Cash Out Your Kids

There are many ways for a parent to view their children: as a claim to immortality, as a living legacy, as an awesome responsibility to the future, etc. To Dr Dale Cavaness his children where like money in the bank and once in a while, like certificates of deposit in tough times, he had to cash them out.

It takes a true crime great like Darcy O'Brien to tell the story of a small town in southeastern Illinois so enthralled by the local doctor that the inhabitants overlook his increasingly bizarre and criminal behavior. In lesser hands this would have been an indictment of the small town or, worse, the sort of book that the dimwitted front cover review quote from the NYT deserves: "an indictment of a culture that condones and encourages violent behavior in men." Fortunately, O'Brien is smarter than that and the NYT reviewer clearly didn't read this book. This isn't about male violence, it's about America's hidden underclass.

If Dale Cavaness's mother purposely set out to create a narcissist she couldn't have done better than she did through sheer foolishness. From birth Dale was told that he was special, better than those around him. He absorbed this message from his mother and the belief that a man never runs from a fight from his father, the result was a "star" athlete and doctor in waiting. It says a lot that the sport Cavaness excelled in was basketball since he was, well, a little height challenged. This was a man who liked to beat the odds.

He was also a man who wanted to be on top. As a child he quickly realized that the equivalent of being a king in Egypt was being a doctor in Little Egypt. With the literal and metaphoric power of life and death in his hands, Dale Cavaness exerted the power his narcissism demanded. He had the opportunity to practice medicine elsewhere but Cavaness chose to return to where he could be king, and where he could settle old scores. Whether through genuine medical skill or his willingness to treat those who couldn't afford medical care, Dr Dale quickly became more than a king to the people of Little Egypt, he was viewed in almost godlike terms. When he left his wife to take up with the town floozy, acquired an epic drinking problem and finally killed two people in a drunk driving accident, the town didn't just turn a blind eye, they convinced themselves that this was just the price of greatness.

All of which goes to its insane extreme when Cavaness is indicted for murdering his third son and is under suspicion for the murder of his eldest, the people of Little Egypt back him up. This isn't mere support of a neighbor in tough times. This is out and out enabling, as in one man voicing the opinion that maybe "Doc" had a good reason for killing his sons. I guess it depends on how good a reason you think killing someone for their life insurance money is.

O'Brien does a brilliant job with some very dark material. The people of Little Egypt have lived generations on reduced expectations yet O'Brien resists any temptation to demonize or absolve them of their complicity in Cavaness's crimes. He simply tells the story and lets the facts provide the horror. This is a true crime classic that every fan of the genre should check out.

Feeding My Ann Rule Addiction

I went into this knowing that Ann Rule's Crime Files cover multiple cases in one book as opposed to just one. Even though I've been an Ann Rule fan for years this is the first Crime Files I've read the simple reason being that I prefer in depth analysis but I needed a fix from the master. Thus my expectations for this book were far from high.

Mortal Danger actually goes in depth on two cases and gives a once over lightly to three others. The first case tells yet another sad tale of a controlling man who goes off the deep end trying to keep a woman from leaving. Rule has covered this ground before but this time the man in question, "Dr" John Branden adds to the mix by being the disciple of a long-forgotten con-man. Stories like this always beg the unfair question of "why does she stay with him?" instead of the more obvious, "how does this whack job get away with this for so long?" It may take a village to raise a child but it takes a team of true-believers to help the likes of Branden avoid the law: old friends, daughters, ex-patients. These are the people I find baffling.

The next case is more standard police-procedural and bully for Ann Rule for being the rare true crime writer who can handle more than one style. There's plenty of CSI-like action on display in the story of the mysteriously massacred newlyweds. There's also another sad display of both our justice system dropping the ball and the women who bypass in favor of I'm all for true-love, the power of forgiveness, belief in the essential goodness of humanity and the power of change but a man who's been incarcerated for a murder, especially the murder of his mother, is not penpal material let alone marriage material. This is a bit of logic deducible even by single-cell lifeforms and therefore also by women named Jennifer who life in bathroom-free trailers.

The rest of the stories give further proof that good fences make good neighbors. Make that electrified fences. In lesser hands these would be worth a few paragraphs in a newspaper but Ann Rule has a knack for showing us the lives - not just the names - caught up in horrible crimes. Yes, she does sometimes over-praise the victims but so what? Ann Rule is about giving the victim equal time with the killer and that's one of the things that makes her books so addictive.

There was one other difference I noticed in this Crime Files book versus her other books, the prose got a little purple now and then. Not a big deal, just noticeable. Even subpar Ann Rule - and this is far from subpar - is exponentially better than most true crime being published today.

I love you, Ann Rule. Never change. But lay off the days that " dawn bright and clear, ok?

Another Crappy Day Saved by a Great Book

I think I need one of those old MedicAlert bracelets. Mine should say: "In Case of Crappy Day, Administer One Book by C. S. Harris." Three times now Sebastian St Cyr and Ms Harris have seen me through a wretched time. The St Cyr series is so reliable that along with Robert Goddard these are books that I buy the instant they become available and then horde them for dire time. Fortunately both authors produce a new book every year. Even better, Goddard had a healthy backlist of 8 books when I finally discovered him.

