On the night of 11 August 1956, less than a mile from his home in East Hampton, artist Jackson Pollock crashed his green, convertible Oldsmobile 88 into a tree. The 44-year-old Pollock and a female passenger were killed instantly. Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress, survived the accident. This is the real-world basis Helen A Harrison begins with for her crime novel An Accidental Corpse.
Initially the deceased passenger, Kligman’s roommate, Edith Metzger, is presumed to have been killed by the impact of the crash. However, the autopsy proves that she suffered a broken neck and died of asphyxiation before the accident. But how did she die and who killed her? Could this have been the result of a love triangle? Pollock and Kligman are both prime suspects, but only one can shed light on the night of the accident and she suffers from short-term memory loss.
Conveniently, Detective Juanita Diaz and her husband, Captain Brian Fitzgerald of the NYPD, are vacationing in the Hamptons with their young son, Timothy. The local police are severely understaffed due to a surge in drunk-driving accidents in the Hamptons and need all the help they can get.
Harrison steps back in time to events preceding the accident and gradually colours in the backstory of Pollock and Kligman’s relationship. It reveals an ambitious young woman who set her sights on Pollock and wouldn’t let his wife, Lee Krasner, stand in her way of becoming his muse and saviour. And Pollock was in dire need of saving. Krasner, an artist in her own right, was by then more of a nurse-maid than a wife who had to take care of her unstable, alcoholic husband – a task which proves near-impossible considering his self-destructive nature.
Pollock, or Jack the Dripper as he was known due to his expressive painting technique, had a reclusive and volatile personality and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life. By the time he died he had cirrhosis of the liver, oedema and jaundice. His reckless lifestyle and driving eventually caught up with him on the night of 11 August.
At the time he met Ruth Kligman his career and mental state were at an all-time low. He hadn’t painted for more than a year and was rapidly losing his battle against alcoholism. Krasner found out about his ongoing affair with the 26-year-old, gave him an ultimatum to choose between her and his mistress and left for Europe for six weeks. Pollock saw this as the perfect opportunity to instate his mistress in their Hamptons home and in the artists’ inner circle. Unfortunately, most of the artist community would frown upon Pollock’s destructive behaviour and blatant adultery.
On the night of the accident, Ruth and Edith are preparing for a party at the artist Alfonso Ossorio’s mansion. Pollock has been drinking all day and is out cold. The trio never shows up at Ossorio’s extravagant Hollywood party. What happens between then and the fatal accident is divulged in fragments and left for the reader to figure out.
Ruth Kligman is rendered an unlikable, self-absorbed young woman and aspiring artist attempting to use Pollock for her own benefit. After Pollock’s death she promptly moved on to his adversary, Dutch expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning and even wrote a memoir about her (short-lived) love affair with Pollock in the 70s.
The novel’s strength lies in the details – the interesting bits about the 1950s New York art scene and the characters who inhabited it. Of course, it’s considerably more intriguing because we know most of the information presented in this fictitious work is true. Harrison is an expert on this particular group of artists, has extensive experience as an art reviewer and is also the director of the Pollock-Krasner House in East Hampton – this makes for some pretty convincing reading.
The only part where creative license is used is in the main plot – unfortunately it is also the weakest. The death of Edith Metzger comes across as merely a framework for the richer biographical story of Pollock. The murder mystery takes a back seat and isn’t a driving force in the novel. However, the setting, art history back story and characters are strong enough to lure the reader in. As does the addition of the fictitious outsider characters of Nita and Fitz, the two New York detectives, to the existing cast of flamboyant characters.
An Accidental Corpse is the second of the Art of the Murder Mystery series and even though it’s part of a trilogy, it stands securely on its own. References to the previous book in the series, An Exquisite Corpse, is made to pique the reader’s interest. If you are interested in art history, it will certainly appeal to you. However if you expect a riveting, plot-driven murder mystery, you might be disappointed.