The Reasons Behind the Inspirations
for His Series of Mystery Novels
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PRLog (Press Release )—February 11, 2014—Traditionally, today was
once dedicated to school assemblies in West Orange in order to
celebrate the birth date of the town's most famous citizen, Thomas
Alva Edison. The date is unfortunately no longer remembered with
any such reverence except possibly by author John Dandola whose
mystery novels feature members of the Edison family as secondary
Although the Edisons play secondary characters, it's the town of
West Orange which dominates as the backdrop for the novels. As
one reviewer commented, "Dandola's roots in the area enable him
to fill his mysteries with so much local color and detail that even
readers unfamiliar with the town can create vivid pictures of it in
So how and why was West Orange chosen as the home base for
"I guess the answer is that I was born and bred here just like so
many generations of my family going back two-hundred-and-fifty
years—long before it was even called West Orange," the author
responds. "My wife's a new-comer; her family has only been here
for about half that time."
Another part of the author's inspiration is that his lead character is named for and patterned after his grandfather who had served as a personal messenger boy to Thomas Edison (the Edison home and laboratory are both now National Historic Sites in West Orange). Edison himself has made an appearance in an extensive flashback in one of the novels and his youngest son, Teddy, is a recurring character in all the novels as are many real-life local personalities from politicians to gangsters.
"It's about the bond between a person and a place—such things do exist; maybe not for everyone but for some," Dandola explains. "A person often becomes what he becomes due, in part, to his formative environment. My family seemed to know everyone. It's special for me to be able to bring people back to life who were the faces of the town. There's a great many local family histories interwoven into my stories."
Indeed, much of the critical praise surrounding Dandola's work stems from his ability to seamlessly blend fact with fiction from colonial times through the 1940's.
"I've written a great deal of historical non-fiction. I know firsthand that local history is something which has to be put into a personality-driven context. As is too often the case, throwing out dates and citing non-sequential events only serves to give a disjointed, confusing, scattershot portrait of any place. Couching stories accurately in the past gives readers a much fuller appreciation and understanding of how and why a place evolves."
So can the physical nature of the town still be recognized as it is described in the pages of his books?
"Not since urban sprawl hit. But West Orange hadn't changed so much when I was a kid. It didn't try to be anything more than a town. It knew its place in the scheme of things. It was hardly perfect. It didn't have physical beauty as much as quaintness. But it was an easy place to grow up. You always knew who was in charge of something whether it be someone's father or uncle or a neighbor. We even had teachers our parents had had. It was a sort of Mayberry but with a slightly dark, manipulative, political undercurrent."
That slightly dark side is what gives his stories realism but why set a series of novels during the 1940's, an era before the author was born?
"You mean besides the fact that I find '40s dames fascinating?" quips Dandola. "I thoroughly enjoy writing about them. But actually that would have probably never have come about if the time-frame hadn't been dictated for me by an event which happened here in West Orange."
Dandola's mystery series began as a stand-alone novel entitled Dead at the Box Office (originally issued in a small run by a small press as West of Orange™). That storyline used as a backdrop the World Premiere of M.G.M.'s Edison, the Man which actually took place in West Orange during May of 1940. Dandola is the only one who has ever pieced together all the events which took place for the multiple days of celebration. Although the local newspaper reports tended not only to be hyperbolic but contradictory, he managed to reconstruct everything with the assistance of now-deceased Hollywood participants and now-deceased local participants along with official studio memos. The whole premise for that book was kicked off by several meetings the author had with none other than Orson Welles. As a young screenwriter, Dandola was already known for his expertise about classic movies and he was asked to accompany an interviewer during one of Welles' late-in-life tours to raise money to complete an independent film project. Welles grew tired of the interviewer but he clicked with Dandola and invited him back for more discussions. He became fascinated with the depth of Dandola's roots in one place.
"He actually began pumping me for information. He was surprised that I shot films here; some of them costume pieces. That was long before the current technology made it easy to do. We compared notes on the trials and tribulations of that. But most of all, I can still hear him saying, 'Your family has been in one place for that long?…And you have a connection to Thomas Edison to boot?…You've got to promise me you'll do something with all that as a background for a story at the very least.' Several years later, during a screenwriters' strike, I gave it a try as a mystery novel. It was successful."
That success not only included a step up to a larger publisher but continual interest in the screen rights by a variety of movie producers. Every time a novel debuts, Hollywood nibbles. There have even been scripts written and locations scouted but so far nothing has made it onto the screen. Yet Dandola is unchanged by any of it and he still personifies what several New Jersey newspapers dubbed him decades ago: "West Orange's local author".
But has his spotlighting West Orange along with his professional credentials and achievements as a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and historian led to local praise for the author?
"I am not considered a 'local-boy-made-good' but rather I get confronted with an attitude of 'who do you think you are?'" Dandola says. "You'd think I'd written a succession of exposés like Peyton Place rather than stories which are quite positive about now-vanished small-town life. A huge part of that is because West Orange politicians consider newly-arrived residents more special for having chosen to move here rather than anyone who was born here and stayed here. It's a phenomenon that's been going on for about twenty years now. There's a misperception that outsiders have better answers. Which is precisely how you lose the historic identity of a town—any town. Preserving West Orange's historic identity is something I consider quite a valuable undertaking and it's also proven to be an entertaining one for readers all over the world."
Dandola has also authored four uncompromisingly honest and accurate histories of West Orange besides being the biographer of inventor and Edison protégé, John Hays Hammond, Jr. By the end of 2020, there will be nine West Orange-based mysteries in print.
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