Naples Declared, A Walk Around the Bay. I’m grateful to Benjamin Taylor for this in depth look at the colorful and at times, awful history of this fascinating, unique, and under-appreciated city. My sojourn there in 2009 remains a vivid memory.
**Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French; *People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up; by Richard Lloyd Parry; and Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing, by Kate Colquhoun. It was a good year for true crime narratives, especially historical ones. Kate Summerscale made a notable contribution to this genre in 2008 with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Summerscale’s latest is Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The book does not center on a crime; rather, it’s the story of a hapless woman’s tangled love life and marital misadventures, all of which occur in the context of a rigid, highly judgmental society.
It occurs to me that the above description of Isabella Robinson could likewise apply to Florence Bravo, the equally hapless protagonist of James Ruddick’s book Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. I first heard of Florence Bravo while watching a set of DVD’s called A Most Mysterious Murder, in which Julian Fellowes presents five of Britain’s most notorious unsolved killings from the past. At the conclusion of each segment, he states his own theory of what actually happened at the crime scene. Each episode is meticulously enacted. The production values are what we’ve come to expect from the BBC: beautifully appointed interiors and superbly costumed actors.
I came upon A Most Mysterious Murder at the library, quite by accident – I believe I was looking for Midsomer Murders at the time. At any rate, this is a first rate production, conceived, written and narrated by Fellowes in 2004. I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known, especially now that Sir Julian himself is rather a hot property, thanks to the huge success of his creation, Downton Abbey.
I found Death at the Priory while researching Florence Bravo. It’s a tight little page turner, highly recommended. (And isn’t that what you’d expect, given the book’s subtitle?)
Two books on current affairs captured my interest this year. In Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler bewails the state of – well, pretty much everything. Although his primary concern is the profligate use of energy, which he sees as a finite resource, shale gas and shale oil notwithstanding, he also excoriates the financial system, land use, misplaced faith in technology, and a host of other collective missteps. At times he reminded me of a trope often seen in New Yorker cartoons. Some of Kunstler’s rants seem a bit over the top; nevertheless, the book is both entertaining and thought provoking.
Kunstler began his career as a gadfly in 1993 with The Road To Nowhere, a blistering criticism of suburbia, strips malls, and the idiocy of overdevelopment. I learned a great deal from that book. In Too Much Magic, Kunstler returns to this theme with a vengeance, denouncing suburbia as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” (author’s italics). He goes on, with almost gleeful outrage:
There’s no way to calculate exactly how much money we misspent building the far-flung housing tracts, strip malls, big box ensembles, office parks, muffler shop outparcels, giant centralized schools with gold-plated sports facilities, countless roadways of all sizes, vast water, sewer, and electric systems, and all the other accessories and furnishings of that development pattern, but anybody can tell it was an awful lot. And it came out of the richest society in the history of the world.
I think there is much truth in this observation:
As the geographical spaces rapidly filled in with ever more subdivisions and strip malls, even the scraps of undeveloped landscape were erased as casual play areas. Boys especially were prevented from the adventures of roaming and discovery that are so crucial to their development as sovereign personalities. They could not easily venture beyond the obstacles of the six-lane connector boulevards; even if they did, what was there to discover besides the parking lots and other bewildering subdivisions of identical houses?
Well, you get the idea. This spare tome is fairly bursting with similar pronouncements. You may not agree with all of Kunstler’s assertions, but they’ll stimulate your thinking nonetheless. As you can see, they stimulated mine: (I love the phrase “sovereign personalities.”)
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel examines the extent to which various transactions have been monetized. This book was a real eye opener for me, starting with the introduction:
There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale. Here are a few examples:
• A prison cell upgrade: $ 82 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations— a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners. …
• The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $ 6,250. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, where the practice is legal and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States. …
• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $ 150,000. South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species….
Sandel also enumerates some new and unusual ways to earn money:
• Rent out space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising: $ 777. Air New Zealand hired thirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand…”
• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $ 15– $ 20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up….
Sandel’s book is a hugely provocative and very accessible. And like James Howard Kunstler, he makes you laugh from time to time as he expounds on the vagaries of human nature. But Sandel is less judgmental than Kunstler, in that he sets the facts before you, examines them from various angles, and lets you the reader draw your own conclusions.
