A Triumph of Atmosphere

There are a fair number of mystery series with clergy of some persuasion playing the role of detective. It's easy to see why this would appeal to a writer interested in exploring the whys of a whodunit. The latitude to explore on moral and spiritual issues is greater allowing for a more complex narrative. Making the cleric in question both a woman and a former army helicopter pilot increases the opportunities for complexity. Add to this Julia Spencer-Fleming choice of locale - small town upstate New York - and you have a canvas for a broad social commentary in her All Mortal Flesh.

This is my first venture into the Clare Fergusson - Russ Van Alstyne series and in retrospect it probably isn't a good place to start for the simple reason that the relationship between the two leads comes to a crisis point. The difficulty is that not having read any of the previous books I didn't care about whether Russ and Clare would give each other up forever and nothing in the book changed that. Another difficulty is that the situation calls for the two leads to act at their least rationale which can undermine the confidence other characters seem to automatically place in them.

What Spencer-Fleming does especially well is create a believable, palpable locale, her town of Miller's Kill and the people in it feel real. Spencer-Fleming does deliver one genuine plot twist along the way. She does over play things on occasion, like St. Alban's new deacon who might as well stroll into scenes wearing a witches' hat by the end of the book for all the subtlety she's given. The final exposition was a bit of an eye-roller for me - I could see it a mile away, as I good the identity of the murderer. It was a little hard to believe that an intelligent woman like Clare couldn't add it up on her own either but then she was distracted. It might sound like I didn't like this book and the bare bones of the plot in the hands of a lesser writer might have me giving this less than the very respectable 3 stars I did. What made this book stick with me is the community Spencer-Fleming created. By the end of the book I knew what it would feel like to walk down the Main Street of Miller's Kill. That's a genuine accomplishment.

As a stand-alone book, this book leaves more than a little to be desired. As an entry in a series, it is probably quite solid. Julia Spencer-Fleming's undeniable writing talent has me headed back for more - this time starting at the beginning.

A Fine Bromance

If you live in Boston, as I did for a few years, the name Whitey Bulger is as resonate as Jimmy Hoffa. Both were men feared by some and idolized by others. Both had no qualms about victimizing those who feared and idolized them. Both were seen by some as the guy like them who managed to stand to the Establishment. And both disappeared. But nobody thinks Whitey is buried at Gillette Stadium.

Whitey Bulger was a mythic figure in Boston, especially his old neighborhood of Southie, the gangster who always managed to slip out of the hands of the law.But even Southie little boys and girls grew up dreaming of becoming FBI agents. Chances are their dreams didn't involve having gangster over to the house for dinner. John Connolly, another son of Southie, dared to have this dream and in pursuit of it he pretty much turned the Boston office of the FBI into Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill gang's own little intelligence squad.

Make no mistake about it, James "Whitey" Bulger and his partner Stevie "The Rifleman" Flemmie were crooks, thugs, murderers, and all around low lifes. One could spend hours cataloging their many crimes. Oddly, they fail to get the credit they deserve for their pioneering work in the field of bromance. Any law enforcement agent can have an informant. Any crook can become a snitch. But it takes real imagination to turn it into quite evenings at home with your snitch/handler at the home of the handler's boss enjoying a home cooked meal the handler's boss has prepared. Candles, wine - champagne on occasion, steaks and the occasional visit from Whitey's powerful politician brother to share the latest family pictures. Just another night at Chez Agent Morris. Special dinners away from the cares of work aren't enough to keep a bromance alive, either. You need to show your bro that you care. Really care. Don't be afraid to give him a give now and then. A bottle of wine, a tasteful silver champagne bucket or a very special belt buckle says "I think you're the best" more than words ever can.

This is one mind-bending story and Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill are perfectly suited to the task. Their journalistic style is spot on in terms of original research and the kind of prose that doesn't get in the way of illuminating facts. Lehr & O'Neill know when to let these looney-tunes speak for themselves as in this line from murderer Stevie Flemmie that actually made me laugh out loud:

"I received a sweatshirt from (Agent) Nick Gianturco."

The next time you're wondering what to get that special multiple murderer in your life, look no farther than your local sporting goods store. I kept hoping it was some sort of demented joke about giving a fleece to a thief but no, ethically challenged FBI Agents John Morris and John Connolly and their pals thought this made sense.

This is an entertaining, well-researched, well-written book. The only flaws are that it drags in the final chapters when they provide perhaps a bit too much detail about the grand jury proceedings that ultimately brought this sordid business to light and that the books begs to be updated to cover Connolly's recent convictions. Aside from that, this is as smart a book about the mob as any True Crime fan could hope for. Highly recommended for any True Crime fan, anyone interested in the Mafia and anyone from Boston.

Romance is Dead

Dear Abby,

My husband and I decide to go to New Orleans to see the city 18 months after the devastation of Hurricane Katerina to celebrate our fifth anniversary. A sensational murder happened during the trip - a man committed suicide after murdering, dismembering and then cooking (and freezing!) his girlfriend. My husband, a writer, was drawn to the story. So drawn to it that while still on this second honeymoon trip he began interviewing the murderer's friends so he could write an article about it for Penthouse. Would it be too forward of me to suggest we go to Niagara Falls next time?

Confused in NOLA

No, I am not kidding. Yes, the above describes how the author came to write Shake the Devil Off. I left out the part where the author declares the prostitution and drug selling rampant in one area of New Orleans as "a tonic" to the safety of New York. Because we don't have anything like that here in the Big Apple.

