Be a coroner, or just look like one

iN THE STILLSome of us were blessed with parents who told us we could be anything we wanted to be if we just worked hard. At some point most of these parents began to temper this pep talk with a healthy dose of reality reminding their off spring that, for instance, becoming an opera singer required one to be able to carry a tune. I bring this up because as a youngster I once recoiled in horror from a slice of pizza that had developed a coat of fur, inspiring my mother to remark that i was obviously not destined for the medical professions.

Wait until I tell Mom about the surprisingly lax requirements to be the coroner of Lewis County, Washington.

It’s not merely the fact that lack of a medical degree of any kind is not a barrier to this job that involves determining the cause of death that makes one wonder if a page from the job description was lost. There’s the added bonus of not having to waste time going to the scene of the death one is investigating. At least, not according to Coroner Terry Lewis who didn’t feel that going to see where a woman was found shot to death on the floor of her closet was something that needed looking into. Way to save gas, Terry!

Be forewarned: In the Still of the Night is not the typical Ann Rule book. There is no satisfying ending with most questions answered. It isn’t even certain that a crime was committed unless you count possession of “Elvis Presley plates.” This isn’t a traditional true crime book either. It is the story of a parent determined to make law enforcement properly investigate her daughter’s death. The heroine thus is not the victim, it is her mother, Barb Thompson.

For me Ann Rule is at her best when telling stories about strong women. My favorite of her books all feature female murderers and Rule’s ability to understand them has always kept me coming back for more. When the victim is female and the killer male, Rule can go into beatification mode with numerous descriptions of the victim’s beauty and general saintliness. I can usually skim over that but I know it drives others crazy. There’s considerably less of that here and I think that’s because of Rule’s focus on Barb who is one tough, resourceful lady. What emerges is a story that is too common – the difficulty of getting justice without considerable financial resources at your disposal.

It’s also the familiar story of a man with little to recommend him who just about has to beat off the ladies just to make it through his own front door. Never having the experience of having a man announce to me on the first date that he was impotent I can say for certain that it would make me decline a second date but I’m pretty sure I could find something else to do. For Ron Reynolds, it worked as well as a marriage proposal. 

While many of the elements of a true crime book are here, the lack of a conclusion is frustrating. Balance that against Anne Rule and Barb Thompson trying their hand as Cagney and Lacey only to find that few will talk to them and those that will won’t tell them the truth. “So much for our ability as investigators – or even likable strangers.” Don’t worry about it, Ann, as long as you’re willing to use your clout to highlight a miscarriage of justice you’ll always have your day job.

So, all in all, a bit of a disappointment for me. I admire Ann Rule’s commitment to this story but it’s not one I’ll be rereading any time soon.

Take that, Virgin Queen

Mary TudorPoor Mary Tudor. First she goes from being daddy’s little princess to nearly being daddy’s latest executed-loved-one. Then after surviving against all odds and every precedent to become England’s first queen regnant she keeps upstaged in death by her little sister Elizabeth and nicknamed “Bloody Mary” to boot. No doubt about it, sibling rivalry can be a bitch.

Anna Whitelock has written Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen with the stated intention of reclaiming her rightful place in history for this perpetually beleaguered royal. She does this by creating a very accessible biography. The scholarship is evident but the writing style is surprisingly fast-paced. Tudorphiles won’t find much new in the two-thirds of the book. This is well-trodden ground and Whitelock focuses simply on Mary’s point of view without wringing out tenuous interpretations. She also shows Mary’s shift from obedient Catholic girl to a woman for whom faith offered the only constant in her life.

Once Mary becomes queen Whitelock takes great pains to demonstrate how she paved the way (definitely unknowingly) for little sis Elizabeth to become Gloriana. The idea of a woman as ruler was unthinkable prior to Mary. After Mary it was a viable option. Whitelock is less successful in redrawing the portrait of “Bloody Mary” although in fairness to the author that was probably not the intention. Instead of claiming Mary was in thrall to her advisors when she sent hundreds to be burned at the stake, Whitelock points out that Mary was perfectly willing to die for her religious beliefs and thus wasn’t too troubled by others dying for theirs. It’s not a sympathetic portrait but it strikes me as far worthier for this notable survivor.

Recommended for history readers and Tudorphiles.

Who’s Your Bootlegger?

Last CallLast Call: the rise and fall of Prohibition is a sometimes fascinating, usually interesting exploration of what in retrospect seems inexplicable. Daniel Okrent delves deep into the origins of the Prohibition to show its links to the Women’s Suffrage movement and latent xenophobia. He also shows the inner workings of Congress to explain how the necessary Constitutional Amendment was passed.

Okrent is at his best when his vignettes are grounded in a single person or event. For me he was at his worst when he would bring a character on stage, such as Wayne Wheeler, and wait hundreds of pages before telling us anything about the person other than his actions. When explaining a movement driven by deeply-felt and often deeply personal emotions keeping a distance doesn’t work.

What can’t be argued with is the vast amount of research Okrent clearly conducted, most of which seems to have found its way into the book. I had the odd sensation of wishing someone would quiz me on the Prohibition after finishing Last Call. It seemed pity to waste all that detailed knowledge. Which brings me to my major caveat for this book: it is not for the casual reader. If you want to learn about this important chapter in US history then you would be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive book. If, however, you are only mildly interested then this book is not likely to whip that mild interest into fascination. The mildly interested would be well-advised to skip judiciously – you don’t need to read all 480 pages to learn from and enjoy this book.

Okrent does have his focal points – Samuel Bronfman is one – and most fit well. His last discursion into whether or not Joseph P. Kennedy was or was not a bootlegger struck me as the oddest. Okrent’s contention that “most people” think JPK was a bootlegger seemed a little, how shall I say, a little 1975. I’m not sure most people even know who JPK WAS let alone what he was doing in the 1920s. If Okrent feels he’s cleared up a major misconception then bully for him but to me it was a missed opportunity to tie up the story.

Recommended for those interested in US history and highly recommended for anyone particularly interested in the topic.

Sympathy for the Devil

Fragile In the genre of women’s fiction, Jodi Picoult, Sue Miller and Anita Shreve exemplify the unwritten ground rules: an event of some trauma or import intrudes on the seemingly ordered life of a woman living in a seeming idyllic suburban or rural town. Lisa Unger certainly plays by the rules but she also manages to add her own stamp to the genre.

The plot description of Fragile may remind some of Rosellen Brown’s excellent Before and After but that’s merely superficial. Brown was focused on the toll taken on one family. Unger chronicles the impact on an entire town. Her cross-section of characters verges on over population at the beginning of the book but once the action kicks in the pattern Unger is weaving becomes clear. Unger is particularly good at showing the reader unpleasant characters without making them cartoonish. Even her most repellant characters retain a humanity.

There were a few things in Fragile that are, well, curious. One is Unger’s choice to saddle a major male character with the name “Jones”. At least it’s not “Storm”, I guess. Then Unger has one character named “Chuck”, another “Charlie” and a third “Charlene”. If she was trying to make the three a triptych of each other it doesn’t come off. Maybe she just likes the name Charles.

An enjoyable book. Recommended for fans of Jodi Picoult, Sue Miller and Rosellen Brown.

Sisterhood of Stupidity

bad boy In the realm of pop culture the female offspring with bad taste in men and a propensity for landing in life threatening-peril has a long history. Audra in The Big Valley, Diana Fairgate in Knots Landing, Kim Bauer in 24, to name but a few, inspired in viewers like me a weekly mixture of disappointment and awe. Disappointment that yet another perfectly good to kill them had been squandered and awe that any writer could think stupidity makes compelling entertainment. Into this rich tradition Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy launches DCI Banks’ daughter Tracey Banks, hitherto not renown for her imbecility.