This was an excellent year for books about great artists and their families and associates.
Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece, by Anthony Bailey. Bailey had his work cut out for him in tracing the movements of the elusive Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. As the jacket copy states: “Though his professional career as court painter is fairly well documented, letters and accounts about how he felt, thought, and lived are nearly nonexistent.” ( The court, by the way, was that of King Philip IV of Spain, 1605-1665). Bailey met a similar challenge, very successfully in my view, in Vermeer: A View of Delft.
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. The film based on the lives of these fascinating and gifted individuals is slated to open in the UK in May of next year. Among the performers featured in Effie are Dakota Fanning (in the title role), Greg Wise, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacobi,and David Suchet. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay; if it’s anything like the stellar work she did with Sense and Sensibility, it ought to be outstanding.
**The Last Pre-Raphaelite , by Fiona MacCarthy. This book produced the kind of total immersion reading experience that I treasure. MacCarthy brings an entire world to life, and what an amazing world it was, fairly bursting with prodigiously gifted – and in some cases, wildly eccentric – artists and writers.
*included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2012
**included in the Washington Post list of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2012
Finally, there is Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra. When I first read a review of this book, I knew I wanted to read it. I also knew that I’d get much more out of it if I reread Portrait of a Lady first. Now, having done both, I can say with confidence that this is the right way: first, Portrait of a Lady; then, Michael Gorra’s biography of the writer and his first real masterpiece.
Henry James does not need my praise, but I do want to say that this time around, Portrait of a Lady was superb: riveting, suspenseful, filled with beautiful imagery and fascinating characters. I was completely drawn into the world so vividly created by one of America’s greatest writers.
Toward the novel’s denouement, there is a scene between Gilbert Osmond and Isabel Archer that made me so upset, I had to put the book down. I wanted Gilbert Osmond to materialize before me at that very moment, so that I could pummel him with my fists. I was seething! It took the entire length of the novel – some 550 pages – to invigorate this situation and make these characters live for me. It was worth every page, every word. Not long after this scene, there is another so heartbreaking, it’s hard to bear. Michael Gorra simply says: “I cannot read this scene without tears.”
Excerpt from Portrait of a Lady:
The lamps were on brackets, at intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was genial. It fell upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded gilding of heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after another, indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was evidently a judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with that. She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession. They walked slowly up one side of the gallery and down the other, and then she said: ‘Well, now I know more than I did when I began!”
Excerpt from Portrait of a Novel; Michael Gorra writes about the death of Henry James’s mother:
He believed it impossible to describe “all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity.” Yet in that loss he also felt himself possessed by a memory so powerful that it amounted to a sense of her presence, and he could not believe that death alone might bring an end to her love. Her being was immanent still. Henry James had nothing like an orthodox religious faith; no child of his father did, or could. But as William would write about the belief in an unseen world in his Varieties of Religious Experience and test the claims of psychics in a way that grew steadily less skeptical, so with the years the novelist defined his own sense of the numinous in a series of extraordinary ghost stories. The dead may exist only in the psychology of the living; that doesn’t make them any less real.
I don’t have enough superlatives at my command to praise Portrait of a Novel. It brought me back to my English major days in the 1960s, to the work of great literary critics like I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, M.H. Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate, and F.R. Leavis. I am somewhat dismayed that Michael Gorra’s book has not made any of the “Best of 2012″ lists that I’ve so far seen. Has literary criticism, even of this caliber, become so marginalized in our culture, even among the cognoscenti? I want to shout it from the rooftops: This book is a triumph!
This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the (newly reinvigorated ) AAUW Readers. The selection for this session was Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I admit I was a bit uncertain as to how well this book would lend itself to the reading group discussion format. In the event, I need not have worried. Participants were eager to dive in with their observations and questions, most of which concerned aspects of the character of Pamela Werner, the young victim of a horrendous crime, and of her father ETC Werner.
