Book review: Mary Jane’s Ghost, by Ted Gregory
Histories – call them stories if you like – never really end. It’s more like they continue to unfold, but we’ve left them; they’ve ceased to resonate.
Chicago Tribune general assignment reporter Ted Gregory gets roped into the investigation and conspiracies of a fifty-year-old cold case while ruminating on the state of print newspapers and the difficulty in finding a good story to tell.
In June 1948, seventeen year old Mary Jane Reed drove with her date, Stanley Skridla, to a lovers’ lane in the rural town of Oregon, Illinois. Skridla was found shot five times and Mary Jane’s body was discovered four days later, shot in the head. Local gossip and legend pointed to one of her many beaus – a married, jealous cop named Vince as being responsible. Allegations of a coverup ran rampant and most who knew details refused to talk over the years.
Enter an “eccentric entrepreneur” named Mike Arians, who runs a bar and restaurant called the Roadhouse which he says is haunted by Mary Jane’s spirit. He’s developed a close connection to this spirit, or presence, or whatever (Gregory is healthily skeptical) and has what he calls “Mary Jane unsolved murder disease,” meaning he’s too obsessed with the cold case to stop pursuing answers, despite the lengthy amount of passed time.
This leads to him sinking more than $100,000 into investigations and forensics, attempting to definitively solve the crime. Along the way, he writes Gregory at the Tribune, and the reporter becomes equally involved, fallen under the small-town unsolved murder spell.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the case would stay in that deep, resonant place for more than a decade, through all the distractions…I knew part of the reason. This was a scandalous murder of two innocent young lovers that remained unsolved for more than half a century, and some guy was now trying to get to the bottom of it. Over the years, the reasons grew into something broader and deeper, something about the damage inflicted by all unexplained murders and the desire to forget; about disposable victims and the mysterious beauty of a place; about the value of pursuing truth; and about an eccentric man’s pursuit of his ghosts.
That would make an interesting tale. But the book contains major segues from the story of Mary Jane’s and Stanley’s murders; in fact, I hesitate to call this true crime, or even to say it’s primarily about the case at all.
The rest of the book is chapter-long segments following Gregory’s research excursions into other Illinois-centric stories: a selection of what he pursued simultaneously during the years he was taking field trips to Oregon and following the progress of Mike’s investigation into Mary Jane’s case. Initially, I thought these segues would circle back somehow to the main story, provide something revealing, but the anticipation was let down.
One was about the proliferation of Asian carp in Illinois rivers; another about Alzheimer’s patients paired with Chicago teens in a buddy project; one about a giant, ugly Abraham Lincoln statue. These were a mixed bag in terms of content, and they didn’t fit the book’s scheme. They weren’t necessarily uninteresting or badly written, but were partially fleshed-out distractions, unrelated to the case I thought I was supposed to be reading about.
Then there’s the story of the decline of the newspaper; an unnecessary, out of place aspect. The overall effect was that this book didn’t know what it wanted to be. Or maybe despite being intriguing at first glance, Mary Jane’s story and Mike’s quirkiness weren’t enough to flesh out a full-length book, necessitating additional reporting, for some reason on unrelated topics. But that should be an essay collection, not a book called Mary Jane’s Ghost ostensibly about that story.
Sometimes a story looping together multiple disparate elements ends up being something impossibly wonderful and compelling, like Joan Didion’s works or Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, but such elements don’t gel here.
They’re too discordant, it’s a literary cacophony. And that’s too bad, because aside from the inclusion of some unnecessarily specific personal details and too many mentions of impending deadlines, Gregory is an able and interesting writer and this could’ve been a fascinating exploration of the botched bureaucratic history, decades of rumor mill and small-town intrigues and suspicion, and the bizarre modern elements surrounding Mary Jane Reed’s death.
I loved the coverage of the rural America aspect, I loved learning that Illinois is considered a kind of barometer state for measuring the country as a whole, and the state stories did provide interesting scene-setting for the cold case atmosphere. Chapters on Asian carp, despite a few laughs courtesy of the author’s self-deprecating humor – not so compelling. What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? Some attempts are made to tie stories together by highlighting the importance of storytelling in general, and how it connects us to past and future, keeping people, memories and places alive. But it’s a thin premise applied to the examples here.
About the rest of the Mary Jane story, I don’t want to write much, because it is quite compelling with some significant twists. It’s worth the read.
I think Gregory could’ve written an essay collection of long form journalism pieces, with Mary Jane’s story being the feature, but it feels unfair to package it this way. I constantly wondered what and why I was reading what I was. It’s marketed as a story about Mary Jane and her murder’s effect on her little corner of America, and I wasn’t interested at all in reading about the financial and managerial troubles of the Chicago Tribune.
Stories connect our histories and memories to our future, they help us remember how we got where we are…stories, even those filled with romance, mourning, mistrust, and cruelty, bring us together, help us grow. When real journalism recedes, that capacity to grow, reform, and build our communities fades right along with it, almost imperceptibly, and that’s an unsettling thing.”
He makes a worthy argument that journalism isn’t a lost or archaic art, it’s crucial to our understanding of our world and ourselves, and woe unto anyone who forgets or shuns history. Into this concept he ties the peripheral segue stories. I agree with him completely, but this needed to be a different book, or even two. It’s not a bad read, but it’s a frustrating one.
Mary Jane’s Ghost: The Legacy of a Murder in Small Town America
by Ted Gregory
published October 1, 2017 by University of Iowa Press
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.
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