Tracey, however, is a comer. And she’s surrounded by several idiotic characters and situations that serve to vault her own burgeoning dimwittedness into the stratosphere. In the first few chapters we are confronted with England’s dumbest mother – what do you do if you suspect your child is in trouble? Why you toddle down to the local police station; a “gun removal” procedure that despite several characters noting that it is “by the book” strikes me as being taking from the adventures of Larry, Moe and Curly; a cardboard cutout police villain; and Tracey, who has decided to call herself Francesca to spice up her boring life. Is it any wonder that Banks himself would choose to flee the jurisdiction and vacation in California? Sadly, he’s not in search of higher IQs, he’s off searching his soul after the collapse of his relationship with a younger woman and his encounter with MI5. He’s on a California whine tour.

To make matters even more entertaining, Robinson has decided to delete the mystery portion from this installment of this mystery series. You know who did it. Banks knows who did it. The only person who is momentarily dim on this is, you guessed it, Tracey. Her decision to cleave unto the bad boy of the title is one the goofier aspects of the book – he was her friend’s boyfriend, she just fancied him until the cops got involved. Then it’s shopping, trashing Dad’s place and running from the man all day. Like Gym, Tanning and Laundry, only even dumber.

As if this isn’t enough fun, Robinson then tosses in a super-criminal known as The Farmer (cue the foreboding music) and his two psychotic henchmen. Then  he adds a graphic torture tableau. It’s a relief because for the last 20 books I’ve been saying to myself, Excellent characterizations, complex mysteries and genuine moral dilemmas are all fine and good but when is Robinson going to get serious and deliver more gratuitous victimization of women.

I’m not a fan. Robinson can do much, much better than this book that reads more like a plea for a movie deal than an entry into what has been up to know an extremely well-written, well-plotted, thoughtful mystery series. If you’re a fan of Robinson and Banks, you may want to skip this one.

Blood and Innards

A mystery series set in Amish country and featuring a female lapsed-Amish police chief has a lot going for it. A crime taking place in and around this closed community is automatically charged an air of the forbidden. A woman, in this case Kate Burkholder, who leaves a male-dominated culture only to re-enter it in a position of power presents a fascinating set up too. Add to this a writer, Castillo, who can actually write and you have a recipe for success.

Why only 3 stars?

There are a few significant drawbacks for me. The first is that this is not a mystery; it's a thriller. It's not that it's so terribly obvious, it's that Burkholder has a suspect early on and she's right. Then there is the grotesque nature of the crime. Want to read about the murder of an entire Amish family and the sexual torture of their two daughters? Me neither. Castillo doesn't exploit the material she's just too painstakingly detailed for my taste. Finally there's the incredibly weighty back stories of Burkholder and her love interest - more stomach-churning violence - and the fact that the first book of this series had the two investigating a serial murderer. People have moved for far less provocation but these two are hanging around at the scene of multiple crimes. 

Of course, that's challenge of any mystery series. (Who in their right mind would invite Miss Marple over for tea?) But it's an awful lot for book two. 

Castillo makes a few bold choices -  Burkholder's sections are all told in the present tense, all other characters in the past tense - that would fall apart in the hands of a less talented writer. They aren't all successful but Castillo sets a fast pace for the book so that even missteps aren't very noticeable.

For thriller fans who don't mind or enjoy a gory murder, Pray for Silence is worth checking out.

Anatomy of a Scandal

Once upon a time, the Chandra Levy case was the most important news story in the United States. Ok, not exactly important more highly covered. Why? Well, she was white, missing and middle class, and she was having an affair with a congressman. Naturally this made things like war, famine and pandemics fell by the wayside in the land of cable news. Something very much like hysteria was building around the Levy-Condit case and then 9/11 happened. Now reporters Shari Horwitz and Scott Higham have gone back, nine years later, to sort out the fact from the tabloid fiction. What they have written is less true crime and more social commentary. They examine the case itself but they also examine the media coverage of it, and how the media coverage impacted the investigation.

The result is excellent reporting and good writing. Higham and Horwitz know how to bring individuals to life without resorting to extensive inventories of closets. They also don't fall into the "this story was SO hard to report" cliches. They even manage to humanize Gary Condit. He's no more likable at the end of the book than he was before but his actions seems much less sinister though still remarkably bone-headed. The most fascinating aspect is how quickly law enforcement fell under the sway of the media coverage. If Rita Cosby reported something, the police had to follow up.

There remains the issue of whether the Chandra Levy case received disproportionate media coverage and even police attention because she was white and middle class. Well, of course it received more media coverage. Her family was able to work the system and was able to afford advice to help them better work the system. Bully for them. If my child was missing I'd do everything I could to get whatever help I could. Was the media wrong for following up on a story that was dropped into their laps? Not in my opinion.
It is wrong that so many missing non-middle class and/or non-whites don't receive similar attention from the media. But then who really believes that CNN/MSNBC/FOX etc cover these stories as news and not entertainment? Coverage goes to those who have the time, money and connections to scream loudest.
I also found it entertaining that the Washington Post's own readers ombudsman was disgruntled that the series was too long. I guess she was hoping they'd just send a few Tweets and be done with it. Shouldn't the ombudsman at least support the idea of in depth reporting? The concept of the press as a public trust has evaporated before our eyes.

Highly recommended for true crime readers.

This is Your Life – Southern-style

Last Talk First off, this is not a thriller. The subtitle to The Last Talk with Lola Faye is “a novel” and that is the correct description in my opinion. Thomas H. Cook delivers a few twists and turns in the book but while motivations may be shrouded there is no big psychological mystery nor are there chase scenes and other assorted perils. Instead Cook tells the story of a mediocre professor who one night unexpectedly meets the woman he holds responsible for his father’s murder. The conversation that follows, the talk of the title, takes the narrator back to his life in an Alabama town of reduced expectations.

Cook chooses to tell the bulk of the story in a series of flashbacks – a risky choice but it is mostly successful here. It helps that the writing is engaging and never fussy, and that the book is short (around 250 pages) so that it can be read in one gulp on a deckchair near the body of water of your choice. In fact this book is probably best read in one or two sessions. Broken up over days the story of Luke and Lola Faye might start to creak a bit. Can Luke really be so totally lacking in self-awareness? Taken at the right speed the story is revealing and entertaining, reminiscent of Barbara Vine.  My only quarrel with the book, aside from the publisher’s choice of calling it a “thriller,” is the last chapter. It feels like a cop out, a tacked on happy ending that was already implied without hitting the reader over the head. Maybe that’s the publisher’s fault, too.

Recommended for fans of literary mysteries of the Barbara Vine variety.

Recent Acquisitions from the Vine

Complaining about the poor selection of free items strikes me as a tad ungrateful yet I have to admit that Amazon’s Vine offerings haven’t been tempting the last few months. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean I have to choose a book that does not interest me – especially when I have to write a review in exchange. But enough whining, in this month’s second batch were too review-worthy books.

Last Talk


The Last Talk with Lola Faye by Thomas H. Cook

This is billed as “a novel” despite a plot that involves a man finally meeting the woman he holds responsible for his father’s murder. Less than 300 pages, Lola looks like something best read in one gulp. Perfect for my long awaited vacation this week.

If I like this I’m in luck, it appears that Mr. Cook has written twenty other books.



Finding Chandra by Scott Higham and Sari HorwitzFinding Chandra

The summer of 2001 was the summer of the Chandra Levy case. Then 9/11 happened and pundits were falling all over themselves to say that THIS was real news and didn’t we all feel silly about obsessing over the Levy case. The case was sensationalized by cable news mongrels and it was a typical Missing White Female media frenzy. Fortunately Washington Post reports Higham and Horwitz treated the case as more than the scandal de jour and didn’t settle for sensationalism. Their series of articles, which form the basis of this book, helped to identify the killer.