The year was 1937, and Pamela Werner seems not to have thought of the way of life she and her father shared as especially unusual. And yet it might seem so to contemporary readers. Her mother had died when Pamela was three years old. ETC Werner, a distinguished Sinologist already in his forties when she was born, seemed bookish and remote, leaving most of the child care duties to the household servants.
A fluent speaker of Mandarin, Pamela was a curious mixture of innocent schoolgirl and budding womanliness. Her existence in Peking was literally freewheeling: she navigated the streets and alley ways of the city on her bicycle, often alone, sometimes at night.
Author Paul French studied history, economics, and Mandarin language; in addition, he has an advanced degree in economics from the University of Glasgow. He is currently a business consultant and analyst in Shanghai. In the ‘Q and A’ section of the reading guide, French recounts how he first came upon the story of Pamela Werner while reading a biography of American journalist Edgar Snow. Ultimately, his search for information about Pamela’s murder led him to Britain’s National Archives in Kew:
I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the notes of a detailed private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor.
Those papers proved revelatory. This is the kind of find that every researcher dreams of.
Members of our group were much taken with Paul French’s vivid depiction of old Peking, an exotic and mysterious city about to be overrun by the Japanese army. They wished they knew more about the history of the region, but the fact is that French preferred to focus with laser like intensity on the murder of Pamela Werner and its immediate aftermath. The result is a tightly wound narrative that grabs the reader by the lapels (do we still have lapels?) and never lets go. As a fact crime narrative, it reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness. That book is set in present day Tokyo and is quite a bit longer than Midnight in Peking. But the riveting storytelling and the pathos of the human drama are vividly bodied forth in both books.
The investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner was a simultaneous undertaking conducted by a Chinese policeman and Scotland Yard detective. This was a very unusual instance of the two forces collaborating in the work of solving a crime. The trail of leads they followed was labyrinthine, and some provocative information was uncovered, especially as regarded the seedy underbelly of expatriate life in the city. Soon however the Japanese invaded, global war followed, and the search for Pamela Werner’s killer was lost in the chaotic currents of world events. In addition, the inquiry was subverted in several ways by people in powerful positions who did not want any ugly or incriminating truths to emerge.
And there matters might have rested permanently – except for the advent of a determined researcher decades later….
In the reading group guide, Paul French makes several suggestions for further reading. Among these are the novels Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang, and The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Varé. Numbered among the nonfiction accounts are Ponies and Peonies by Harold Acton, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by Davis Kidd, and City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures by Jon Blofeld. (Click here for additional titles.)
Midnight in Peking is an example of what is currently referred to in publishing parlance as historic true crime. “Prior Misconduct,” an article on this subgenre, appeared in a September issue of Library Journal. The author of the piece named several titles that I’ve very much enjoyed in the past several years:
. The question arises as to where in a bookstore (or on library shelves) titles such as these belong: history or crime? In actuality they partake of both classifications, and that’s one of the things that makes them so uniquely fascinating. I admit t hat I thought of Destiny of the Republic, Candace Millard’s superb biography of President James A. Garfield, as primarily a work of history, and yet it recently won the Edgar Award for ‘Best Fact Crime.‘ (Actually I think that book should win an award for being the best everything – it was simply terrific!) There is one other title not mentioned in the Library Journal that I (and a number of other reviewers) thought was exceptionally well done: The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Toward the end of our discussion, I mentioned how much I’ve been enjoying my return to the classics. It’s something I’d promised myself I’d do when I retired, and it is proving to be an extremely rewarding experience. Since being reconstituted, AAUW’s book group has discussed two classics: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Lorraine inquired as to whether I could come up with any other titles other titles of that ilk for the group. So glad you asked, Lorraine! Keeping in mind the issues of length and readability, here are some suggestions, for starters:
Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy
Une Vie ( A Life) and Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (really just about anything by Jane Austen!)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (These two were suggested by Doris, and I heartily concur .)
This delightful and articulate group of book lovers seemed to agree that Midnight in Peking was a great read and an excellent choice for discussion. Since I was the one who proposed it, I was most gratified by this outcome!
Last month, an article entitled “Prior Misconduct” appeared in Library Journal. In it, Sarah Statz Cords surveys the field of historical true crime, limiting the titles under discussion to narratives of events occurring prior to the Second World War.
