By Secret We Mean Sex

It's my own fault. I wanted to read a biography next, I scanned the biography offerings on Kindle, saw one about Oscar Wilde and clicked "Buy Now" instead of "free sample". So let me make something quite clear: the "secret life" in question is Oscar Wilde's sex life.

Neil McKenna makes the case that no single biography can do justice to the whole life of any subject and proceeds from here. He set out to tell the story of Oscar Wilde as a homosexual man in Victorian England and most else in Oscar's life takes a back seat to that. This isn't the book I set out to read but I'm not disappointed to have read it. Somewhere along the way I received the wisdom that Oscar Wilde was just another metrosexual Victorian man until Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) rolled onto the scene. McKenna makes it clear that was not the case.

There is a whiff about this book of "reclaiming" Oscar. Yes, I'm convinced Oscar was a gay man and I'm certainly interested in rereading some of his work in light of McKenna's interpretations of Dorian Gray and Willie Hughes. On the other hand: Who knew reading about another person's sex life in such detail could be a chore? When Bosie and Oscar aren't bedding rent boys or other fetching creatures, they're racking up charges at five star restaurants and hotels. Unfortunately, that's all they seem to do a lot of the time and it gets a little dull. Maybe it's the mindless promiscuity involved, maybe it's that I'm not a gay man or maybe my Puritan root go stronger than I realize but by the time the bailiffs came for Oscar I admit I was relieved.

McKenna is a tad myopic. Anything and everything is examined for tell tale signs that Oscar was gay and writing for a gay audience. Not surprisingly, he always finds signs. From Dorian Grey - ok, that's an easy one - to the Happy Prince, McKenna will have you seeing hidden messages everywhere. Bless his heart there isn't an inanimate object in your house that isn't a "code word for" for "Uranian love" when McKenna's on the case. This can lead to some giggle-worthy interpretations, my favorite being the "persistent rumor" that Saint Sebastian wasn't shot through with a hundred arrows by gang-raped by the entire Praetorian Guard and bled to death. Where do you even start on a theory like that? I'll start with the fact that I've never, ever heard that before nor does it make a lot of sense especially since the fact that the "arrows" didn't kill Sebastian is one of the reasons he was made a saint. He was actually beaten to death. (Unless I'm once again behind on the rumors.)

Still, I can't write this book off as all agenda and no substance. McKenna does a create a compelling portrait of Oscar Wilde as a man who acceptance his sexuality and genuinely loved Bosie. Now why he loved that mess of a human being is anyone's guess. Bosie may have been the cat's meow in his day but that's no excuse to letting him in the house. Selfish, bratty, vindictive, nasty, and way too interested in young boys, Bosie nearly single-handedly creates the scandal that destroys Oscar and then tops all this by going straight in later life. You'll be hard pressed not to side with Oscar friends who want to keep him away from this human wrecking ball.

This is an interesting book. Not the definitive biography of Oscar Wilde but an interesting exploration into a relatively unknown aspect of Victorian life. Just bear in mind that sometimes a cigar is a cigar even when the smoker in question is Oscar Wilde.

Skidmore Confidential

Years ago I saw an episode of Hawaii Five-O that featured a white trash family that came to Honolulu on a murder-robbery spree. When McGarrett finally brought them to justice the Deliverance-level-creepy mother announced: "It wasn't killing cause they wasn't family and it wasn't stealing cause they was dead." After reading In Broad Daylight I'm convinced that this was also the motto of infamous "Skidmore Bully" Ken Rex McElroy.

The bare outlines of the story are still well-known: a man who terrorized the residents of a small town in Missouri is gunned down in broad daylight, practically at high-noon, yet everyone present claims they didn't see a thing. Vigilantism? Frontier justice? Fear? No one was ever convicted or charged in the killing. At the time reporters and commentators tied themselves in knots trying to dissect the meaning of it all, usually ending with a degree of head-shaking "how could it happen?" How could otherwise decent, law-abiding people decide that killing someone was the only solution? Harry N MacLean set out to understand the whole story - from the beginning - and succeeds in finding meaning where so many others failed.

The story MacLean tells is profoundly depressing. In the annals of the true crime genre this has to be one of the only books in which the victim flat out "needed killing." Ken McElroy had a tough childhood that clearly leaves him with little ambition and fewer options. What he does to the people of Nodaway County goes beyond anyone's concept of taking it out on society, however. McElroy feels wronged and owed by everyone but what explains his taste for very young girls? He's a one man crime spree - stealing livestock, raping young girls, threatening people with shotguns, making late night threatening phone calls, etc. Through it all McElroy retains a sense that he is the one who has been wronged.

