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Originally published Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘Careless People’: the true story that inspired ‘Gatsby’

In “Careless People,” Sarah Churchwell tells the true story of a double murder that served as partial inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Churchwell discusses her book Friday, Feb. 14, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Sarah Churchwell

The author of “Careless People” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600;

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“Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby”

by Sarah Churchwell

Penguin Press, 399 pp., $29.95

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

These words, from narrator Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” come near the end of the novel; by this time, a glittering world has been smashed apart, and all that remains is disappointment, discomfort, death. It’s a sentence that resonates with every reader — surely we all know such people, and maybe we’ve even cleaned up after them — and in the case of writer Sarah Churchwell, it inspired (and titled) a thoughtful book that’ll be catnip to all “Gatsby” lovers.

Churchwell, a professor at the University of East Anglia and author of the popular biography “The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” here attempts to put “The Great Gatsby” into the context of its time. Though she initially planned it as “a biography of a book,” she explains in the preface that it became something more, a book that “reconstructs a remarkable moment in America’s history, at the dizzying center of which stood Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, trying to navigate their unsteady way through it.”

It’s a tricky balance to find: a combination of biography, history and literary essay, based on two lives already more than thoroughly documented. And a central thread that runs though her book is ultimately frustrating. Churchwell meticulously reconstructs a now-forgotten New Jersey double murder of a pair of married lovers that dominated newspaper headlines in the fall of 1922, just as Fitzgerald was beginning to plan “Gatsby” in Long Island. It’s a twisty tale well worth reading (you wonder why Hollywood never filmed it), but Churchwell never quite proves the connection; rather, it feels like a second story told side-by-side.

No matter; Scott and Zelda supply more than enough drama for any book, and Churchwell, quoting from numerous sources, fluently recreates the endless party through which the Fitzgeralds danced in the early 1920s. (Zelda, reminded by Scott that they were “the most envied couple” in America at that time, replied: “I guess so. We were awfully good showmen.”) She reminds us that 1922 was a literary golden era — James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” came out that year. And we’re given fascinating glimpses of social history, including a list of words first coined around 1922 — among them, the first use of “partied” as a verb.

“Careless People,” though, is at its best when addressing “The Great Gatsby,” that wistful masterpiece whose faint music irresistibly wafts through these pages. Churchwell structures her book as a stroll through the nine chapters of “Gatsby,” examining its influences, its dialogue, its characters, and that magical way the book has of entrancing and changing its readers. In a time of silliness and frivolity, a young writer captured something golden in the dreams of a rich man whose money wouldn’t buy what he wanted. “Nothing could have survived our life,” Zelda once wrote; but though Gatsby is destroyed, “Gatsby” lives on, forever.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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