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.

Overlapping Voices

If you’ve seen even one Robert Altman movie you know that this is a man who would want his story told as an oral history. Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue forced the audience to choose which voice to listen to in a cacophony of sound. Mitchell Zuckoff invited a multitude of voices telling about the Robert Altman they knew allowing readers to sift through the stories to find the man himself.

It helps that those speaking are an articulate, amusing bunch unafraid to tell embarrassing stories in which they feature or to call Kevin Spacey the “Norman Bates of Show Business”, for instance. No amount of wit would made the first half dozen chapters fly by, however. It’s admirable that Zuckoff wants to document the whole of Altman’s life but I would have been satisfied with fewer stories of Bob’s adventures at summer camp. Once Altman starts making movies Zuckoff’s pacing spot on, mixing details about the financing of MASH with choice gossip like Altman’s affair with Faye Dunaway. I’m still in awe of that revelation – wouldn’t have pegged those two in a million years.

The picture that emerges is of a well-loved if not entirely likable man. Zuckoff shows why so many actors were devoted to Altman but he also shows that Altman was just another nasty, loud-mouthed drunk on occasion. One minute you find yourself fascinated by the loyalty Altman engendered, the next you’re appalled at the loyalty he insisted upon. Like so many artists Altman put his work above any human relationship and that can be hard to take in large doses.

This isn’t a critical assessment of Altman’s work or an interpretation of his films. It’s Altman’s life story and critical to that is the story is his work so there are plenty of details about how nearly all of his films were made. Whether you’re a fan or not (I’m merely a sometime fan of his work), this is a very enjoyable book, not unlike spending a three-day long bender with the man himself, but without the hangover.

Recommended for film and biography fans. Note that this is a true oral biography with very little connective narrative.

Let's Settle This Thing

There is the air of settling things for once and for all in The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir’s third to extensively cover some aspect of Anne Boleyn’s life. The subject for this biographical smack down is Anne's fall and the method is an exhaustive (and, yes, occasionally exhausting) comparison of the contemporary and near contemporary accounts of her arrest, trial and execution.

This goes well beyond "was she guilty" and extends to why was she accused, who stood to gain from her fall and even "what was she wearing at her execution". Of course, what Anne wore is not the point, Weir uses the conflicting accounts of the simple matter of whether Anne's hair was loose or in a net to show us how little these accounts agree upon.

Weir deserves praise for her willingness to draw conclusions and eliminate possibilities. Where another historian might hedge with “perhaps” and “probably” she’s not afraid to weigh in with an “almost certainly. Nor is Weir afraid of a fight, calling out such fellow Tudor experts such as Eric Ives and Retha Warnicke when she disagrees. It’s refreshing, frankly as is Weir’s lack of fear in pronouncing the work of Joanna Denny wrong-headed at best. If at this point you’re reading this wondering who on earth these people are then think twice about embarking on this book.

I've read nearly all of Weir's books so I feel safe in saying that this is the least accessible of her works. It is well written but because it starts shortly before Anne is arrested, the book provides little to no background on her. If you want an account of how Henry met Anne you'll need to look elsewhere. I'm a Tudorphile so I enjoyed this book. I've read most of the secondary sources discussed in the book which made Weir's assessment of say Retha Warnicke's theories all the more interesting.

This is not a book for someone new to the story of Anne Boleyn nor even for someone who simply knows the story of the second of Henry VIII's six wives. If you are very interested in Tudor history and Anne Boleyn in particular, however, you'll find this book interesting. Recommended for Tudorphiles but not novices.

Slogging Through

After two less than satisfying books (Goddard and Lamb) I’m reading three books which require a time commitment. Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower is a monument to detail. At times it’s literally an hour by hour telling of Anne Boleyn’s fall. I like to imagine fans of The Other Boleyn Girl scooping up this book in hopes of more juicy Tudor goodness only to be confronted by a lengthy discussion about the preamble to the 1536 Act of Succession. Not for the casual reader.

Thomas Costain’s The Conquering Family, which I’m listening to on audio book, zooms all the way to the opposite end of the popular history scale. A history book with extensive dialogue. Twelfth Century history, that is. After two weeks how can I only be on Chapter 11 of 16?