Jamesian Inquiry Part 2: Unnatural Causes

Unnatural After spending two books giving the reader glimpses of the soul of her detective, in Unnatural Causes P.D. James pulled him out of his natural environment by sending him on holiday. This means that both James and Dalgliesh can ponder murder and murder investigations from the outside for a change, but ponder it still. James also tackles head on Dalgliesh’s willful solitariness and his peculiar emotional inertia – is he willing to change his life enough to share it permanently with Deborah Riscoe – placing him in a community of self-absorbed writers.

James dissects what it means to be a semi-successful writer from several angles. There’s the romance writer who peddles convention to make a living  and the mystery writer who is past his prime. Both must grapple with the knowledge that their work will not outlast them, that it is not respected and that they are not even successful by their own standards. Publically they guard their own claim to be "artists” while snipping away at one another.

This community of writers is most interested in Dalgliesh because he is a police detective. They don’t seem at all impressed or intrigued that he is also a published poet. It’s such an obvious flip of responses, usually someone has to point out the incongruity of a detective writing poetry, that I had to wonder if James was making a joke. 

Dalgliesh is downright cranky on occasion in Unnatural Causes. James showed up glimpses of his pride and self-regard before but this time she lets him be, well, human. At least on the inside. He’s put out that there’s a murder to contend with during his vacation. He’s annoyed that everyone seems to think he has a part to play in solving the crime. Not that he voices much of this. The hardest thing to like about Adam Dalgliesh is his self-control.

The source of that self-control appears as disinterest to others. The most revered of the writers in Monks Head asserts that Dalgliesh chose his line of work because it gives him permission to be “uninvolved”. This is James striking at the heart of her own character: Dalgliesh wants to investigate murder, he wants to understand the crime and the criminal but he does not want to be involved in it in any meaningful way. He wants to observe, to intellectualize, but not to feel. Placed in proximity to murder but not an  official capacity to investigate it he has to feel his reactions to the suspects and the victim, to resent the official intrusion into his life. What makes James a great writer is that she does this without resorting to making Dalgliesh a suspect. When faced with his aunt’s own calm acceptance that so twisted an evil in the form of the murderer had been part of her daily life Dalgliesh is staggered by what he considers her “uninvolvement.”

James is having fun in Unnatural Causes starting with the obvious homage to Dorothy L Sayers. From the title’s nod to Unnatural Death to comments about “in the teeth of the evidence” to the body on the beach the book is filled with touches that place the book and the series in the Golden Age of Mystery tradition.

What a difference a narrator makes

Unnatural I’m listening to another audio book version of P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes as part of my revisit of the Adam Dalgliesh series. This one is narrated by Michael Jayston and it’s nearly a completely different book compared to the version narrated by Penelope Dellaporta.  Jayston’s version captures the contradictions that make Adam Dalgliesh a fascinating character. It seems possible that Dalgliesh really is a policeman and a poet – always the toughest part of the character to make believable. He handles Dalgliesh’s frustration at being hounded by murder even on holiday without it coming across as selfish whining. Dellaporta, a skilled reader, makes the same material too prim. Her Dalgliesh isn’t exactly whiney but he is fretful. Too often is sounds like she’s offering knitting advice. Dellaporta strikes me as being perfect for coziness of a Miss Marple story. For P.D. James’ cool yet remorseless assessments of murder and human nature Michael Jayston is THE quintessential reader.

Recent Acquisitions

Party Animals Party Animals by Robert Hofler


A biography of agent/producer/party maven Allan Carr. Trashy, flashy fun. I can’t believe that I didn’t know about this book sooner. Amazon should have called my house as soon as this was published. My only regret is that because this is a Kindle book the publishers have probably held back on the photos. And I need to see some of what is described here.


easyriders Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

I got tired of waiting for a Kindle edition of this. I read a few pages in Barnes & Noble a few months ago. The combination of bad behavior and intelligent discussion of movies was too tempting for me to resist for long. Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution reignited my love of film analysis mixed with behind the scenes details.




Mellon: An American Life by David Cannadine

Another book I’ve been waiting to see in Kindle version. After the Lords of Finance and Last Call I’ve had enough glimpses of Andrew W. Mellon. I need the full picture now.

Where there’s a serial killer, there’s a way

executiveprivi This is a transportation book, the kind you read on a long airplane trip or your daily commute to work. A successful transportation book must take into account that the reader will rarely give the text undivided attention and that it will be read in pieces. To compensate the author has to make the chapters and paragraphs short, key facts must be repeated, the characters’ names must be repeated, first and last names, at the beginning of every chapter and the characters themselves must be, well, broadly sketched. Most importantly the plot must speed along so that the reader doesn’t have time to notice any of the previous issues nor time to notice the general silliness of the proceedings. Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege manages all of the above.

I’m not a major consumer of transportation books but I have read enough to recognize the requirements and to know that some are pretty awful. Executive Privilege is not awful. It chugs along the rails of the genre’s convention making the necessary stops. Because it’s a legal thriller we get snatches of legal jargon and technicalities. We also have the usual allotment of serial killers and evil politicians. I got the impression that Margolin’s heart wasn’t into it when it came to the serial killers – that was in his favor in my opinion. He kept the victimization of women to a minimum except when it came to the background of one of the leads, another mark in his favor. The plot itself – is the President of the United States a serial killer? – won’t keep you up nights but it’s not intended to. The big twist isn’t all that surprising (I clocked it by chapter 5) and the ending is textbook pat. (All the major players declare their love to the person they’ve been keeping at a distance.)

Margolin does slip in a few unexpected touches. The conservative politician isn’t the villain for a change. The male lead, a young lawyer, is a complete doofus instead of a heroic genius with abs of steel. He was whiney and lovesick; it made for a nice change. It also made it a tad easier to put up with the antics of female lead Dana Cutler who is such a talent PI that she never once enters a room normally. She sneaks up on EVERYONE. I kept hoping we’d see her sneaking into a McDonald’s to get a Big Mac in the epilogue just to show us she hadn’t lost her street skills or whatever.

Take it for what it is and this book is enjoyable enough. It’s not a beach read – taken in large doses you’d probably want to bury it under a sand castle. Read it for 20 minutes at a time on the train and you be at risk for missing your stop by the miles will speed by.

Jamesian Inquiry Part 1: A Mind to Murder

A Mind to Murder You have to admire someone who creates a workable formula and then sticks to it. P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh books are set in a cloistered (in one case truly!) often claustrophobic community. Work is usually the source of the community as well as the source of the tensions and rivalries. Office politics create the initial tensions: who wants whose job, who’s obsession with the rules is making everyone’s life miserable, who is a nasty git, who is a mess, etc.The rules of the profession are up for examination with the definition of success, and what it takes to be successful, playing a major part.

Psychiatry is the profession under examination in A Mind to Murder (AMTM), P. D. James’ second Adam Dalgliesh book published in 1963. The treatments are were up-to-the-minute back in ‘63 but dated today – LSD, deep analysis and out-patient ECT – still it is interesting to see how these treatments are discussed. Compared to her later books, the Steen Clinic is a back drop rather than a vortex. Aside from the hints of  “psychiatrist shrink your own head” James doesn’t say all that much about the profession itself. She does use the conceits of the profession, however, with the doctors feeling themselves perfectly qualified to state a theory of the crime along with conclusions about the identity of the killer.