Ms Cords seems genuinely puzzled by the rising popularity of this nonfiction subgenre:
In recent years, titles such as Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher have become best sellers, but why do readers enjoy them so? Is it the emphasis on various historical eras? That the crimes described are more safely (or so we like to think) removed from our own time? Or is it simply that compelling stories, well told, will always command our interest, even if they include violence, theft, kidnapping, assassination, and murder?
All of the above, Ms. Cords; all of the above, though that part about the crime being at a somewhat safe remove is rather less compelling than the other two suggested rationales, in my view.
Out of 28 titles (not counting the anthologies), I’ve read seven. (My tally would have been considerably higher if I’d read any of the books about Jack the Ripper.):
With its compelling cast of characters, rich literary allusions, and the atrocious murder at the dead center of the action – not to mention its keenly evocative portrait of mid-nineteenth century England - The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher makes for very compelling reading. It also proved a great reading group selection, as did The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Kate Summerscale followed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Although this later title is not specifically about a crime, Summerscale does once again bring life in Victorian England into sharp focus in this tale of one woman’s disastrous and very public fall from respectable society.
Erik Larson has carved out a niche for himself as a teller of tales that people should know about but somehow don’t. For many of us, Isaac’s Storm was the first we’d heard of the disastrous hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and caused the death of some eight thousand people. In The Devil in the White City, Larson’s storytelling gifts are once again on vivid display. (And what a terrific title, one of my all time favorites.)
Midnight in Peking was riveting; I read it in three days.
Destiny of the Republic is superb. While I was reading it, I was not thinking of it as primarily a work of true crime but an absorbing depiction of an era in American history and even more than that, a portrait of a man – James A. Garfield – who was possessed of such intelligence, courage, and generosity of spirit that I longed to have known him. Among its many accolades, this book won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
At any rate, the Library Journal article has some intriguing title recommendations. I for one will certainly be returning to it.
Pamela Werner lived in the storied Chinese city of Peking, on a street called Armour Factory Alley, with her father E.T. C. Werner, a retired consul and noted expert on Chinese language, history, and culture. In 1911, Werner had married Gladys Nina Ravenshaw, “a girl of the British Empire.” She was 22; he was 45.
In 1919, they adopted Pamela. Gladys lived a mere three years longer, dying at age 35 and leaving her three-year-old daughter in the care of her husband and various servants of the household.
Paul French sets the stage for a tragedy by describing the strange and exotic world of prewar Peking, a place where men in traditional garb strolled the ancient avenues displaying their song birds in cages, Above the streets there loomed a sinister building known as the Fox Tower, a remnant of the walls that once encircled the city. The Chinese shunned this edifice, believing it to be inhabited by malign spirits. At night, it was populated by bats and wild dogs. It was here, in the early morning hours of January 8, 1937, in the vicinity of the Tower, that Pamela Werner’s body was first discovered:
When daylight broke on another freezing day, the tower was deserted once more. The colony of bats circled one last time before the creeping sun sent them back to their eaves. But in the icy wasteland between the road and the tower, the wild dogs–the huang gou–were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.
It was the body of a young women, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost.
Paul French describes a murder scene that is acutely horrific. In terms of sheer savagery, it put me in mind of the victims of Jack the Ripper and also of the so-called Black Dahlia murder. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it nearly put me off the book altogether. But as often happens in such situations, there were sufficiently compelling reasons to read on, and so I did.
At the age of 19, Pamela Werner was still in school, yet at the same time she was on the brink of womanhood. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, she came and went from various venues in the city on her bicycle. She loved to go ice skating with her friends; in fact, this was the activity she was engaged in on the last night of her life. On that cold, dark evening, as Pamela prepared to cycle back home, one of those friends asked if she was scared to be making the trip all by herself. She responded:
‘I’ve been alone all my life….I am afraid of nothing–nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.’
That last statement of course proved to be tragically wrong – at least it was, for Pamela Werner. But what of the first comment, about being alone all her life? At the time of her death, Pamela was just shy of twenty years of age. Her father was in his early seventies. Since the age of three, she’d had no mother.
