It's hard not to feel bitter on behalf of Leonard Levitt. He scooped the competition and ripped the lid off the story, as the cliches go; and his own newspaper refused to print the story. Reading a book by someone as embittered as Levitt has the right to be would not, however, be a pleasant task. Luckily Levitt has maintained a clear view of the stakes and his own involvement: "I did not solve Martha's murder. What I did was prevent the Skakel family from getting away with it."

Conviction is the story of uncovering the truth about the Moxley case, not just who did it but who did what along the way. I normally have little patience for the "how I wrote this book" or "how I investigated this story" sub-set of true crime. This is a well-deserved exception not simply because Levitt is a good writer but because the story of how he and Frank Garr tried to solve this case is not only part of the Moxley story it illuminates the story. The prejudices and power that hamstrung the investigation in 1975 kept it from being solved for the next 27 years.

Levitt writes the book from two points of view, his own and that of Frank Garr, the police detective who doggedly pursued the case and arguably solved it long before Dominick Dunne or Mark Fuhrman happened on the scene. Both POVs are enjoyable but Garr is allowed to react to Skakel family shenanigans with remarks like "What a bunch of lunatics" which makes his sections a bit more fun to read. It was hard to read any two sentences about life at Casa Skakel without the words "are you kidding me" forming in my mind. Imagine if the boys from Delta Thau Chi co-wrote a book on child-rearing along with NKVD mastermind Lavrenty Beria: alcohol sodden slapstick combined with staggering abuse and neglect.

The Martha Moxley case has inspired at least four books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and multiple TV show episodes. Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder is the best of the pack, deservedly winning an Edgar Award in 2005. A must for any serious true crime fan and highly recommended for any non-fiction reader.

Greentown by Timothy Dumas is also quite good though more of an "inside peak" at Greenwich. It's more informative than gossipy but highly enjoyable. (I haven't read the newly released second edition.) Dumas provides the best sense of what it was like to live in Greenwich in the 1970s, the combination of privilege, hormones and relative innocence propelled Martha and her peers. Like Levitt, Dumas is none too impressed with Mark Fuhrman. If you have time for a second book on the Moxley case, this is the one to pick.

Lord of the Flies on Long Island

At the heart of Against Her Will is an appalling, gruesome crime - the murder and mutilation of a 13-year-old Kelly Tinyes. This sort of crime brings out the exploitation writers of the true crime genre. Fortunately, Ronald J. Watkins devotes these pages to the investigation and impact on the community, not on salacious details of the crime.

This book was written outside in. It does not appear that Watkins interviewed either family involved. That leaves readers observing the Tinyes and Golubs (family of the accused) from a distance. We see them in pain, we hear their anguished cries, angry outbursts and words crafted for public consumption. Watkins gets us closer to the investigating officers but only in the context of their work. There are no fashion tips from the men and women in blue.

In some ways the distance is appropriate to this case. The Tinyes and Golub families turned on each other in a manner reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. The ghastly murder of Kelly became quickly subsumed in the outrageous, petty, hateful, hate-filled, frightening acts they perpetrated against each other. While some of the neighbors join in, others watch in disbelief as their quiet little street turns into first a scene of horror and then a scene of daily emotional savagery. The war between these two families ends up being just as shocking as the crime that inspired it.

This book surprised me. I was expecting run-of-the-mill decent true crime. Watkins keeps the pace going without shorting on the emotional impact of the crime. He doesn't indulge in homilies to the victim's utter perfection, he shows us an average 13-year-old girl through the eyes of her friends.  Watkins has an eye for the perversely amusing detail, the phrase "former nun turned police officer" will stay with me. Even the chapters devoted to the trial aren't the usual slog although I'd guess that the author wasn't in attendance. Watkins manages to paraphrase testimony in a way that illuminates and moves the narrative along.

All together this earns Against Her Will four stars. Solid, readable true crime the reminds us that crime itself is often the beginning of the story.

Kindle note: Human copy editing is apparently a thing of the past so readers are treated to a few typos. Also, there are no photos in the Kindle version.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills is not a true crime book and Janet Malcolm is not an author who seeks to entertain. Nor is she the sort of author who fades into the background of her writing. More often than not, a critique of any of her books becomes a critique of her. Fortunately Malcolm is as ready to rumble as any star of the WWE. To read any of Malcolm's work for a dispassionate recitation of events is to be disappointed and to, well, miss the point. She seeks to understand what the events reveal about us. She does not stand on the sidelines and pretend to be unbiased - she has an opinion and she draws conclusions.

The bare facts are: Mazoltuv Borukhova is accused of hiring an assassin to murder his husband in front of her. Borukhova and the hired killer are put on trial, a highly imperfect trial in Malcolm's estimation. Her idiosyncratic take is on every page: "But rooting is in our blood; we take sides as we take breaths." It takes a bold writer to indulge in this herself: "That's what I think was going on. No one will ever be able to prove it. But that's exactly what happened."

Malcolm wants readers to see that we all impose our own interpretation on the testimony. We construct our own narrative, based on our own experiences and prejudices. We may seek the truth, but our version becomes the truth. "We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of certainty." She offers her own version and, be warned, she is sympathetic to Borukhova. Malcolm wants to know what drove events and expands her search beyond what is said in court.

If you haven't like Malcolm's earlier books, you won't like this one. I have a soft spot for a writer who can sidle up to a prospective interview and offer the following reporter's come on "I went up to him and asked if Anna Freud's project ... had been an influence on his work." Combine that unashamedly intellectually approach with Malcolm's pointed ruminations on the impossibility of narrowing accountability for a crime into a narrative that will fit into a courtroom and you have a compelling, unsettling book.

Making Friends

Readers will be excused if they mistake Making Friends With Hitler for a self-help book designed to assist us all in dealing with the despots in our lives. This is not a how-to, rather it's more of a "why did anyone bother in the first place." Specifically, this is an exploration of the not uncommon view circa 1935 that Britain should seek some sort of accommodation with Hitler rather than oppose him.

The idea of making friends was born in part of a belief that Germany's Versailles grievances were justified and a view that accession to power had matured Hitler out of his Mein Kampf "excesses." At its root was the assumption that Hitler's appetite for conquest could be sated.

Lord Londonderry is representative of the more benignly deluded adherents of this belief. He wanted to be a statesman of the caliber of his famous ancestor Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh's legacy is a bit of a mixed bag - revered as a diplomat today but in his time reviled by the likes of as an elitist and a reactionary by the likes of Byron and Shelley. It's difficult to find any evidence that Londonderry understood Castlereagh's accomplishments - he seemed fixated instead on the glory of his legend, glory he very much wanted for himself. Kershaw's character sketch of Londonderry fascinated me nearly as much as Londonderry's gusto for socializing with the likes of Goering and Goebbels repelled me. It is nearly impossible to put aside what we know of their monumental crimes and imagine a time when they might be viewed as moderating influences on the "more extreme" elements of the Nazi party.

A less talented historian would spend time decrying the lunacy of hanging out with Adolf, Hermann and the boys in hopes of avoiding war. Ian Kershaw is a very talented historian with the ability to remind readers that what is in the past and seems inevitable, once lay in the future and was not at all certain. His approach is detailed, likely too detailed for the casual reader, but it is compelling for anyone interested in the topic.