The crime, the murder of the Miss Bolam, strikes most characters as an annoyance rather than a tragedy. That in itself sets this book apart. While several of the characters harbor a dislike for Miss Bolam none demonstrates a true hatred of her. Sustaining a mystery when the crime itself is so cold blooded isn’t easy, you can’t have a whodunit if it’s a case of who cares. James handles this by making it less about “who would kill Miss Bolam?” and more “who among this bunch could so totally lose their cool?” The who isn’t all that difficult to figure out. James drops several Christie-style hints along the way. There is one deductive leap that Dalgliesh makes that was a bit too wide for my taste. How he went from one phone call to blackmail could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Compared to her later books, AMTM is a lesser effort. The characters are less well-drawn and less compelling but it’s only to be expected that a good writer would strive to get better. There are a few interesting hints of what is to come. A minor scene draws in religion, a subject which features prominently in later books. Two scenes set up Dalgliesh’s relationship with Deborah Riscoe and its eventual demise.

One of the pleasures of a James’ mystery is the attention she pays to the impact of the murder on the other characters. How perfectly reasonable that proximity to a murder and the subsequent investigation would cause an examination of one’s own life. AMTM features an epilogue of sorts with the office busybody filling Adam in all the changes that have taken place since the case wrapped up. It’s a nice touch and although it’s a bit obvious, it reminds me how other Dalgliesh books have left me wondering what became of the characters once the police left.

Snap Judgments

Of the many great things about the Kindle, the access to free sample chapters is in the top five. On the whole this feature encourages me to try new authors; if I’m not sure if I’ll like a book, I try a sample chapter. Occasionally the sample chapters demonstrates that the book being sampled is not for me. It’s not judging a book by it’s cover, it’s judging it by the first chapter.

Run at Destruction by Lynda Drews is an example of a book that sample chapters proved was not for me. A few pages of this book proved this book isn’t for anyone without access to serious drugs. The story is about a love triangle that ends in murder as told by the “best friend” of the murder victim. I’ve read hundreds of true crime books and many of them have been bad. This one is so bad I actually made friends read parts of it. Why? Because I thought I must be hallucinating, that’s how bad it was.

I lack the skills to fully convey the sheer awfulness of the writing. Most of the time its merely groan-worthy (“I sipped my addiction”) and sometimes it is gut-bustingly, unintentionally hilarious. “We wickedly admitted to groin sensations when we’d watch them run.” Desire or the need to urinate? Who knows?

For some reason Amazon feels the need to keep “suggesting” this book to me. Now that I’ve tried reading it I think I should feel insulted.

Seriously Bad Judgment

Body of Death When reading an Elizabeth George novel one expects a bit of gore. George is one of those mystery novelists who is especially keen to prove she is not in the least cozy. The gore suits George better than it does Martha Grimes, the mystery writer who seems to inhabit much of the territory as she. (I would disagree with that assessment.) I’ve always seen Elizabeth George as striving to have more in common with P. D. James and often succeeding. I give George credit for stopping the endless merry-go-round of romance of the four leads and for taking a major risk is killing off one of the four. Full marks for effort. But George’s previous two books showed a few disturbing fixations (namely, children who kill and deeply unappealing female characters) that come to fruition in This Body of Death and the results left me actually writing the word “ew” in my notes.

(Anyone happening upon this who hasn’t read This Body of Death should stop now because spoilers will abound.)

I thought it would be tough to top Daidre Trahair as least appealing non-murderer in any Elizabeth George book and then along came Isabelle Ardery. So the latest candidate for superintendent is an ambitious woman. A little Prime Suspect but I’ll play along. Isabelle has a drinking problem? More Prime Suspect. Inspector Thomas Lynley coming back to the force to help said alcoholic win the coveted job? Okay. Isabelle turns out to be in over her head and Lynley helps her? A little less ok. Lynley finding Isabelle dead drunk after she effs up the case, tossing her into the shower and then having sex with her? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WTH? Or as I wrote in my Kindle notes: EWWWWWWW.

I don’t care how much the shower sobered her up, who the hell wants to read about the hero of a series having sex with a woman who’s capacity to consent is even slightly questionable? And why would he be so desperate that he’d have sex with someone he just revived from an alcoholic stupor? She didn’t even brush her teeth. Not to mention, she’s his boss. Are we to believe Lynley’s grief, all of five months old, is so severe he’s forgotten it’s never a good idea to fish off the company pier?

It only got worse when Lynley then covers up for Isabelle so she can keep trying to be superintendent. Because people who drink at work never make bad decisions. Maybe George is trying to go somewhere with this but I have zero interest in signing up for the next installment if she’s going to try to sell a “romance” between this two. Ew.

I’ll write a proper review later. After I’ve had a chance to get over the squick factor.

Teenage Wasteland

Bluegrass_Jacket New titles are published in the True Crime every year but new voices are rare. Anyone who cares about the genre has to wonder when the next Ted Olsen or Darcy O’Brien or Shana Alexander is going to arrive. Or wonder is they’ll ever arrive at all. A new voice has arrived with Bluegrass.

The lives of three young people, all barely out of their teens, intersect as a typical college frat party. The girl gets her heart broken, gets drunk, acts out and then gets tossed out. One of the boys has spent the party passed out in a pickup truck after an all too successful pre-party. The second boy is unimpressed by his first frat party. By morning the girl is in ICU suffering horrific injuries. The investigation and murder trial that follow leave many questions unanswered.

William Van Meter tells this story with nary a trace of hysteria and what’s even more impressive is that he also does it without an ounce of condescension. Life in semi-rural Kentucky would be filled with only alcohol and Ten Commandments road signage in the hands of other writers but Van Meter avoids the clichés. He shows us the aimless lives of the two boys and the semi-aimless life of the girl, their stunningly bad choices and their almost innocent kindnesses. His occasional commentary on their lives is devastating in its brevity. Case in point is his assessment of Stephen Soules: “a sluggish existence wholly in the present – a life structured around ‘chillin’.”

This is the rare true crime book that is successful despite a genuine ambiguity about what actually transpired. Van Meter never hands the reader an easy out of “this is what I think happened”, leaving us to sort it all out for ourselves. It’s not a perfect book, the writing could stand a bit more polish in places but this is Van Meter’s first book I’m willing to overlook a few rough edges when the overall content is this good. At 240 pages this is a short book well worth the time of any True Crime fan. Highly recommended.

Tackling a Series

For some reason it’s been years, decades even, since I tackled a mystery series in order from start to finish. Come to think of it, I even went out of order on one of the Harry Potter books. It’s not that I can’t wait to find out how it ends since I rarely ever peek at an ending.

I think it has more to do with not wearing out the characters' and author’s welcome. Taken all at once the mechanics of a series can become obvious, creakingly obvious in some cases. The set pieces become too familiar and the recurring motifs get downright annoying. Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series is a prime example. Read a year or so apart one doesn’t notice the fact that the last dozen or so books all feature a preternaturally intelligent dog and at least one child, both of which thoroughly befuddle Melrose Plant. You’d think he’d have picked up some pointers by now.

Still I want to tackle P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh series in one continuous, if not chronological effort. I’ve already started out of order – Unnatural Death is the third in the series – and I’ll be rereading some of the books. And I’ll be listening to them instead of reading them. Despite all these caveats I’m looking forward to reading the books closely enough together to see the evolution over nearly 50 years. I guess this is my tribute of sorts to P. D. James and her durable series. I’m willing to risk a little over familiarity.

Recent Acquisitions

rome The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (Kindle) This history of the Middle Ages is all about proving that the Dark Ages weren’t dark and that the march of history is more of a meander. Not a fast read but better than rereading my old college text book, which I’ve often thought I should do. Not that I have a good reason for it. Must be the burgundy cover.

Reading Along

I’m in a funk book-wise. After finishing Gregg Olsen’s latest, the amazing A Twisted Faith, it’s as though nothing is quite living up to expectations. Not a fair reaction but not unexpected either. When I finish a particularly good book I want to read something just as good; I want that same reading high. When the book is genuinely great, well, great is rare and two in a row is rarer still.

