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.