By Jack L. Kennedy
A Murder in West Covina subtitled Chronicle of the Finch-Tregoff Case bills itself as “a based on fact dramatization.” It is written by James L. Jones, M.D.
That description may sound to some like a reality tv show’s attempt to establish its credibility, rather than the front cover of a tasty book about a 1959 murder of a doctor’s wife in the author's own home town in California. “West Covina” is a clever, well-written and compelling merger of tv visualization, fast movement, strong scenes and pithy dialog with the powerful print presence that allows the reader quickly to revisit a scene not by videotaping it but by simply turning a page back. This is the book, perhaps, for an instant gratification generation who like action, strong personalities, puzzles and plot twists, especially since the title has been re-released for the Amazon Kindle. My advice to them: Turn off the tv or computer. See what your mind’s eye shows you. Get excitement, color, complexity and detail by reading this good book.
Some elements are close to this reviewer's home, but as a good reviewer I only can tantalize curious readers with the revelation that Topeka, Kansas and Bolivar, Missouri are mentioned toward the end of the book, just as one might think that all the threads have been woven and the obvious tapestry completed. The reader must investigate on his or her own as to why these Midwest cities become part of a decades-old Southern California murder mystery.
The plot thickens and sickens as prominent playboy physician Dr. Bernard Finch livens his life in what he considers the dull Los Angeles suburbs by seeking out his third (at least) mistress, lively Carole Tregoff, 18. The problem: he is married, wifey would get half of his money if there were a divorce (California is a community property state), and he needs the dough to complete a new hospital or his middle-aged fantasies or both. What to do. What to do.
So, according to the prosecutors’ version of events, the lovey pair ambush Mrs. Finch in the garage and do her in, even using a well-stocked “murder kit” valise filled with potions and weapons to fit any circumstance.
The argument offered by the defense, and they stick to it through two hung juries and three trials and a fascinating parade of character witnesses and witnesses who are just characters, is that two thugs were hired to help Dr. Finch and Tregoff get information they could use in a divorce case, not to murder Mrs. Finch. The third trial brings a verdict of guilty, a conviction of first degree murder and life in prisonment for the doctor and of second degree murder and life in prisonment for his tootsie who incriminates herself prior to enactment of the Miranda warning.
Jones'idea for the book came to him after living for 30 years in or near West Covena and his unprecedented access to the townspeople, police,investigators, and lawyers that watched the case unfold. He spent two years researching and probing and interviewing those connected to the murder and trial for a hard cover book published in 1992 (Chapparal Publications).
His choice of words, use of movement and mayhem are compelling but not overdone. Witnesses and others often get separate boxes or sidebars in the story, a typographical trick that adds to the book's literary lure. The chief witness, the family's au pare, Marie Anne Lidholdm, who undaunted by Dr. Finch's murderous threats, sticks to her testimony through all the trials with remarkable consistency, in spite of the devastating effect the murder had on her. She is interviewed in the book and has written its introduction.
As the case drags on and the trials draw worldwide attention, Jones interweaves facts outside of the courthouse walls, from the doings of Hollywood stars to those involved in the dawn of the John F. Kennedy era. He catalogs the bad guys and good guys who were interviewed on radio and tv celebrity talk shows of the time, demonstrating how the whole ordeal becomes something of a circus with attorneys and prosecutors and even judges testifying themselves in different trials. The book version also contains illustrations from the era’s news headlines and newsmakers, another nod, perhaps, to the visual tv generation.
If you are a fan of murder mysteries, reality shows on tv, strange people, intrigue, trials, plot contortions and contusions, emergency room doctors who write books, or just good, tight, imaginative staging and typography and writing, this is the right prescription for you.
For more information about the case and an AP photo of the defendants and their lawyers go here.