The Go-Between disappointed, The Inheritance of Rome is a tad denser than anticipated and Blind Justice is good but I only listen to 30 minutes of it a day so I’m never fully immersed in it. And that’s what a great book does for me – it takes me outside my day-to-day life. Which is why I usually save the latest books from reliably great authors for times when I really need an escape.

That and the fact that there’s no literary bonbon in my reading rotation at the moment is making every page seem slower than usual. Good thing I didn’t tackle Elizabeth George’s latest just now. I’d probably end up heaving it across the room.

All Yesterday’s Parties

go%20between The story of a party girl who finds herself hanging out with the Rat Pack, the Kennedy Clan and La Costa Nostra simultaneously only to spend the rest of her life paying the consequences sounds like a great idea for a great novel. As The Go-Between proves, there is more to great novel than a great idea.

Frederick Turner starts out by creating a distinct barrier between the subject, Judith Campbell Exner, and the reader. Instead of telling her own story, JCE’s story is told by a old reporter who had access to her diaries but rarely quotes from them. Instead the reporter treats readers to his interpretation of her story. This might have worked had Turner not chosen to make the reporter the classic unreliable narrator, had the reporter fall in love with his own idea of JCE and then, for some truly unfathomable reason, make this the one reporter who can never seem to find the right words or the right analogy. Paragraphs of the narrator telling us that he can’t find the right word but it’s sort of like this, etc, might work once in the novel but more than once stops the novel dead in its track every single time. And that’s not counting the time he’s struggles for an analogy that he sort of remembers but doesn’t quite. Look it up on the internet already, buddy.

There is a tie for nadir of this failed experiment. Candidate One is the entire chapter entitled “Killing MistahCastro” (JFK, you’ll be shocked to learn, had an accent). Candidate Two is the narrator’s ruminations on the subject of “virginality”. What’s that, you say. You do not want to know and you certainly don’t want to know several pages of it.

That’s just the writing. The plot is not much better. Whether you’re a JFK fan, a JFK hater, a left-winger, a right-winger, a centrist, or a political agnostic there’s something in here to make you roll your eyes in disgust. Pick a cliché about these characters and chances are it’s here. So let me summarize for you: JFK and his father used the mafia to buy the nomination and then the election. (I was fascinated that the price of the Illinois and West Virginia primaries were both a briefcase full of money. One would think that on a per capita basis Illinois would be worth a suitcase full, but I digress.) But wait, there’s more! Sinatra and JFK liked threesomes! RFK was a saint! Peter Lawford was a tool! And … does anybody really still care about this foolishness? And if they do, why not read a trashy bio on any of the above and skip the faux handwringing about the corruption of it all.

I don’t claim to know what the truth is about any of the above allegations. This is fiction and Turner can do what he pleases as long as he makes it all matter. He fails to do that. From the minute he introduces her to when his narrator claims to be trying to rescue JCE from being “Jack Kennedy’s lay” he does her a disservice. Turner never makes Judith Campbell Exner a believable character and he very rarely shows her outside of her interactions with the cast of famous men. Jacqueline Susann could have written a better life story of JCE – at least she would have given her some humanity.

Would You Believe: Swedish Nazis?

girl_dragon_tattoo Somehow all that free love, sleekly designed furniture and middle-class socialism has blinded me to the fact that Sweden had a Nazi-past of its own. A few passages in Tony Judt’s Post War clued me in to Sweden’s flirtation (if that’s quite the word) with eugenics. Now The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes along and tells me about the Swedish Nazi party, unrepentant Nazis and neo-Nazis.

Despite this book being everywhere I didn’t know that much about it before it was picked for my office book club and after that my policy is not to read anything about the book, even a review before forming my own opinion. All I knew was that it was Swedish, featured a female hacker and was all the rage. So the serial killer thing came as a surprise. An unpleasant surprise. I don’t like serial killer books. I don’t find serial killers, real or fictional, to be all that fascinating.

Larsson wrote a satisfyingly twisty mystery. Maybe I’m the only one who enjoyed the scenes of Blomkvist adjusting to life in the frozen north more than the descriptions of the serial killings. To be fair, Larsson doesn’t fetishize the serial killer material and that’s a relief. My only real quarrel with the book, aside from the serial killer part (and that’s a pretty big aside considering it features two of them) is that hero Michael Blomkvist can’t open his front door without women wanting a go with his man parts. Ok, maybe in the aforementioned frozen north where one’s pickings are slim this might happen but I’m guessing that in Stockholm a girl has more options. Whatever, it’s a minor quibble.

Derivatives Watching

Thirty pages into Frederick Turner’s The Go-Between I feel like I’m playing spot the influence. There’s the unreliable narrator – nod to Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. There’s the investigator who is entranced by the subject of his investigation – nod to Preminger’s Laura. The self-consciously hard-boiled narrator has too many examples to pin down just one but this one feels vaguely Norman Mailer-like. It’s all a little distracting which doesn’t help when the style is to show you the main character (Judith Campbell Exner) by never actually showing her directly.

I hope its just a creaky start.

Peers Gone Wild

Splendour The inhabitants of the British Isles have bequeathed many fabled gifts to civilization – the works of Shakespeare and the Magna Carta come to mind – but no gift keeps giving quite like the antics of aristocrats behaving badly. I speak not of Earls whose addiction to gambling leads them to invent the Sandwich or Dukes who set up a second life as a baker. No, I mean badly; really, epically, occasionally criminally badly. If you want to read about members of the peerage behaving badly on a nuclear scale then in Splendour and Squalor Marcus Scriven has written the book for you.

Alternately hilarious and sad (and sometimes both), the stories of four awesomely awful individuals show exactly what too much money plus zero parental oversight can do to a person. The consequences range from multiple bankruptcies, multiple wives, prison sentences, a "lifelong shriek for attention" and being declared (by a judge) “absurdly stupid.” Alcohol, drugs, excessive spending, adultery, more alcohol, more drugs, sexual experimentation and, above all, consistently bad judgment: it’s like a century long frat party. With family crests on the silver.

Scriven provides a smorgasbord of witticisms about the lunacies he details but some of the best lines are delivered seriously by the participants. Consider the ex-wife (one of many) of the Duke of Manchester who describes her home as an “upholstered sewer outside Melbourne”. (The things they’re doing with waterproof fabric these days!) Or the Marquess of Bristol who declares that he didn’t go to his father’s wedding to his secretary because “I don’t go to office parties.” Or, my favorite, the friend who describes the relative merits of the Marquess’s favorite driver thusly, “being illiterate he couldn’t read the road signs, so not the greatest chauffeur.”

At one point in the festivities the utterly insane Marquess of Bristol joins forces with the equally batty Clint Murchinson Jr (of The Big Rich fame) to invest in oil fields. When John Murchinson suggests that they “saddle up the jet” it’s really anyone’s guess which activity any of them had in mind. One feels a certain kinship with the observer who states, “What I’m wondering is, where are the white sheep in this family?” No where in this book, thankfully.

A fun, fast blissfully witty book. Marcus Scriven writes like the world’s most erudite gossip columnist and for that I love him. Essential reading for anyone who enjoys fabulousness and wit.

Kindle note: there are, tragically, no photographs in the Kindle version despite the index of photos being tauntingly included up front. When one reads of a Duchess who routinely begins notes to friends with the words “Well Kid how is your sex life?” one wants to see what the letter writer looked like.

The Only Child’s Tale

Rising road The most important thing you need to know about this book is that Sharon Davies is a great storyteller. The tale of a Methodist minister who shoots and kills a Catholic priest for marrying the minister’s daughter to a Catholic in 1920’s Birmingham Alabama might sound dry as dust but in Davies’ capable hands is it almost Tolstoyan.

