“Vast in Perversity”

This was one of the first books I purchased for my Kindle in 2008 and I've finally gotten around to finishing it. No one can accuse Mr. Burleigh of being light on details in Earthly Powers although I'm sure that he's accused of many things. (He probably wouldn't have it any other way.) Burleigh sets out to explore the "clash" between religion and politics from the French Revolution to World War I. The clashing often takes the form of strange mash-ups in which religions take on distinctly political forms or issues or when the politics takes on the manifestations of religion.

It's fascinating to see the Jacobins of the French Revolution create their own cleric-free religion handily called "The Cult of the Supreme Being" or a Roman Catholic priest get kicked out of the church for creating a political role for the Holy See. Some of the collisions between religion and politics Burleigh unearths are amusing - like the utopian socialist writer who imagines a world in which "fairies" cure the jilted of their broken-hearts. Others are just plain disturbing. Humans can't live without some sort of religion, Burleigh seems to be saying, even if we have to make up something truly bizarre to fill the gap.

Burleigh has done his research and has his views, some of which had me nodding my head such as "there is surely something mad about all-consuming political passions" and some that had me wondering what planet he inhabits. I don't care what it's "set beside', the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is not a "modest affaire". I don't know why Burleigh felt the need to do the written equivalent of a drive-by in referring to Beatrice Webb as "ghastly" but I admit to being as amused by that as by the phrase "harpy pawnbroker consort". I get the feeling that if someone declared this book “vast in perversity” (to quote the Vatican’s description of a work cited here) Michael Burleigh would be pleased indeed.

Burleigh isn’t shy about sharing his opinions but his quirky erudition made this worth the ride for me. I disagreed with many of Burleigh's "conclusions" but for me that's part of the enjoyment of reading a book like this - it's like having a debate with a very opinionate acquaintance. This is not an easy read and it is not for everyone. Burleigh loves obscure verbs and occasionally presents a quote in the original language without providing translation. (Why he does this sometimes and not others in the same language is a mystery.) This is an interesting book that does not transcend its topic. Recommended for those interested in the topic.

Pretty Fly for a White Guy

It’s a familiar story: over-privileged white boy gone gangsta. The unfamiliar part finds him murdering and dismembering his platonic girlfriend egged on by his equally white, equally annoying gangsta moll eggs him on. In A Descent into Hell True Crime Divinity Kathryn Casey shows us that Colton Pitonyak and Laura Hall, the two white kids in question, are poster children for Just Say No to Drugs.

Few true crime authors are as reliable as Kathryn Casey and only her name on the cover could convince me to read a book in which the disposal of the corpse involves the liberal use of cutlery. Where a lesser writer would focus on the heinous crime, Casey shows the descent of victim Jennifer Cave and killer Colton Pitonyak into hell courtesy of drugs. In a way the amount of hard drugs these two seemingly normal kids were doing by their freshman year is more shocking that the murder. Casey does an especially good job of showing how a “nice girl” like Jennifer Cave drifted into self-destruction.

Nice is not a word anyone will ever apply to Pitonyak or Hall. Having transformed himself into the drug king of the University of Texas via his own consumption and drug dealing, Colton looked for more ways to model himself on Scarface. Because that movie ended so well for Tony Montana and his little friend. Naturally this amounts to Colton going around telling other economically insulated white boys about his time in county jail, his gangsta ways, and his favorite rap song of the moment. Just when Colton couldn’t seem to be any more of an idiot he hooks up with the true monster of the book, Laura Hall. Pitonyak was a drug addled mess living a fantasy, Laura Hall is a beast who thought that helping her boyfriend dispose of a body was romantic. It’s one thing to do it, it’s something else to brag about it. On Facebook.

There is one thing wrong with this book. The obligatory salacious subtitle is lamer than usual. Colton Pitonyak and Jennifer Cave stopped being altar boy and cheerleader, respectively, by middle school so describing them thus makes as much sense as “the girl who wanted to be a teacher and the boy who wanted to be a fireman when they grew up”. Could Harper Collins just switch to decaf before they publish their next true crime?

Other than the subtitle, however, this book is pure ambrosia for true crime fans. Kathryn Casey’s books just keep getting better. Highly recommended.