My initial impression of E.T.C. Werner was that of a fusty old scholar only minimally concerned in the life of his sole offspring. And indeed, he may have enacted that part from time to time. But as Midnight in Peking ultimately reveals, there was a whole other side to the man. In the course of the investigation into Pamela’s murder, the seamy underbelly of expatriate life in the Chinese city had been exposed to considerably scrutiny. As a result, several possible suspects were identified, but there was never sufficient evidence to tie any of them definitively to the crime. Then, as the tides of history engulfed China, the murder of the young Englishwoman was relegated to the status of one of history’s footnotes. The case went cold. Everyone concerned seemed to give up on it, to be ready to forget about it. Everyone, that is, except her father, E.T.C. Werner.
The Guardian review of Midnight in Peking calls French’s account of the investigation ‘spellbinding.’ I agree completely. The whole book was spellbinding. Once I started it – and overcame my initial revulsion at the description of the crime scene – I could scarcely put it down.
In this video, author Paul French, a resident of Shanghai, talks about how he came to write Midnight in Peking. He also points out some of the locations crucial to the narrative. You may feel that he’s telling you too much, but believe me, he’s only scratching the surface.
Click here for the full text of Myths & Legends of China, written by E.T.C. Werner and originally published in 1922.
In July of the year 2000, two young Englishwomen, Lucie Blackman and Louise Phillips, went to Tokyo to work as hostesses in a night club called Casablanca, in the city’s Roppongi district. The girls’ chief duties at the Casablanca involved entertaining ‘salarymen’ after work: flattering and cajoling them, mixing their drinks, performing karaoke with them, and just generally helping them relax and let off steam after a presumably hard day at the office. It’s a setup that has no precise equivalent in the West.
Lucie and Louise had several reasons for embarking on this line of work. First, there was the element of adventure. Second, there was the chance to make good money by expending minimal effort. This was especially true for Lucie, who had racked up an impressive amount of credit card debt that she couldn’t seem to get out from under.
Hostesses were expected to go out on dinner dates with the club’s clients. This activity actually had a name: dohan. It brought the club additional revenue, and the women got a free dinner out of the deal. But that is as far as things were supposed to go. Hostesses were not expected to get into the client’s car and go elsewhere with him. Yet that was exactly what Lucie proposed to do on July 1, 2000. She called Louise that afternoon to apprise her of those plans, and to assure her that their own plans for later that evening could still go forward. Lucie called Louise again early that evening to let her know how her ‘date’ was going. The client had made her a gift of a much-needed cell phone! Sounding excited and happy, Lucie told Louise that she’ll be returning to their apartment within the hour. About ten minutes after that conversation, she left a message on the cell phone belonging to her boyfriend Scott.
That was the last anyone heard from her.
[From this point forward, you may encounter 'spoilers,' although I feel that I'm barely scratching the surface of this dense, complex narrative.]
When Lucie Blackman failed to return to the apartment that evening, Louise Phillips knew at once that something was wrong. It wasn’t merely that Lucie hadn’t returned: she had failed to call to say she would be late. This was totally unlike her. She always let people know where she was, always kept in contact. This was especially true where Louise was concerned. The two had been extremely close friends, having known each other since they were girls. Lucie would not fall silent in this way – not unless something were wrong.
Lucie was only an hour late when Louise called her mother in Britain to tell her: “Something has happened to Lucie.” Gradually, ineluctably, this mystery spread outward, engulfing all those who knew and loved Lucie Blackman in a world of anguish and anxiety, and then almost unimaginable pain and grief. As for her immediate family, already fractured by her parents’ acrimonious divorce, things went from bad to worse.
In the prologue to People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry sets out the basic circumstances of Lucie’s disappearance. This is followed by the story of Lucie’s childhood and youth. Her early history is unremarkable, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. But in Part Two, Lucie and Louise arrive in Tokyo. Richard Lloyd Parry is the Tokyo Bureau Chief of The Times of London, and when he writes about this fascinating, teeming metropolis, he is clearly in his element. The writing is compelling; the story even more so. Parry has had to sift through a tangle of material in an effort to present a coherent narrative. He succeeds brilliantly in this effort. Moreover, he renders a society unfamiliar to many of us in vibrant, convincing hues.