Rising Road takes us back to a time when the Klu Klux Klan traipsed around openly. Blacks were their most common target but second on their list were Catholics. They were joined in this hatred by a surprising number of political figures who built their careers on “warning” Americans about the “menace” of the Catholic Church. Not only did publications exist solely to carry this message it was also carried on in the editorial pages of major newspapers in Birmingham. In this atmosphere the trial of the minister takes place.

Writing as much as a novelist as a historian, Davies gives us several compelling characters: the Irish priest who defends his faith publically despite the risks, the minister who turns into “the marrying parson” after his career as a barber doesn’t work out, the daughter who converts to the faith her parents abhor and marries to escape them and the future Supreme Court justice who defends the minister. Even the chapters dealing with the trial, clearly taken from the transcript, come alive.

Oxford University Press deserves special praise for upping the game when it comes to academics writing for a popular audience. First The Day Wall Street and now Rising Road demonstrate that serious nonfiction need not be a chore to read.

Rising Road will satisfy history fans and discriminating true crimes fans as well. Highly recommended.

Off the Vine

go%20between The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years by Frederick Turner (Amazon Vine)

The sales pitch says this is “faux-journalistic reconstruction” of the life of Judith Campbell Exner. My first thought was that JCE deserves her own novelization after the twenty or so fellow JFK mistress Marilyn Monroe has under her belt. My second thought was that “faux-journalistic” describes most of what is contained in any issue of Vanity Fair.

Last Call Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent (Amazon Vine)

The chance to add to my tragically slim knowledge of early 20th century American History was too good to pass up. Maybe this book will explain how anyone ever thought Prohibition would actually work. We Americans are so good at restraint after all.

Carrie Nation, here I come.


Pray for Silence Pray for Silence: A Thriller by Linda Castillo (Amazon Vine)

A mystery series set in an Amish community. Vine offers surprisingly few mysteries. Of course, this on is a “thriller” a word that is becoming as meaningful as “suspense” in the mystery genre. But I won’t hold the silly subtitle against the book.



How did we all survive back in the days when a book could be titled without resorting to colons?

The Angel, the SOB and the drunken cocktail waitress

father The story of a man who’s declared Father of the Year and then ends up on trial for the murder of his wife is all sorts of ironic until one pauses to consider that it was Father and not Husband of the Year. Undoubtedly that twist of irony is what drew Glenn Puit to the story of all around rotten human being Bill Rundle. Once again true crime fans are presented with evidence that being an SOB doesn’t automatically make one’s story interesting.

Rundle specializes in small scale crime, lies and romantic destruction until working his way up to the murders of his mother and wife. Along the way he has a son, Richie, that he genuinely seems to have loved. Then in a twist straight out of South Park, Richie is run over by a drunken cocktail waitress as he pushes his friend out of harm’s way. Vegas being Vegas, they name a school after the child.

This is a curiously pedestrian book. Puit is strongest when he’s detailing Rundle’s background. The chapters dealing with the investigation are, I kid you not, taken from a Dateline NBC episode which left me wondering why I was reading this when I could just catch a rerun on Discovery ID. The last 50 pages are pure filler. Most of the time Puit is dispassionate to the point of bland, except when he’s writing about Richie Rundle (“an angel”, “a gift from God”, “a miracle”) and then I wanted to turn a fire hose on him.

All in all, middle grade true crime. Recommended only for those very interest in the case or the commuting patterns of cocktail waitresses.

Recent Acquisitions

Rising road Rising Road by Sharon Davies (Amazon Vine)

An account of a notorious 1921 murder trial of a minister accused of murdering a priest for marrying his daughter to a Catholic.

Twenty-five pages in it’s already obvious that Davies is a natural storyteller.

Body of Death This Body of Death by Elizabeth George (Kindle)

Lynley and Havers are back. Solving a vile child murder. I guess I should be happy it’s not a firebombing of a school bus full of saintly nuns, each with an adorable kitten-clutching tot on their lap. But if that whack job Daidre Trahair is back I swear this is my last of this series.

twfinalcover-21 Twisted Faith: A Minister's Obsession and the Murder That Destroyed a Church by Gregg Olsen (Kindle)

New true crime from Gregg Olsen = me wondering if I’m really to old to call out sick and stay in bed all day reading. A new book by Olsen should automatically result in a national holiday but someone in charge fails to see this obvious wisdom.

Splendour Splendour and Squalor by Marcus Scriven (KIndle)

The subtitle says this is the story of the “Disgrace and disintegration of three aristocratic dynasties.” Well, that’s one way to put it. “Peers Gone Wild” would be the shorter version. Insanely entertaining. 

The dead may travel fast but this book does not

deadtravelfast I selected The Dead Travel Fast on the strength author Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Gray mystery series. While Silent in the Grave is not perfect, it a decent first-in-a-series that showed real promise. I assumed that this book would be another mystery. The Dead, however, is not a mystery. It is a quasi Gothic Romance, more Victoria Holt than Ann Radcliffe, with strange goings on at a remote castle. It is also a romance. That last part leaves me under qualified as a reviewer for this book.
Set in 1858 Scotland and Transylvania, this is the story of an independent woman, Theodora, who visits an old friend (at that remote castle I mentioned earlier) and the friend’s very odd indeed relatives. Handsome brooding Count Andrei Dragulescu is on scene to make cryptic remarks, gesture haughtily, wash the heroine’s hands and, well, brood. He’s part of the set piece and either the reader is willing to play along or not. I kept thinking that he was a bit of a jerk but some may find him fascinating. Theodora sure does. Even when the locals start to suspect Andrei is a vampire she isn’t all that put off. Is Andrei half-man, half-bat? Is his whole family batty? How does Theodora manage to climb “The Devil’s Stairs” and a narrow turret staircase during the heyday of the hoopskirt?
If you can hang on for all 300 pages you’ll find the answers to most of the above. Portions of this book annoyed me – the random Romanian words, for one – and the repeated references to basil put me in the mood for a caprese salad. For those who like historical romances this is probably decent fare.For mystery fans it will be a disappointment. (Vampire fans will likely be disappointed too.)

This Template Oppresses Me

That's right, I'm blaming the template for my lack of recent posts. I switched templates roughly 10 times in the past five days and I'm back to another Blogger freebie and still it's a blah. I think this is the one I started with two years ago. Maybe it just needs a better font.

Wide-angled with Spaces

Piers Brendon deserves praise for writing a mostly readable history of the 1930s that covers the major players in World War Two. The focus is decidedly on Europe with Italy, Germany, France and the UK getting detailed coverage, the United States, Japan, the USSR and Spain fill out the rest.

The book is written in an episodic format with each chapter covering a period of time in one country. On occasion this means that one event is covered multiple times in separate chapters – not necessarily a bad thing when it allows a different perspective on the event. It also means that the narrative weaves back and forth through time: the chapter on France might end in 1936 but the next step in Italy starts in 1931. The effect of both is to make each chapter stand on its own but keeps the whole from quite fitting seamlessly together. Though Brendon does try to knit the chapters together by introducing the country covered in the next chapter in the last pages of the previous this tactic feels clunky more often than not. This is not a showstopper, just something to keep in mind.

The chapters on Japan and Italy are especially strong, possibly because so few writers of popular history have given much attention to either country’s experience during the 1930s lately. The chapters on Spain and France are quite good also. Oddly, considering that Brendon is English, the chapters on the UK are surprisingly patchy. The chapters on the United States are, on occasion, a bit odd. Brendon’s take on the Supreme Court was surprisingly ill-informed and his sudden segue into Hollywood was downright bizarre. After paying little attention to culture in general Brendon spends pages essentially complaining about the output of the movie factories. I’m still wondering what the line “Even monsters like Boris Karloff and Shirley Temple did not seem credible” is supposed to mean. Does he mean the characters they played? Boris and Shirley as individuals? Is this a bon mot gone flat? Even more strangely, Brendon keeps referencing Citizen Kane, a great movie but one made in 1940 and released in 1941. Pop culture critiques are not Brendon’s strength.