This time around it's Where Serpents Sleep that's taking my mind off the sadness of layoffs at my firm. I'm fortunate enough to not be among those laid off but after having to deliver one of the messages myself and see other valued colleagues and friends leave today, I needed solace. How does Harris jump start the action so effortlessly? How does she sketch characters so fully in so few lines?

Thanks, Ms Harris, wherever you are. And stay healthy, seriously, in times like these I get the feeling I'm going to need you and Sebastian often.

Fire Lover

I first encountered the story of John Orr in an American Justice episode. Something about an arson investigator who sets fires along the way to an arson conference, like a child leaving a trail of blueberries in hopes a rabbit will follow, was unforgettably improbable. The full story of the Glendale fire captain and his little habit is told by true crime great Joseph Wambaugh in his patented police-procedural-style in Fire Lover.

Even if he hadn't been a arsonist, John Orr would have been a notable jerk. Apparently Orr yearned to join the LAPD but didn't make the cut and subsequently nursed a resentment toward police and life in general. (Wambaugh declares that the LAPD was Harvard of policing in the 1970s. He may be prejudiced just a tad being a former LAPDer himself. Of course, being an East Coast native my immediate reaction was "No way someone would rather work on the LAPD than the NYPD!" And that was based on no first hand knowledge so, who knows, maybe Wambaugh is right.) Orr instead gets a job as a fireman, ultimately becoming an arson investigator in Glendale all the while complaining about the arrogance of the police. He also, bizarrely, becomes obsessed with catching shoplifters in his spare time, an activity which instead of earning the respect of the police actually annoys them. Once Orr catches the proverbial punks red-handed, the police have to come and arrest the perp and confiscate their ill-gotten gains of, oh, $25 or so.

How, when and why Orr turns to arson is unclear but turn he does moving from brush-fires to his favorites, starting fires in home improvement stores, one of which results in four deaths. Not content with committing the arsons and in some cases showing up later to film the resulting fire, Orr writes a novel detailing his crimes. A bad novel. A bad novel in which the arsonist is turned on by "his fire." The few passages quoted were enough to convince me that John Orr needs to do hard time just for his writing.

Wambaugh isn't one to dig too deeply into the motivations of criminals beyond what's needed to understand them enough to catch them. I can easily imagine Wambaugh muttering "scumbag" when he wrote about Orr. Not that I disagree. Orr was a scumbag, but his crimes were more interesting than he was.

This is not an easy story to tell because, let's face it, an arsonist works alone. Nor is it the sort of story that is action-packed, most of the police work involves looking at fingerprints and maps. So it's impressive that Wambaugh manages to tell a story that is not only interesting but worthy of the Edgar Award it was given. (I've read two of the other Fact Crime books nominated that year and this book is the best of the three.) Wambaugh does a good job of giving the reader a sense of who the investigators are and what the case means to them without falling into the usual traps of adding in pointless details about their personal lives or fashion choices. This book isn't for all True Crime fans but it's a sure-bet for Wambaugh and police-procedural fans.

Things I learned today

While reading Martin Marty's History of the Christian World:
  • Castration is a DIY activity
  • Nuns have been experts at calling people on their shit from the beginning
  • Nobody delivers a "right back at ya, Holy Boy, like a nun

Listen to the Voice in Your Head

Most mystery-genre series fall into two broad categories. In the first category the narratives are primarily focused the murder itself; in the second category the murder is an event in the lives of the recurring characters who are the are focus of the narratives. A book that falls into the second category is often has a gimmick: the crime solver owns a mystery book store or the detective has a wife who is psychic. The Ian Rutledge has a gimmick - the protagonist hears voices, or rather a voice, in his head. The voice even has a name, Hamish MacLeod.

Still with me?

Set in the golden age of English mysteries, the Ian Rutledge series features a detective recently returned from the horrors of World War I and suffering from a unique case of shell shock. Rutledge is haunted, figuratively, by a soldier he was forced to execute and that guilt takes the form of the near-constant presence of Hamish MacLeod's disembodied voice in his head. I'm not usually a fan of gimmick mysteries but Charles Todd (a mother/son writing team) consistently pull off the seemingly impossible in the series: Each installment offers a compelling mystery, character growth and employ the gimmick (the one named Hamish) without the whole enterprise descending into complete silliness. Hamish is clearly meant to be both Rutledge's conscience and his intuition, the device allows the lone to detective to debate his ideas with, well, himself. Todd makes it work and has created a hero who believably evolves over the course of each installment.

The central mystery this time out (A Matter of Justice) is who killed Harold Quarles - a self-made business man who is revealed in the early pages of the novel to have a secret that can genuinely be described as horrific. As is often the case, there is no shortage of suspects. The question this time isn't simply who is guilty but to what degree is each guilty. Quarles is not a likable murder victim yet Todd gives him nuances and even qualities that make it clear that no one knew the whole man. Todd also presents a believable picture of village life circa 1920 that is nostalgic without being condescending or trite.

This is a highly enjoyable series for mystery fans, not an imitation of the golden age mysteries but a smart updating of the sort of novels that would make Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie proud.