The disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Crater in 1930 led to tabloid headlines and gossip about underworld ties that made his vanishing act the most compelling mystery of the era.
In time, it would become a national joke: "Judge Crater, call your office" was a comic punch line for many years.
The case was such a sensation that theories of what happened to the judge on the night of Aug. 6, 1930, persist to this day. Ariel Lawhon, a Nashville writer, is the latest to bring Crater and his lively cast of cohorts back to life for another shot at solving this epic whodunit.
Her telling of the Crater story is a gripping, fast-paced noir novel, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress. It captures a New York City period full of high-kicking showgirls, mob-linked speakeasies and Tammany Hall political scandal. Crater was no stranger to this high-living, precarious life, and it's commonly assumed he paid dearly for it.
Lawhon brings fresh intrigue to this tale, making the final outcome a guessing game for the reader as events unfold.
Her version is built colorfully around many of the actual places and people who were key figures in the case, including Crater's wife, Stella, and his presumed mistress, showgirl Sally Lou Ritz, known as Ritzi. She testified that she'd had dinner with Crater at a Manhattan chophouse before he possibly got into a cab for an uncertain destination.
Sections of the novel open with quotes from Vanishing Point, an investigation of the Crater case published in 2004 by Richard Tofel, who is now the general manager of ProPublica, and The Empty Robe, a memoir by Stella written with The Untouchables author Oscar Fraley and published in 1961.
Lawhon uses creative license to help bring to life many of the characters, including the Craters' maid, a little-known woman who is named Maria Simon in the novel. Stella, Maria and Ritzi are central to Lawhon's tale and give it a depth of emotion that is often missing from crime thrillers.
There are quirks in the chronology that can be troublesome, but generally the story moves forward with momentum, thanks to well-crafted scenes and fluid dialogue. Also, despite the many decades since Judge Crater went missing, the mystery of his disappearance is a powerful magnet for its fictional retelling.