Recent Acquisitions

AKA = therapy shopping at Amazon.co.uk

Found Wanting by Robert Goddard

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery by Eric Ives

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Them and Us: The American Invasion of British High Society by Charles Jennings

Lifestyles of the Super Trashy

Before there was “mega” there was “super”. In the 1970s anything that was more with a capital m earned the prefix “super”. Stars whose mere existence caused fans to swoon were superstars. Billionaires were super rich. The top trailer park antics of Stella Maudine Stephenson etc Nichols and her daughter Cindy are of a similar magnitude – they are more than trashy, they are super trashy. In the hands of true crime great Gregg Olsen their story, Bitter Almonds, is art.

Do It Yourself gal Stella Nichols, who lived a tough life by any standards, is one of the most staggeringly promiscuous people ever. How promiscuous? She drove to bars in her trusty pickup truck “”TP 4” with a mattress in the back. That’s how promiscuous. Being a bar fly with her own rolling motel wasn’t enough to keep Stella amused. She was a winner at Tri-Chem design, which seems to have been the tasteful way to tart up one’s clothes before the invention of the Bedazzler. She designed her own pottery. She even managed to fit a few fish tanks into her single-wide trailer. Oh, and she picked up a few facts about how to kill with natural herbs and cyanide. One of the challenges of Stella’s story is that while her crime is awful, you can’t help admiring her ability to fit so much into a day.

Stella isn’t the only epic barfly in this story. Her whole family is man-crazy. I tried adding up the number of marriages the Stephenson “girls” and Grandma Cora Lee managed to rack up and I stopped at 30. That’s thirty marriages for 5 women. Just the marriages. When Stella’s even trashier daughter Cindy complains about Stella’s boozing and bed-hopping a few weeks after her husband’s death saying “I have a reputation myself to uphold in the town” one wonders if Cindy was merely vexed at having competition for the title of town tramp. This example of family love pales in comparison to warm welcome Stella’s sister Georgia extends to her daughter Wilma’s baby: “I hope that bitch you’re holding …” Wilma responds to this heartwarming expression of maternal love with a right hook and some hair pulling. The female bonding in this clan is something else.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be simply depressing. Fortunately we have Gregg Olsen on the case and no one is better at depicting the underclass of America. He’s neither preachy nor faux-sympathetic. The more of his work I read the more convinced I am that Gregg Olsen is a brilliant combination of Darcy O’Brien (another true crime great) and filmmaker John Waters in his ability to show us what we’d prefer to avoid while showing us a little of ourselves in the process. Gregg Olsen gives Stella Maudine and the rest of the Stephenson girls what they would probably most want: their dignity. He shows them at their trashy worst but always shows their strength. Of course, that strength can take the form of dumping your kids, turning your mom into the FBI or poisoning your husband but then life’s not for wimps.

Starting a Series Out Right

With several active series of detective fiction set in post-World War I Britain it’s impressive that any author would want to launch a new one, especially when the author in question already has one successful series ongoing. The writing team that comprises Charles Todd has gone as far afield from guilt-ridden Inspector Rutledge as imaginable while still staying in familiar territory. I admit my first reaction to the news of this new series was something along the lines of “why bother?” so I’m happy to report that it’s a very good thing that Todd did bother.

A Duty to the Dead handles the business of launching a series with minimal fuss. The introduction of heroine (and military nurse) Bess Crawford - a smart, resourceful heroine without being a screaming anachronism – involves a minimum of exposition and background. Todd’s choice of making Bess being the only child of a Colonel who was raised in colonial India presents many opportunities for the character to comment on a society that she both participates in and observes. It's easy to see that this will serve the series well.

The central plot sees Bess going to visit the family of a man who died under her care to deliver his last message to them. There’s plenty of English cozy-genre trappings complete with addled vicar, misunderstood town doctor and family secrets. Bess can’t so much as take a walk without someone in the town needing immediate nursing assistance or wanting to confide in her. And yet the clich├ęs and the creaks didn’t bother me because Todd kept the story going at a good pace. The mystery itself is satisfying without being too convoluted.