Then there’s Blake Bailey’s highly entertaining biography of John Cheever. Ten  chapters in and Cheever still hasn’t written a novel. His alcohol consumption on the other hand is truly epic. If it’s possible to get a contact buzz from reading about drinking I will fail a breathalyzer test.

Recent Acquistions

Cheever, A Life by Blake Bailey

Nemesis by Peter Evans

Brain cell-wise, it'll be a net zero.

The Calculated Fluck and the Tortured Soul

Despite the subtitle of “the untold story of a homicide investigator’s crusade for truth and justice” potential readers might assume, as I did, that this book would provide an understanding of the crime, the victim (Eric Miller) and the murderer (Ann Miller). I am sorry to report this is not the case. Maybe a detailed police procedural showing the ins and outs of the investigation, you hope? Not so fast my friend. How about a reasonably chronological telling of the investigation itself, you ask. Au contraire. What will you get?

Would you believe repeated hints about the weight of the cop in question along with regular updates on his sartorial tastes accompanied by detours into other investigations that have nothing to do with the Miller case? I’ve read some bad true crime in my years but this is truly one of the lamest. This is not the story of the Eric Miller case in any way, shape or form. It is, at best, several years in the life of policeman Chris Morgan who happens to be in charge of the Miller case for some of those years. Which would be lame enough but the way Amanda Lamb tells this story makes it a thousand times worse.

First, Amanda Lamb seems to be under the impression that Chris Morgan is a piece of rare Americana. An investigative Rousseau, helping humankind to see life in a completely new way. Also, she’s obsessed with his physique. Think I’m exaggerating? In the first 10 pages Lamb alludes to Morgan’s size 5 times. His “ample frame”, “formidable frame”, fears that his favorite chair will collapse under his weight, etc. For the rest of the book few pages go by without another reminder that Morgan is a big guy. So many reminders that I began to wonder if perhaps we were dealing with a badge-wearing Jabba the Hutt. This was distracting to say the least. When the action (and I use that word with caution) includes Morgan hiding in the bushes to watch arch criminal Ann Miller not leave her house for hours my thoughts immediately turned to “my God, how large IS that oleander bush?”

Other aspects of Morgan’s anatomy make frequent appearances. There’s his “gut” for example. Morgan’s gut is pretty special. Whereas the average gut gives hints about feelings and the odd bit of intuition, Morgan’s gut provides detailed facts. “His gut told him it was not his shift, not his squad”. His gut can tell time AND read the duty roster. Amazing! Then there’s his head, which is really only mentioned so that we can read more about Morgan’s endlessly fascinating white fedora. Police fashion – does true crime get any better?

Here’s a tip for all true crime writers: There is very little reason for ongoing detailed descriptions of police attire for the simple fact that it comes in only two flavors: uniform and plainclothes. Yes, there is a subset of plainclothes specific to “undercover” but that is dictated by the situation and is not indicative of the character of the wearer. The specifics of the plainclothes may be described one for the sake of completeness or to provide “insight” into the personality of the police officer in question but regular updates on the apparel choice of the day are not necessary. Years of reading true crime have given me ample opportunities to ponder this and I can confidently say that the only scenario in which ongoing sartorial info is required would be if the police officer liked to dress as a different circus performer on a rotating basis. A tutu on Monday, the lion tamer outfit on Tuesday, the clown suit on Wednesday. Other than that, leave the clothes out of the narrative.

This book is awful. I don’t know what Chris Morgan is like but he can’t possibly be the self-enchanted oaf Lamb depicts. In her telling, Morgan spends the first half of the book criticizing Sgt Fluck’s handling of the Miller case (Morgan’s not even on in), jumping to the conclusion that Ann Miller is guilty because … well, because he knows it, and spouting wisdom like “the truth is simple, if it’s not simple, it’s not the truth.” The hilarity is just getting rolling though, since once Morgan is actually assigned to the case he doesn’t get around to reading the case files until two years after the murder. Who would expect to find probative, investigative information in the case files! He actually says he doesn’t want to understand Ann Miller or any other criminal. He knowledge of the victim appears limited to his regional prejudices of the Midwest.

