the end. I recognize that part of the story is probably the easiest to write about since so much of it was reported, but it wasn’t as interesting from a reader’s point of view. I did like that Abbott left it a bit up to her reader to decide if Remus really was mad or not.

Imogen and Remus both seemed a bit too much like caricatures. I’m not sure if that’s the way they acted for the press or if they really were like that, but it came off as a show. Late in the book, it’s obvious Remus is acting in a way to present himself as unhinged, but earlier in the book it seems like a persona he wanted to affect. Maybe this was part of what made the book a little ‘off’ to me. They just seemed so much larger than life that I couldn’t buy it.

It was hard to dislike Remus as a character with the way he was presented. He was scrappy and resourceful in a way you want an anti-hero to be. I couldn’t celebrate the things he did, but he was good at them. He understood what people wanted and used those motivations to his advantage. It seems unfortunate he put so much trust in Imogen, but you also want a man to trust his wife the way Remus trusted Imogen. I disliked him more at the end when he gamed the system to get out of such a horrible crime. That’s another thing that soured the book for me toward the end.

It was hard to relate to these characters. Prohibition is such a unique time in American history that it can be difficult to think of what it was like to live during the period. I think future generations will feel the same way about the COVID pandemic. Imogen and Remus’s social standing also made them seem a bit more untouchable than others I’ve read about. The mansion they owned was straight out of a movie! They were American Royalty in their day, something I don’t aspire to be.


Karen Abbott Image via the author’s website

The lavish lifestyle Remus and Imogen led for a time was the most interesting part of the book to me. The ultra wealthy have had a variety of ways of showing off their wealth throughout history and the home they had and the parties they threw were quintessential of their day. While it seemed too good to be true, it was fun to read about.

The ending of the book seemed too different from the beginning. It was a good example of life being stranger than fiction for sure. We hadn’t questioned Remus’s sanity the entire book and then at the end, we’re made to reexamine if what we’ve heard was the story of a madman. It seemed a little too odd to me and wasn’t as enjoyable as the early parts of the book.

While there are two narrators credited, Rob Shapiro narrated a lot more of the story than Cassandra Campbell did. Shapiro narrated Remus’s story while Campbell took Willebrandt’s. Willebrandt’s story fell off to me about half way through the book and Shapiro took over the large bulk of the narration. I liked both narrators. Non fiction doesn’t lend itself to as much range in voice performance but both were able to keep tensions running and bring out the characters. Shapiro’s voices for Remus helped portray the larger-than-life persona he affected.

Remus is a shining example of how money can’t buy happiness. He was probably one of the richest men in America but his marriage was rocky and he had few friends. His story highlights how money causes more problems than it solves. The comparison to Gatsby is very apt and I might even call this the real life Gatsby story. It would be better in a more fictionalized adaptation to see how Imogen and Remus’s relationship might have played out.

Writer’s Takeaway: Toward the end, Abbott seemed to rely so heavily on first-person sources that the story started to suffer. There was so much source material for her to work from and it seemed a little bit too crammed in. I would have appreciated a little more speculation or some more straight forward linking between stories to make it feel a bit like fiction.

I enjoyed the book, but it won’t be a favorite. Three out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1920-1939 time period of the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott (4 out of 5) | GenerationGBooks
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