Stokes’ (How to Keep Calm and Carry On, 2014, etc.) crisp work of historical fiction animates the most sensational homicide trial in the criminal annals of Oklahoma.
It’s a familiar story. A middle-aged
man falls in love with a much younger woman, and they carry on for years, until
stronger passions, such as the desire for power and fame, conflict with what
passes for love. It’s worth noting that the middle-aged man in this true story
was “the Oil King of Oklahoma,” Jacob “Jake” Hamon, slated to be a member of
President Warren Harding’s cabinet until his megalomania and other character
failings derailed his ambitions and ended up costing him his life. Hamon was
37, and his paramour, Clara Smith, was just 17 when she came to his attention.
Never mind that he was a prominent Republican and a married man with two
children, Jake installs his mistress in a hotel suite in the Oklahoma town of
Ardmore. Clara, for her part, is no wide-eyed ingénue , exploiting Hamon’s
riches to pad her own purse. Eventually Jake’s megalomania kicks in, and he
dumps Clara for political gain only to have her fatally shoot him. Stokes’
tightly paced narrative keeps humming even when it’s focused not just on the
sensational crime, but all associated players as well. Especially impressive is
the nuanced character development—there are no uniformly good or bad guys here;
even Jake’s long-suffering wife exploits his death to raise her own social
standing. Despite a lag in the action toward the end—when the story focuses on
the aftermath of the shooting and Clara’s 15 minutes of fame—it’s a revealing
exercise in the way public opinion can make or break one person’s fortunes. A
relevant lesson in today’s hashtag-driven pop-culture world.
A potent, nearly perfect brew of politics,
murder, mayhem, and mystery.