It is a dark, dark day when a true crime book leaves the reader wondering if the plus-size flat foot in charge didn’t create a case against a woman just because he decided she was a “psychopath”, a “criminal mastermind,” and a “master manipulator” without a single fact to back up any of his pronouncements. I do think Ann Miller is guilty but since Lamb doesn’t see fit to tell us what the investigators actually learned and never provides insights from people who knew Eric or Ann I can only imagine what facts were. Why show us anything when we can just bask in Chris Morgan’s profundities, such as “it’s no mystery crime makes people stupid”? Apparently it’s especially brutal on the IQs of certain crime writers.

I’m hard pressed to pick the worst thing in this book. The phrase “prior murderess events” is convoluted and meaningless but the winner has to be Lamb spending pages on the fact that a friend of Ann Miller is playing The Dixie Chicks “Earl’s Gotta Die” when the police question her. I hate country music in all forms and even I know the song is called “Goodbye Earl” and that it sounds nothing like a “funeral dirge” nor is it likely to “waft” anywhere. Oh, and William of Ockham was a monk and a philosopher, not a mathematician.

Even the ending, thankful as I was for it, was lousy. More time is spent on the question of Chris Morgan’s retirement – will the showboating arm of the law start drawing his pension before he final star turn at the trial? – then on any aspect of the trial. It ends with Morgan being “finished with it”, just SO over it, “alone with his tortured soul.”

When in the acknowledgements section Lamb thanks her “collaborators” it actually took me a second to realize that she did not use that word in the sense of “those who assist the enemy.” Some stories really are better left untold if they’re going to be told with staggering ineptitude.

A Windblown Classic

When someone who doesn’t read true crime asks me why I’m devoted to a genre made up of quickie exploitation tales about serial killers I point them in the direction of one of the classics. Like any genre true crime has bad books, good books and some that are truly great which not only transcend the genre, they ennoble it. The Darkest Night has become one of those books that I recommend to anyone who thinks true crime is a wasteland.

The story itself is haunting. Two young sisters are kidnapped and thrown off the Fremont Canyon Bridge. One is killed instantly but the other survives to bring her attackers to justice. The survivor never entirely escapes that horrible night though. It must be counted among whatever small good fortune Amy Burridge and Becky Thomson could claim that Ron Franscell is the writer who told their story.

Franscell is simply an excellent writer. His four page description of what it was like to grow up in Caspar Wyoming is reason enough to buy this book. The empathy and compassion with which he tells Amy and Becky’s story balances perfectly with his clear, reportorial style. Somehow Franscell manages to extend his compassion to the lowlifes, Ronald Kennedy and Jerry Jenkins, responsible for the crime. He tells their story as completely and honestly as he tells of their victims. The contrast between the bleak lives that created such pathetic monsters as Kennedy and Jenkins with the ordinary and seemingly safe lives of their victims is all the more breathtaking for taking place in the same town.

Easily one best true crime books of the last decade. Highly recommended to all and essential reading for true crime fans. A big thanks to Dan Bogaty for pointing me to this great book.

Note: Also published as Fall.

Why Must This Book Be So Awful?

It's my first Kindle purchase of 2010 and my first true crime read so it's particularly unfair that Deadly Dose by Amanda Lamb sucks so very much. A more perfect combination of all the things I hate would be hard to find. It tells the story from the point of view of the police, includes plenty of details about the fashion choices of the police, and frequently has multiple cliches in a single sentence.

I really need to stop getting book recommendations off Snapped.


I did not read 75 books last year. I wanted to, I even joined a group on LibraryThing to do so. But I didn't. I read a not insubstantial 63 books last year. Well, some of the books were very insubstantial but the amount was not. It's just less than 75. So, reading resolution #1: read 75 books in 2010.

#2: read more of the books I already own before buying more

#3: except Kindle, which is always exempt from any reading rule I make for myself

#4: request fewer ARCs; nothing is worse than having to write a review for a book that wasn't even bad enough to enjoy hating

#5: read more fiction; between True Crime and History I can go for weeks without reading fiction and even then it's usual a mystery that I read rather than "straight" fiction.

I should also pick the Daunting Classic to Tackle for 2010. Trollope, perhaps?