Book Review: “An Accidental Corpse” by Helen A. Harrison

"An Accidental Corpse" author Helen Harrison, Photo: ©PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM
"An Accidental Corpse" author Helen Harrison, Photo: ©PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM

Jackson Pollock was one of the East End’s most best-known transplants. Though the Abstract Impressionist was born in Wyoming, he moved to the hamlet of Springs in 1945. And while the Hamptons have long embraced Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner as “local” artists—with the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs still open for tours—Helen A. Harrison’s An Accidental Corpse, an innovative and imaginative take on the car crash that killed Pollock and 24-year-old Edith Metzger, sheds new light and stirs old love triangles, forgotten addictions and the mysteriously overlooked.

Pollock died in a single-car drunk driving accident on August 11, 1956; two other passengers—Edith Metzger and Pollock’s then-lover and muse Ruth Kligman, the sole survivor of the crash—were in the car when an intoxicated Pollock crashed in Springs. An Accidental Corpse hinges upon one mystifying line of theory: Did Edith Metzger truly die in the crash or was she murdered before the car ever hit the tree? A (fictional) inconsistency in Edith Metzger’s autopsy drives this historical thriller forward through the 1950s Hamptons, as Manhattan detectives Juanita Diaz and Brian Fitzgerald use their Hamptons summer vacation to solve what looks like a car crash but could be homicide.

The book begins as Diaz and Fitzgerald—a pair of married NYPD cops—and their son T.J. arrive in East Hampton. Through the family’s arrival at the beginning of the book, local readers will enjoy catching vignettes of Hamptons life: “Now they felt they’d earned a two-week stay at the Sea Spray Inn in East Hampton, a charming beachfront resort with a string of reasonably priced housekeeping cottages adjacent to the main building” and “If they got tired of the beach, they could drive into the village to shop, out to the fishing port at Montauk, over to Sag Harbor to catch a movie, or pack a picnic lunch and sightsee along the country lanes.” Harrison’s prose is as factual and well-constructed as it is alarming and mysterious.

And such is the manner in which the reader meets Jackson Pollock, the character, in An Accidental Corpse. Fitzgerald, Diaz and T.J. are talking to a local police officer, Patrolman Earl Finch, in the middle of the street outside a local fair when Pollock comes tearing through the middle of the scene in what can only be described as intensely obvious foreshadowing. “[Finch] shuttled the family aside as an Oldsmobile convertible barreled up Fireplace Road, apparently oblivious to the pedestrians… ‘Hey, you, Pollock, slow down!’ he called out to the driver without apparent effect. The car continued north, then swerved into a driveway on the right, tires screeching.” And the introduction to Pollock’s alcoholism is almost as immediate as meeting him. “‘Who the heck is that?’ asked Fitz. ‘Crazy artist,’ was the reply. ‘Always drives like he owns the road. Even when he’s sober, which ain’t often. One of these days I’ll yank his license.’”

With acute insight evident in every word, Harrison creates just enough of a shadow of a doubt to get inside our heads. Pollock himself is implicated in the murder of Edith Metzger—as are so many of East Hampton’s most famous residents and artists. At the end of each page-turner of a chapter, readers of An Accidental Corpse will find themselves reconciling with the Pollock they think they knew. Sure, he was a famous painter and a notorious drunk, but is it possible that he also was a vindictive murderer?

An Accidental Corpse is a deep-dive into a hybrid of both historical and detective fiction. It is hardly lost on the reader that Harrison herself is more than capable of speaking on all matters of Pollock; after all, she is the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center and has previously written Hamptons Bohemia and monographs on Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock. It’s clear An Accidental Corpse could only have been the brainchild of Harrison. After all, her stature within the East Hampton art community suggests that only she could so effectively braid together the history of Jackson Pollock’s life and love affairs with the haunting intoxication of a Hamptons-area murder mystery.

An Accidental Corpse is available now at your local bookstore. See and hear Harrison read from the novel at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor at 6 p.m. on Saturday, August 18.

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