All of this is terrible but what is truly horrific is the fact that McElroy is not held accountable for his actions. Over 20 indictments equal zero convictions. Blame it on his "slick" attorney or blame it on McElroy's relentless talent for intimidating potential witnesses, it's just not quite explanation enough. It's hard to read this book and not come to believe that justice is available only for some in America. Nodaway was a poor county with few law enforcement officers that rated little attention from the state, or anyone else for that matter. The people of Skidmore were on their own.

MacLean convincingly portrays the townspeople's growing sense of terrified helplessness. Even after they've summoned up the courage to testify against McElroy and see him finally convicted he was still free on bail to park outside their homes fondling one of his many shotguns or make not so veiled death-threats. What happened seems inevitable in MacLean's telling.

This is a true crime classic for reason. It's well-written, thoughtful and says something about the society that produced all the participants. You won't leave this book feeling much sympathy for Ken McElroy but you may find yourself looking a little closer the next time you drive through a hard-luck town in the middle of nowhere.

You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Writing a mystery series can't be easy. You have to have characters who are compelling enough to support multiple books, you need to dream up a new mystery in within the constraints of the series, you need to move the lives of the main characters forward while still propelling the mystery along, and you need to put up with readers like me who love a good series but don't like the recurring characters to become the main event. Then there's also a more recent trend in mystery series: just like the strippers in Gypsy, you gotta have a gimmick.

Ellen Crosby's gimmick is wine. Her Wine Country series features a plucky mystery-solving heroine - Lucie Montgomery - who runs her family's vineyard in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the plots usually involve, well, wine. This is a series is more cozy than hard boiled with numerous cups of coffee and tea being consumed in the proceedings. Lucie has lots of friends and family roaming through the book. Older men are "like a father to her", she has a "beloved grandfather", and everyone freely offers relationship advice. Quite frankly, it's the sort of book that has to work hard not to get on my nerves.

Unfortunately Crosby writes this series in the first person. That's an odd choice in the cozy sub-genre and generally a tough one to pull off in any mystery series. It can work if, like Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie, the story is framed by the narrator's worldview but if the story is framed by the narrator talking about her own life and her friends it's difficult for the narrator not to come across as a self-obsessed, self-justifying bore. It's even worse when the writer tries to fit in a lot of backstory that isn't directly tied to the mystery. Only 44 pages in and Lucie has twice told us she spent "months in Catoctin General learning to walk again" which comes across as poignant the first time and slightly self-pitying the second time. Then there's the fact that Lucie can't even have dinner without telling us about her grandfather's "famous" cheesecake recipe. Since her grandfather is a) dead and b) not part of the mystery at hand this sort of thing earns a rousing "who cares?" from me. Lucie isn't a particularly witty narrator nor is her worldview unique and Crosby's action follows Lucie's days in too close detail. (Do you really want to read about the narrator's intake of ibuprofen?) Too often she comes across as an over privileged woman who's too eager to throw herself a pity party. The mystery - the murder of an unlikable woman - isn't terribly compelling either.

I'm not the likely target for this book. I love mysteries but I'm not a fan of this kind - I like my recurring characters to app ear but not dominate - and I rarely think about wine unless I'm ordering it or drinking it. I also hold mysteries printed in hardcover to a higher standard than paperback originals. This isn't the worse book I've read this year - The Great Upheaval established too high a standard to be beaten - but it's a disappointment. It's also a reminder that I should know better than to read books with main characters who spell the name Lucy with an "ie".

Oh yes, you can

One of my very least favorite plot devices is the foolish/impetuous action which imperils the heroine. Double annoyance points if the heroine's impetuous foolishness is powered by an alleged concern for others. Twenty pages into Ellen Crosby's The Bordeaux Betrayal plucky Lucie Montgomery is confronted with an overturned SUV in a river. Wisely, she firsts calls 911 to summon help. Nobly, and despite needing a cane to walk, Lucie ventures into the river to see if the driver is alive and if she can help before the ambulance arrives. So far, so good. Sadly, the driver is dead.

Let's have an I.Q. test, shall we?

Should Lucie:
  1. Go back to the riverbank to await help?
  2. Go back to the riverbank and call 911 again to update them
  3. Go back to the riverbank and polish your cane
  4. Attempt to remove the driver - who is suspended upside down - from the SUV and take her back to shore

Yes, answers 1 through 3 are viable options. Option 4 is what Lucie does, resulting, you guessed it, physical injury, a lost cane and a very suspicious scene for the police to happen upon. And when someone asks Lucie WHY she engaged in such epic stupidity she tells them "I couldn't just leave her hanging there."

Oh yes, you can, Lucie. Especially since you had no reasonable chance of getting her back to shore, you numb skull.