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.