Dead by Happenstance is Dandola's fifth West Orange-based mystery novel set during the 1940s. Its European debut was in October and its U.S. debut was in November. 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 their minds...."
So how and why was West Orange chosen as the home base for his stories?
"I guess the answer is that I was born and bred here just like so many generations of my family going back two-hundred-
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 1940s.
"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-
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 1940s, an era before the author was born?
"You mean besides the fact that I find '40s dames fascinating?"
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 is content in his surroundings working long-distance on a variety of writing assignments. He still personifies what several New Jersey newspapers dubbed him decades ago: "West Orange's local author" since his published writings are not only about the town but he also continues to live in the town.
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-
Dandola has also authored three uncompromisingly honest and accurate histories of West Orange besides being the biographer of inventor and Edison protégé John Hays Hammond Jr. A sixth West Orange-based mystery novel is currently being written.