Logic flaws such as this are plentiful in this book, one I fully expected to enjoy. I love the true crime genre and I'm always happy to see quality true crime printed in hard cover. The topic is interesting enough: did Zach Bowen's army experiences in Kosovo and Iran so damage him that the additional pressure of post-Katrina New Orleans caused him to snap and murder his girlfriend? After reading this book the answer is a resounding "Who knows?"

Zach Bowen and his victim Addie Hall are at arms length throughout this book. Zach seems to have drifted through his life with a fragile sense of self - this is a guy who quit high school when he loses an election - and his marriage to an older "adult entertainer" (aka, a stripper) doesn't do much to stabilize him. Initially he thrives on regimented army life only to begin to buckle under the pressure. Unfortunately, we know all of this second hand. Zach didn't keep a diary so instead of learning what the army was like for him, we hear what it was like for someone in his unit. When Zach purposely fails an army physical, we don't hear from his doctors, superiors or anyone else, we hear from a lawyer who has handled cases "like" this and thinks is should have been handled differently. Addie Hall fares even worse. She comes across as a nutjob, all but "driving" Bowen to murder. Never once do we hear from her family or close friends from before New Orleans.

PTSD while a serious and real issue isn't a convincing answer for the why of this case. Bowen clearly had psychological issues prior to ever enlisting. Bowen's experience in Kosovo and Iraq is too hazy to create a convincing causal link. A more compelling question is WHY was Bowen ever allowed in the army? I have little tolerance for the "War Veteran as Ticking-Time Bomb of Violence" cliche. Hollywood treated us to this foolishness about Vietnam Vets in the 1980s. This is a dangerous stereotype and doesn't do a thing to help war veterans. PSTD should be better treated. The army should do a better job of psychological evaluations priors to enlistment and post discharge. Sadly, this has been the case since the Boer War and things have improved marginally compared to the advancement in weaponry.

Even the author seems to lose interest in the subject three quarters of the way through, straying off to tell us about the high crime rate in New Orleans post-Katrina. Since the crime rate in was high in NOLA before, this isn't too shocking. But Ethan Brown hammers it home by telling the random story of a couple who move back to New Orleans only for the husband to be killed and then, oh the HORROR, the woman's hairdresser. What does it all mean? What does it have to do with the Addie Hall murder? And most importantly why did Mr Brown make his wife move to a city that has ceased to be a tonic in its realness but is simply a place for her to get robbed at gunpoint? The unanswered questions pile up.

A true crime travelogue such as this is hard to do well and probably hasn't been done well since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The author is too present in the narrative making the whole exercise seem self-indulgent at times. I'm not all that interested in what the author has to do to track down sources or where he ate lunch. The author imparts this all in the most humor-free manner - and he has great material, like those rapping tranny prostitutes at the beginning - the subject is a downer but that's no reason to sap the life out of everything. In the end Ethan Brown is too enthralled with the "importance" of his story to ever put it in context or stop taking himself seriously for half a second, all of which makes for a dull read.

A Man Walks Into A Bookstore

Drive by any flea market and you will see ample evidence that for any object you can think of, there is someone somewhere assembling a collection of it. When it comes to collecting books I can easily sympathizes, up to a point. As much as I love books, as much as I've probably spent on books in my lifetime there is just no way I can see myself collecting first editions. Too expensive, too risky and too much space required. None of this, however, was a barrier to book thief extraordinaire John Charles Gilkey.

Barlett dives into the world of rare books, bibliomania and biblio larceny to tell the story of Gilkey, a genuine oddball who despite having no money, no fixed address and no clue sets out to amass a collection of first editions that will wow the world. The fact that Gilkey thinks the world will care gives a hint of what we are dealing with here. The additional fact that Gilkey steals the books and simultaneously feels aggrieved is impressive but only in the same way that it was impressive to see the driver of a Honda Civic, having cut off another car, spit on said car because the other driver dare to blow their horn. And that's one of the major hurdles of this double-spaced, generously margined book: readers will find themselves wanting to smack some sense into this dimwit.

The other main character, Ken Sanders, is an oddball of another sort but an honest and forthright oddball. He's easily one of the sanest people in the book and based on what's in the book, saner than the author. This book is written in the "Let Me Tell You How I Wrote This" style, with the author front and center telling us what she thought, felt, ate, etc. My tolerance for such ventures is low. Bartlett does a good job with this when she's ruminating on what books have meant to her, she does less well when she's telling us about all the books she read as research for this book. I'm glad her library card got a workout but a little narrative cohesion would be nice. So would a little self-awareness.

When Bartlett begins hanging out with Gilkey she seems weirdly unaware that something isn't right with him. She's trying to figure out the logic of what Gilkey does. From his first words to her it's apparent that logic isn't Gilkey's strong point so I kept wondering when Bartlett would clue in to this. When she goes to one of the bookstores Gilkey stole from with Gilkey so that Gilkey can show her how he shops, or some such silliness, I wanted to remind her that being a journalist doesn't require the removal of one's spine. Just say no, Allison. Thankfully, Ken Sanders sets her straight.

It is a rare thing to read an article in a magazine and wish it were longer. I can think of only two off the top of my head: The Miranda Obsession by Bryan Burrough and Virtual Love by Tad Friend. Not having reading Allison Hoover Bartlett's original article on the subject, I don't know if The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is eagerly awaited by readers. It's a short book and an easy read. It is also the first book I've read in which the author shares her experience of removing her bra via her shirtsleeve in her car outside a California state prison. I won't be too sad if it is the last.

Recommended for anyone interested in the world of rare books.

Work is All Hell

but at least there's a paycheck involved.

Digging out from under a pile of work and one very long book.