This isn’t a perfect book but it is enjoyable. Some will compare it to Todd’s Inspector Rutledge books – for me this stacks up well against the first entry in that series A Test of Wills. Others may compare it to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs – I’ll take Bess Crawford over Maisie any day. Where Maisie is a humorless paragon of perfection, Bess is no nonsense and human. To each there own. If you’re a fan of either series or Rennie Airth’s fine DI Madden series, A Duty to the Dead is a sure bet.

Sibling Rivalry Played for Keeps

At times this book feels like one of the better seasons of Dynasty set in Renaissance Italy. There are fights for family power, adultery, borderline idiot husbands, unloved brides, over-indulgent fathers, trampy cousins; the only thing missing is the occasional catfight. With material like the Medici family of Florence, one expects a bit of entertainment and Caroline Murphy delivers. Murphy also acquits herself well as a serious historian.

The story of daddy’s-favorite Isabella de Medici Orsini has the drama and intrigue to sustain a book. Isabella is that rarity of Renaissance times – a woman who is not a ruling queen with a well-documented life. Caroline Murphy brings Isabella to live but more importantly, she brings the reader into Isabella’s life. We get a feeling for the rhythms, excitements and boredoms of life as a Medici princess. Isabella is not exactly a sympathetic character nor is she remarkable for anything beyond her birth but that in itself makes this book fascinating reading. It’s rare to know so much about a woman of those times who was neither a paragon of virtue nor a creature of great infamy.

Nasty gossip did attach itself to Isabella - stories accused of incest with her father and her brother – yet her murder went without official comment. In the epilogue Murphy makes the case that Isabella was killed for actions that had she been a man would have been tolerated. I have no difficulty believing there was a double-standard in 16th century Florence but Murphy’s stretching things a bit here. Helping your hare-brained cousin plot to murder her husband is going to rile up the family no matter what your gender.

Murphy’s style is clear and she does a remarkable job of weaving together the various sources into an enjoyable narrative. She does pad the story on occasion and several times she jumps around chronologically but the impact on the overall story is minor. She writes for a contemporary audience complete with mentions of Paris Hilton but doesn’t strain for popular references. This is is a well-written biography that I recommend to anyone interested in Renaissance history.

Through the Past Darkly

What must it be like to have not only a murder in the family but an unsolved murder at that? If the victim in question was your father who died before you were old enough to have meaningful memories of him the mystery would only deepen. It’s more than a whodunit – who was the murder victim anyway?

Zachary Lazar sets out not to find his father’s killers but to understand how a nice accountant living a life of middle-class ease got tangled up with shady land deals, political corruption and organized crime. The narrative device Lazar uses is to depict his father as a character in a novel, writing about his feelings and frustrations that led him to take a walk on the Phoenix wild side that in the early 1970s consisted of selling uninhabitable land to GIs in Japan. For something that skirts the edges of the Mafia and the corruption of a former presidential candidate, the scam at the heart of Evening’s Empire is surprisingly mundane and tawdry without ever being interesting. The scam and the murder are part of a labyrinth-like enterprise that does not lend itself to dramatic storytelling. Nor are the principles, for one reason or another, available to participate via interview. So two-thirds of the way through the author shifts to the first person to continue the search. I’m happy to report that Lazar does not turn this into a true-crime-travelogue aka “what happened to me while I was writing this book.” He sticks to the story only inserting himself fleetingly but meaningfully to remind the reader of the unbearable cost of any murder.

Whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like Lazar’s prose style and his narrative technique. This is not a class true crime - there is no tidy ending. Lazar does his best to explain the scam at the heart of the crime without appearing to explain it (no easy task he’s set for himself) but I never felt as if I understood it well enough to explain it to anyone else. What Zachary Lazar does very well is create the atmosphere of Phoenix in the early 70s. With a few sentences Lazar not only sets the scene, he can make you feel the desert heat and the texture of the vinyl poolside chairs.

For me little touches of brilliance like that and the risks Lazar takes were enough to give this book five stars. This is a story that truly deserves the description haunting - it stays with you long after you've read the last page. This book isn’t for everyone but if you don’t mind unresolved mysteries, Evening’s Empire is essential reading.