Review by Heather Harlen
The music of Saturday Night Fever has been part of the soundtrack of my life, from the record spinning on my parents’ console stereo in the 1970s through college in the 1990s when the remixed title song was played in every frat house and club. I recently watched the movie for the first time, expecting two hours of great dancing and questionable fashion. Instead, I was shown a slice of youth culture where women are routinely called cunts and told they’re more likeable when they’re quiet. The patriarchy rules the roost and the women are expected to shut up and put out in this classic American film.
Stamford ’76: A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s (University of Iowa; April 2019) also offers this type of dark look into the 1970s. JoeAnn Hart takes the reader miles away from the manicured lawns of stereotypical Connecticut and into a youth subculture of couch-surfing and drug dealing as she investigates the murders of an acquaintance and her boyfriend. Margo Olson, a White woman in her twenties, is found tied to a tree with an arrow piercing her heart; weeks later, Howie Carter, her Black boyfriend, is shot and killed by a police officer during a robbery. Margo’s case isn’t solved, and Howie’s death seems to be solved too quickly. None of this sits right with Hart, and even decades later, she can’t forget it.
The murder of Margo might seem like the beginning of a Law and Order episode at first glance: a family stumbles upon an arm and foot sticking out the ground in a potter’s field. But this is not a murder case solved in sixty minutes: it turns out Margo was tied to a tree and not once, but twice shot through the heart through an arrow. A few months earlier, her boyfriend Howie, publicly said if he were to kill someone he’d shoot them in the heart with an arrow. But it doesn’t make sense he’d kill her. What was the motivation for this crime? Hart believes this is more than a domestic violence case. Hart researches relentlessly, her own memories serving as a base, but augmenting it with research, interviews, Freedom of Information requests, and even hiring a PI. Hart uses excerpts from her former boyfriend’s unpublished autobiographical novel to fill in gaps. The interplay of race, gender, class, power, politics, organized crime, and law enforcement tangle the story, with Olson’s murder still-unsolved. Part elegy to lives cut short too soon and part investigative report, Stamford ’76 forces the reader to reconsider the notion that the best answer is the simple answer.
Hart weaves the story in and out of the present and the past, trying to connect the dots of what may have happened to Margo and Howie. Fans of true crime will enjoy Hart’s exploration into the crimes themselves and history buffs will appreciate the deep dive into the corruption of the 1970s. Much like the main lesson of Saturday Night Fever, Stamford ’76 reminds the reader the good ol’ days weren’t always good.