In the prologue we’re told that Louise found Lucie’s actions in getting into a car with a strange man rather peculiar. Parry states that in his experience, Japanese men generally come across, in social situations at least, as more reserved and less aggressive than their Western counterparts. He has a theory about how this difference in temperament affects the mindset of hostesses from other countries:
The effect of this, for many foreigners, is to disable instincts of caution and suspicion that guide and protect them at home….Japan felt safe; Japan was safe; and under its enchantment they made decisions that they would never have made anywhere else.
One cannot help concluding that this perception – or rather, misperception – made possible the cunning manipulations of Joji Obara and his ilk. (Obara was not the only one to victimize young foreign women, but he seems to have been the most prolific and the most heartless.) A Japanese judge put it succinctly:
‘To violate the dignity of so many victims, in order to satisfy his lust, is unprecedented and extremely evil….There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever for acts based on determined and twisted motives.’
Richard Lloyd Parry covered this story from its beginning. His book was published in the UK last year. For over a decade, he followed the twists and turns of the Lucie Blackman case: her disappearance, the discovery of her remains, the arrest, the court case, and much else. The crime seems to have acquired a personal dimension for him; he shared, at least to a degree, in the suffering of those who loved this unfortunate young woman. Indeed, what else can one conclude, from a cri de coeur such as this:
What if Obara had admitted guilt, begged forgiveness, wept out his black heart?…Imagine the most extreme vindication and retribution-nothing that mattered would be alleviated or improved by it. There was no satisfaction that could be imagined, only greater and lesser degrees of humiliation and pain. Lucie had been a unique being, a precious, beloved human creature. She was dead, and nothing would ever bring her back.
This is not to imply that Parry lost his objectivity. On the contrary, People Who Eat Darkness is a masterpiece of scrupulous reportage, investigative journalism at its finest.
Parry is able to elucidate many aspects of this crime, but not the mystery at the very heart of it, as he himself admits:
Humans are conditioned to look for truth that is singular and focused, hanging for all to see like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nu. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut.
In other words, one gazed and gazed, and beheld only darkness – the heart of darkness embodied in Obara, a darkness that we all hope, for ourselves and our loved ones, never to encounter in this life.
I am aware that this is not a book for all readers. Parts of it are difficult to read. It kept me up some nights. Yet I am not sorry to have read it. I believe that People Who Eat Darkness belongs in that select pantheon of true crime classics inhabited by books such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, and of course, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Below is footage of a talk presented by Richard Lloyd Parry at Temple University’s Japan campus in September of 2011:
There is a documentary on this case, also made last year, I’m not sure by whom.. Earlier in this post, I warned of the presence of spoilers; that warning also holds true for this film. I watched it after I’d read People Who Eat Darkness, and it seemed somewhat superficial to me – necessarily so, I suppose, given time constraints and the nature of the medium. Anyway, here it is:
Lucie’s father Tim Blackman has established the Lucie Blackman Trust.
‘The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment….’ – Murder in the First-Class Carriage, by Kate Colquhoun
These are the main elements of a story told with exceptional skill by Kate Colquhoun. The year is 1864. The crime is both violent and perplexing. And one of its most baffling aspects, both for those who were reading about it and the investigators, is contained in the book’s title. How on earth could such a dastardly deed be done in a First Class Carriage?
Murder in the First-Class Carriage reminded me in many ways of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. As in Kate Summerscale’s fascinating narrative, we learn from Colquhoun about advances being made in the art and science of police work in mid-Victorian Britain. For instance, in 1842, Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and another highly placed official in the force, Charles Rowan, were tasked with creating a different kind of policeman:
No longer concerned primarily with the prevention of crime and without the visible authority of a uniform, these were the first detectives: eight conscientious men were selected, including Stephen Thornton and Jack Whicher. Encouraged by the adulation of writers like Dickens, Britain had broadly allowed itself to be seduced into a belief in the brilliance of these perspicacious, dogged, plain-clothed detectives.