The subtitle, A Panorama of the 1930s, is apt. This is not a comprehensive history. What Brendon covers and ignores verges on idiosyncratic at times. He’s not trying for completeness but rather to give the reader the feeling of the 1930s: a slow, exorable descent into chaos and ultimately the dark valley of war. The sheer breadth of what the book attempts to cover deserves the attention of any reader interested in the times.

Recent Acquisitions

Let the Great World Spin by Colum Mccann (Kindle / book club)

The Bronx Kill by Peter Milligan (Amazon Vine)

When Money Was in Fashion by June Breton Fisher (Amazon Vine)

Zero in the Brain

Once upon a time, the kidnapping of young Bobby Greenlease was second only to the Lindbergh case in terms of publicity and general outrage. The boy was murdered, as planned, before the first ransom demand was sent. The kidnappers, unlike Leopold and Loeb, got their ransom and left town, seemingly on their way to escaping without a trace. Instead epic inebriates Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady go off the deep end, lose the ransom and end up in an electric chair built for two.

This is dark material. John Heidenry does a good job of depicting the crime and the abysmal human beings who committed it. For my taste, he over does the details on the stealing of the ransom money. Certainly it takes a rare specimen to steal the proceeds from a child murder but other than being a proof point for utter corruption of the St Louis police I couldn’t bring myself to care who had the money. It’s return wouldn’t bring the Greenleases’ any comfort nor would it make Hall and Heady any less guilty.

There’s something vaguely Coen Brothers about this case. From the French-speaking nuns in the Midwest to the motel with a national reputation for shady business to the moronic drunks to the “Who’s Got the Ransom?” antics, the whole thing plays like a grimmer, entirely laugh-free version of Fargo at times. Hall and Heady are not criminal masterminds. They are not sympathetic. They aren’t even interesting.

That may be the biggest obstacle for this book – other than telling the story, there isn’t a whole lot to be gained from this exercise. Unlike the Lindbergh case the Greenlease case is not a microcosm of the times. It’s the venal, depraved act of a couple of drunks. The end. Society’s reaction to the crime and the criminals isn’t especially illuminating either. Even as a tale of the dangers of demon alcohol it isn’t much. If you’re interested in the case then you likely won’t be disappointed by this book. Otherwise this isn’t a must-read.

Modern American Gothic

If I could praise Carol Goodman for one thing alone it would be for updating the modern gothic. With so much bad writing and worse plotting being inflicted upon readers of popular fiction these days it is a joy to find a capable writer who wants to entertain. Goodman chooses to entertain in a genre I’ve loved since I was eight years old and my older sister started reading me her gothic paperbacks.

As any fan of Doris Miles Disney, Mary Stewart or Phyllis A Whitney knows, Gothics have their requirements. There must be dark secrets from the past, a seemingly all-powerful woman, a large house and a landscape that acts almost as another character in the story. Goodman ticks all the boxes in Arcadia Falls while updating them for the 21st century. The large house is a private school, the powerful woman is the dean and the dark secrets are investigated as part of the heroine’s PhD dissertation. Goodman does all this and for most of the book maintains a narrative drive equal to de Maurier’s Rebecca.

This is an accomplished and entertaining book. When it comes to creating atmosphere Carol Goodman is one of the best popular writers today. Her depiction of the the competing claustrophobia and security of a closed community (both the private school and the artists colony it once was) is as effortless as it is effective. I read Goodman’s first book, The Lake of Dead Languages, a few years ago and its obvious that her skills has only increased in the interim.

Unfortunately, as with her first book Goodman’s biggest challenge remains her endings. The ending is not as satisfying or engrossing as the first three-quarters of the book. I’m sure I won’t be the only reader to spot the twists a mile a way. It’s not awful, just not as good. The romance element feels a bit forced and definitely rushed – I half-wished Goodman would forgo the romance this time. But these minor disappointments compared to the overall strengths of the book.

A highly enjoyable Gothic/Mystery that will satisfy discerning fans of either genre.

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out

The 70s are an unloved decade. Even while they were on there weren’t many who proclaimed them a golden age. Looking back the most common reaction of survivors seems to be “Dear God, I actually wore that?” There’s so much more to the 70s than gas shortages and discos. Surely no other decade had so many deeply disturbed individuals playing prominent roles in public life.

Francis Wheen's Strange Days Indeed tells the stories of several of these off-kilter individuals and tells them as they deserve to be told: deadpan and in detail. He offers us a veritable smorgasbord of loony tunes behavior and lets us savior every silly detail. Wheen starts off with a few stories familiar to American readers, such as Nixon’s famous late night trip to the Lincoln Memorial to chat with the protestors. Nixon may be one of the more famous examples of paranoia but for sheer insanity nothing beats the inhabitants of Number 10 Downing Street and their wacky band of cohorts. From the chief civil servant who circumvents imaginary listening devices by conducting meetings in the nude to Prime Minister Wilson, his political secretary Marcia and her all powerful handbag there’s plenty of side-splitting entertainment. The Wilson and Marcia saga may be the most horrifically funny political saga ever, what with Marcia’s fears of being lured unawares into orgies, Wilson’s bizarre acceptance of whatever abuse she threw his way and some staff members wondering if offing Marcia might not be the best for England. There’s are still more crazies – mentalists, Bobby Fischer, the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction, Madame Mao, Idi Amin and on and on.

Wheen has plenty of material and he uses it brilliantly. This isn’t history, however. This is Wheen’s impression of the 70s, his take on events. It is neither comprehensive nor unbiased. Wheen has tangled with the all powerful Marcia before and lost, for instance, so it would be silly to pretend that Wheen is dispassionately reporting events. He makes some assertions that I would prefer to see sourced (like his repeated references to Nixon being a drunk; I’m not disputing this, I’ve simply never read about it before). He also has a habit of referencing fictional works as if they offer unassailable authority. It’s easy for me to forgive these shortcomings because the book is so entertaining and because Wheen admits to knowing by heart all the words to two epically stupid songs. Anyone who can sing Gimme Dat Ding and quote Balzac is entitled to a few foibles.

This is a fun, fast read recommended for anyone who possesses a love of the absurd.

Vineyard Chillin’

Philip R. Craig’s reliable murder mystery series is essentially a cozy with a Stateside setting. Small town? Check. Cast of characters featuring a few eccentrics? Check. Non-professional regularly embroiled in murders which he/she solves because of his/her insight into the human condition? Check. At the heart of each installment, however, is a story about the haves versus the have-nots.

This time (A Vineyard Killing) the haves are a group of rapacious land developers from Savannah who also happen to be world-class fencers. Before you can say, “what are the chances”, there’s an attempted murder and J. W. Jackson is right in the middle of it. The mystery itself is satisfying and the main subplot is interesting if a bit predictable toward the end. The pace is as slow as life in a resort area but that’s as it should be. My only quibble is that I would be entirely happy without any more scenes with Jackson’s children. Having them refer to their parents as “Ma” and “Pa” as if the action were taking place in that fabled small abode on the prairie doesn’t fit and the whole “Diana, the Huntress” routine is old. Just how charming is it that a father is constantly remarking on his daughter’s intake of food? But these are minor quibbles.

All in a all a solid installment in a solid series. Recommended for mystery series fans.

