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?