Originally from London, James T. Bartlett is the author of Anthony Award-nominated The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, a true crime book reexamining a scandalous 1953 murder that began in Alaska and ended with a suicide in Hollywood.
As a travel and lifestyle journalist and historian, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Los Angeles Magazine, ALTA California, High Life, Hemispheres, Westways, Frommers, Crime Reads, American Way, Atlas Obscura, The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Real Crime, Variety, Whitechapel Journal, Sunday Life, History Ireland, and Bizarre, among others.
He also wrote the Gourmet Ghosts alternative guides to Los Angeles and has appeared on Ghost Adventures and The UnXplained, while his short story “Death Under the Stars” features in the recent Sisters in Crime Los Angeles anthology Entertainment To Die For.
The Alaskan Blonde: In October 1953, Alaskan businessman Cecil Wells was shot dead in what his badly-beaten wife Diane said was a home invasion turned deadly, but then the police got a tip she was having an affair with Black musician Johnny Warren, and the murder became a national sensation. Seventy years later, The Alaskan Blonde reexamines this unsolved cold case.
My main job is as a journalist covering travel and lifestyle, but I have managed to carve out a small niche in true crime, as it was initially a big part of the two alternative Gourmet Ghosts guides I wrote about Los Angeles in 2012 and 2016.
I have only written one mystery short story, but I get to live vicariously in that world through my wife, Wendall Thomas. She has just finished Cheap Trills, her fourth book in the Cyd Redondo Mysteries series, and I am in awe of people like her who can create fictional stories out of their imagination.
Working in true crime means there is usually no need to create a killing, a suspect, evidence, or the complex machinations of how it gets solved by the end of the book. Life is not that simple, but history is bursting with real examples of murder and mayhem, lots of them unsolved or unresolved.
Also, as I am sure many PSWA members know, things happen in actual criminal cases that you could never write as fiction because people would not believe it. I came across a number of those with my recent book The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, so buy me a beer one day, and I will tell you about them!
What brought you to writing? My paternal grandfather Jim – who died before I was born – was a respected daily newspaperman in England, where I come from, and that may be where the seed of my being a journalist/writer began.
Otherwise, it comes from being naturally curious. I like to meet people and want to know how things work – the stranger or more obscure, the better. To that end, I always try to write like I talk, with enthusiasm, and I try to write about things I am interested in and would want to read about.
That curiosity certainly led me to The Alaskan Blonde, which reexamines a sensational murder case that happened in Fairbanks in 1953 and ended with a suicide in Hollywood six months later.
What kind of research do you do? For The Alaskan Blonde, I came across a brief article about the murder in the Los Angeles Times archives while I was writing Gourmet Ghosts 2, and had thought: “Well, what happened next?”.
When I couldn’t find anything more substantial about the investigation on Google, I was hooked, so I initially requested police/FBI/archive files as a jumping-off point and then tried to track down living family members to ask them what they remembered about the case.
Being a complete outsider – not family, not from Alaska, not from America, not even born when the murder happened –helped, believe it or not. My English accent did too, but after meeting initial skepticism about why I cared about something that happened so long ago, I was astonished to find out that no one I talked to really knew what happened in 1953. It was simply not talked about and had even been brushed aside as Alaska fought for statehood.
Assembling as many pieces of evidence as I could, I went down many rabbit holes on the internet and, as is necessary, became somewhat obsessed with it all, but by the final chapter of the book, I felt that I could write what I think happened on the night of the murder.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? For The Alaskan Blonde, the hardest thing was interviewing family members and friends and then deciding what was necessary to go in the book, which, after much structural re-arranging, I felt needed a chronological narrative.
Most of the interviewees had been children in the 1940s and 1950s, and almost without exception, the shock waves from the murder still affected them today and had affected their entire lives – and that of their children, too. As such, I often felt uncomfortable and wondered why I was bringing up something so many of them still found it difficult to talk about who I was.
How long did it take to get it published? It took five years of work before the book was ready for people to read. After publication, I was relieved and pleased to get several supportive emails from those family members, thanking me for what I had done: they felt they could finally talk about something that had been a black hole in their history.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? The everyday life of a journalist is about finding and researching ideas, then pitching them in a way that intrigues an editor. The research and writing are the fun part; getting a paying gig is a challenge!
I tend to write at home, as I don’t like to be too far from teabags, milk, and a kettle, but just as often, you’ll find me at the library. Sometimes I’ll listen to music, as it can give me an energy boost and make me write like a demon, but just as often, I’ll wear noise-canceling headphones so I can have silence. I don’t have a set schedule, but I like to work late when the mood takes me. My wife prefers to write in the early morning, and we often pass each other like ships at night.
What are you currently working on? Most recently, I published a Gourmet Ghosts (Pocket Guide) featuring some wild Los Angeles true crime stories about a Catalina Island pirate, a 1930s “Bonnie & Clyde,” and the rumor that Jack the Ripper was in the City of Angels before he bought death to London.
As for my next book project, it may be another Fairbanks story (a suspicious suicide from the 1970s), but that depends on whether my friend at Fairbanks PD finds anything on microfiche that was in cold storage – literally.