At a secluded mountain lake, a young couple rent a canoe. A few hours later, the overturned canoe is discovered, and the body of a woman is found in the lake, drowned and showing evidence of head injuries. Her companion is soon arrested and charged with first-degree murder. If this sounds familiar, you have probably either read Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy or seen the famous 1951 film adaptation A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor. Dreiser based his story on a real-life case that occurred in New York’s Adirondack region in 1906 and even quoted extended passages from the letters of the victim and the accused that were submitted as evidence in the murder trial.
Dreiser’s lengthy book (850-900 pages in most editions) passed into public domain this year, and, not coincidentally, L. R. Dorn (the pseudonym of a pair of screenwriters) has just published a new novel in which the story is reset in present-day California among the world of social media influencers. All the major characters in Dorn’s book have names similar to Dreiser’s characters, though many of Dreiser’s men are now women, and vice versa. Dorn’s reimagining is only about a third of the length of An American Tragedy, and it is presented as the script of a true-crime podcast produced by a noted documentary filmmaker in the aftermath of the murder trial, so the reader gets first-person perspectives from every major and minor character--except the dead woman.
Dreiser’s central character, Clyde Griffiths, has been transformed by Dorn into a young woman named Mary Claire Griffith, the daughter of a couple who work as missionaries for a Christian organization similar to the Salvation Army. Claire, as she prefers to be called, grows up in the Midwest, moving from town to town and living in poverty while aspiring to wealth and fame. At age sixteen, she turns up on the Los Angeles doorstep of her wealthy uncle, Samson Griffith, who runs an agency specializing in social media personalities. Samson is intrigued by Claire’s ambition and charisma, and, after arranging matters with her parents, he takes her in, enrolls her at Palisades High, and gives her a part-time job at his company. On the day she turns eighteen, Claire rebrands herself as Cleo Ray and begins to use what she has learned at the Griffith Agency to build up her own social media following as a health and fitness expert. After a few years, through hard work and an attractive personality, she has attained a moderate degree of success, with thousands of followers. Cleo, who considers herself sexually fluid, has also developed a romantic relationship with Rebecca “Beck” Alden, a slightly younger woman who is occasionally employed by the Griffiths as what her uncle calls “a C-list hair and makeup person”.Cleo and Beck agree to keep their relationship secret, because Beck is not ready to come out to her parents and Cleo does not want to distract her followers from the online image she’s created of herself.
One night at a Griffith agency dinner, Cleo arranges to be seated next to one of the agency’s stars--Sandy Finch, a young man who has millions of followers in his international career as a sports brand influencer. Cleo’s initial aim is simply to see what she can learn from Sandy to enhance her own social media presence, but Sandy is instantly smitten with her, and before the night is over they’re involved in what quickly turns into an intense, passionate love affair. There is no way their relationship can remain a secret, and Cleo soon finds herself at a higher level of celebrity--with an increasingly angry and suspicious secret girlfriend.
It’s at this point that Cleo and Beck make their fateful journey to Serene Lake in rural Inyo County, where they take that deadly canoe ride. Most of the story centers on the resulting murder trial, which takes place in the little county courthouse in Independence, on U.S. 395. The local district attorney, a Republican who’s in a tight battle for reelection, is pitted against a celebrity lawyer from New York, hired by Cleo’s uncle, who truly cares about her but is well aware that the case will have a huge impact on his own career. As trial preparation gets underway, there are several surprises, including secret emails and a witness from Claire/Cleo’s past, that force the defendant to amend her initial narrative, and both the prosecution and defense end up staging their own re-enactments of the canoe capsizing.
Throughout the trial, Cleo insists that she is not guilty of murder, and it is up to the reader to decide if she’s telling the truth, since there is no solid proof on either side. None of the other people who add their voices to the narrative, including Sandy, the attorneys and law enforcement personnel, and the parents of both women, come off as heroes or villains; all are invested in protecting their own interests, but Dorn also presents most of them as intelligent and caring individuals who want to discover the real truth of the case and will be forever altered by its eventual resolution. Dorn’s modern take on the Dreiser classic is a compelling look at the tragedy of a young woman who makes a couple of terrible mistakes that threaten to negate all her struggles to make a success of her life.