“Brains Don’t Have Picture Windows”

Among true crime fans there are those who love Ann Rule and those who don’t. I’m proud to let my Ann-Rule-fan-flag fly. She’s written some truly great books (Small Sacrifices and Bitter Harvest, to name two) and some that are merely better than most in the genre. Rule does have a tendency to over praise the dead – the “beautiful wife and mother”, etc – but I’m willing to overlook that. I see it as part of Rule’s determination to keep the victim front and center, to avoid lavishing undeserved attention on the killer. Ann Rule wants to understand the forces that make a killer and how we as a society deal with those who commit the worst crimes.

Her “Crimes Files” series doesn’t allow for much space to deal with either question at any length nor to demonstrate her flair for original reporting. This is only my second book from the series and while I’m getting used to the limitations, I’m also beginning to appreciate these books for what they are. By telling a series of stories, Rule can paint a broader picture. Rule is as fascinated as ever with how normal, how plausible killers can be every other area of their lives. But I Trusted You is packed with failures of the criminal justice system. Case after case show sociopaths freed from prisoner to commit more heinous crimes. Most of the cases are from the 1970s – the land before DNA – and several are either unsolved or unresolved. Time moves on, Rule shows us, but the questions are never answered. Two (The Voyage of the Spellbound and Dark Forest) are truly haunting in their lack of answers.

If you’re an Ann Rule fan, this book will tide you over until her new book is released this fall. If you’re new to Rule, start with one of her classics (I’m partial to Small Sacrifices as a starting point) to see what a true crime master can do.

Recent Acquistions

Courtesy of Amazon Vine:

Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

For my hardworking Kindle:

But I Trusted You by Ann Rule

The Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

The “someone you thank for the party”

One of the pitfalls of reviewing a biography is that of finding oneself reviewing the life and not the work of the biographer. In the case of Cheever this danger looms especially large because John Cheever was a wreck of a human being from beginning to end. His voluminous journals were filled with what his own daughter described as “the gloomy, relentless sexual stuff” topped with a thick icing of self pity. It’s material that is so depressing it makes Sylvia Plath’s journals a comparative lark.

Yet Blake Bailey turns the life story of a drunken, depressive, self-loathing, verbally abusive and deeply closeted man into a compellingly readable, life-affirming book. Bailey not only makes the creative process interesting, he keeps Cheever from turning into so vile a being that the reader can’t bear another page of him.
He also gives us the story of Cheever’s times, evoking the lifestyles of Westchester suburbanites so vividly that I found myself looking around my home county looking for the places and people Bailey (& Cheever) described. I’m glad I didn’t meet any of them behind the wheel, however, since this was one hard drinking crew, drinking themselves into oblivion at least once a week like a bunch of frat boys. The fact that any of them is a) alive and b) in possession of their factory issued liver is nothing short of a miracle.

On the other hand, reading about Cheever’s personal relationships made me want to drink. When he’s not being heinous to his wife and children he’s writing in his journal about his genitals. Which is impressive since he’s impotent for large swathes of the book. The short version is that Cheever was gay (or bi) and didn’t want to be. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but after a few decades I got the feeling that even Anita Bryant would have beseeched him to just be gay already. Sympathy for Cheever is hard to come by when he’s so homophobic himself.

The final years of Cheever’s life saw him accepting (to a degree) his own nature. Not that his relationships with his lovers were any more humane than those with girlfriends, wife and children. His relationship with Max Zimmer actually made me nauseous on occasion. Oblivious to Zimmer’s own feelings or desires, Cheever wrecks his life with nary a twinge of regret.

So where’s the life affirming part, you ask. In the day to day details with which Bailey builds his narrative. It’s most apparent in the final chapters when Cheever’s long suffering family rallies around him in death. Their loves and forgiveness along with Bailey’s clear-eyed and compassionate view of his subject elevate this tale far beyond any individual sordid detail.

Vulgarians at the Gate

When money and crime collide on a colossal scale one can be sure that the literary equivalent of ambulance-chasing lawyers will be on the scene documenting the excessive for us all to enjoy. The 100 car-pile-up known as Bernie Madoff is the subject of several insta-books. The title of this one indicates the overall tone of the book – half moral-indictment, half National Enquirer exposé. All in all, that’s exactly what Madoff deserves at this point.

Jerry Oppenheimer starts out the book by spending the first chapter telling us how this book isn’t like all the other insta-books out there. He’s exploring the big issues, “weaving” an “in-depth profile” etc. Which roughly translates into “blah blah blah” as far as I’m concerned. Just get on with the book. Once Oppenheimer gets done telling us of his high-minded aspirations for the book off come the gloves. It starts with a description of Bernie’s parents overseeing an “ethically and morally bankrupt household” and just keeps rolling. I’ve seen serial killers treated more warmly that uber-conman Madoff. Oppenheimer rarely lets a paragraph go by without letting readers know he thinks Bernie is pond scum.

Oppenheimer ladles on the Yiddish expressions every so often in a particularly artless way and does make a few genuinely bonkers connections, such as likening Bernie’s secretary, Eleanor Squillari to Richard Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods. They were both secretaries but beyond that? Oppenheimer is at his best when he’s delivering insights from Madoff’s friends, victims and acquaintances. Like the old friend who’s smart enough to notice that Bernie is too thick to figure out the time difference between New York and London without the aid of two Rolex watches. Or the many nasty stories told about Bernie’s niece Shana who appears to have endeared herself to so many who have repaid the favor by all but suggesting she roamed the streets of New York with a mattress strapped to her back. Nothing sums up this book better that this choice line:

“Besides being a crook, Bernie was a bit of a perv.”

Yes, gentle reader, he certainly was. This book will neither expand your intellectual horizons nor answer any of the deeper questions about how such a massive fraud could go undetected for so long. It will, however, introduce you to some of the most tasteless, vulgar foul-mouthed people on the planet. Someday a James B. Stewart or Kurt Eichenwald may tackle this sordid tale and bring us those deeper insights. Until then, we’ll always have satisfyingly trashy outings like Madoff With the Money to remind us that behind every sleazy crime is an even bigger sleazeball.

Take it for what it is, a long, gossipy reasonably but not exhaustively research magazine article.

Unfortunately Well Titled

With 20 books to his name it’s no surprise that Robert Goddard’s fans each have their favorites and their least favorites. I’ve read them all, pre-ordered half of them from Amazon UK to get my hands on them as soon as they’re published and I’ve always been able to say that while some are better than others none have truly disappointed. Until this one.

Goddard’s territory is the unquiet past. Real historic events and people are often part of the mix, often as a MacGuffin, but prior knowledge of the events is not required for enjoyment. It is no insult to say he has a formula. Beyond the double-crosses and intricate plot twists, Goddard always chooses to keep the stakes high for his lead characters. They’re usually men who’ve either nothing left to lose or who find themselves stripped of all they value in the course of the story.

This time out Goddard sticks with historic events but makes a very odd choice in his lead character. Instead of the usual down on his luck male lead we have Richard Eusden, a man who stands to lose a few days of PTO if things don’t work out. He’s helping out an old friend, Marty, who has all the characteristics of the usual Goddard lead. This isn’t a bold choice, however, it’s mystifying because it never provides anything new just less of what brings readers to Goddard in the first place. The pacing doesn’t make up for the lack of high stakes. The characters can’t take airplanes so the action is frequently broken up for long train rides (locals!) and car trips. The MacGuffin is particularly strained for my taste and the end is, well, found wanting. Goddard throws in a character in the last 50 pages that we’ve heard nothing about before who is the key to it all including the title. This is truly disappointing coming from a master of intricate plotting.

At one point I started to wonder if Goddard wasn’t writing a deliberate parody of his own books. The overwhelming impression left is that Goddard didn’t connect with his chosen material this time out and tried to muddle through anyway. Despite the two stars I’ve given this book I’ll still pre-order Goddard’s next book because when he’s on his game there is no one better at delivering the unexpected jolt. If you are new to Robert Goddard, please don’t start with this book. Try Into the Blue or Painting the Darkness instead.