Colquhoun then appends this cautionary note: “Scepticism…was growing, and admiration was balanced by distrust and delays and irresolution from the elite investigators emphasised their fallibility.” Ironically, it was doubts like these that were responsible for derailing Jack Whicher’s investigation of the murder at Road Hill House. (The suspicions of Mr. Whicher concerning this terrible murder, which occurred in1860, were ultimately proven to be only too well founded.)
Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by the triumphant speed and ruthless efficiency of the railroads:
Woven into the excitement of railway travel, a corresponding nervousness had developed about the loss of individual control. The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment, whirled along at speed and treated like just one in a stream of disposable, moveable goods was, at best, disorientating and, at worst, threatening.
Colquhoun cites the fears of Dombey, as articulated by his creator Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:
‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way…defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it…was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’
Murder in the First-Class Carriage is subtitled, “The First Victorian Railway Killing.” This raised the question in my mind as to how many more such crimes had occurred. Helpful information on this topic is provided by the British Transport Police, in the history section of that organization’s website. (Really, one can only be grateful to the British for their obsession with the minutiae of their own history. It benefits all of us Anglophiles no end!)
Murder in the First-Class Carriage lacks the element of pathos that made The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher such a riveting and affecting read. Still, Kate Colquhoun’s writing, by turns incisive and lyrical, is every bit as good as Kate Summerscale’s. In addition to the telling a riveting story, Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a rich compendium of the mores and folkways that characterized the denizens of mid-Victorian England. I loved it.
On the night of November 1 2007, Meredith Kercher was found murdered in a house she shared with several other young persons of varying nationalities. Like her housemates, Meredith, herself a British national, was a university exchange student in Perugia, Italy. Three individuals were charged with the crime and brought to trial: Rudy Gude, a resident of the city and native of the Ivory Coast, Amanda Knox, an American from Seattle, and Amanda’s Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. All three were found guilty and sent to prison. Attention is now focused on Knox, who is currently appealing her conviction. A decision in this matter is expected any day now.
Nina Burleigh reviews all aspects of this crime with admirable lucidity and attention to detail. She’s especially enlightening on the subject of the Italian legal system, which in some aspects is similar to our own. There are, however, differences. For instance, juries are not held to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, one assistant prosecutor declared, “Only God has no doubts.”
What Burleigh does in her book that I found very valuable – not to mention fascinating – is to put this crime in a cultural context. Where the history of Perugia is concerned, I came away with the sense of a place where evil and depredation are inextricably yoked to a transcendent beauty. One could also say this of Naples, a city I first journeyed to in the Spring of 2009. I’m thinking of the title I bestowed on my post about that city: ” Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced… and sublime.” Naples is home to two Caravaggio masterpieces, the veiled Christ, and many other priceless works of art. It is also home to its own crime family: the Camorra. (In 2006, at the astonishingly tender age of 27, journalist Roberto Saviano penned Gomorrah, an expose of this notorious organization. The book’s jacket flap tersely informs readers that as a result of the book’s explosive content, Saviano “…has been placed under police protection.”)
There is also the Beast of San Gregorio. Her name was Caterina Fort. Think carefully before you pursue further knowledge of this woman. I personally would be happy never to have heard of her.
Perugia is home to great art, magnificent churches, and numerous medieval artifacts. There are some jarring juxtapositions: “For nine months out of the year, the San Lorenzo duomo steps are an Italian Amsterdam, with young people sunning themselves and drinking beer from plastic cups and smoking spinelli–joints filled with hash.”
Indeed, as Burleigh tells it, life for Perugia’s college students was a Bacchanalian feast, with numerous bars and discos open till the wee hours, liberal consumption of drugs and alcohol, sex on offer anywhere and everywhere. The pace of the partying was frenetic. The life of the mind seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Inside the duomo, a stone wall’s width away from the party scene outside, lies the town’s most precious relic, the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring, a circle of green onyx that pilgrims and knights supposedly rescued from Jerusalem in the fifteenth century through great peril. The ring is secreted in a locked silver reliquary tucked high in the wall behind red velvet curtains, accessible only by a ladder and pulley system. It has been displayed only once a year for the last five hundred years. The reliquary can be opened only with fourteen different keys, held by fourteen different prominent Perugians.
For me, the most eye-opening content in this book involved the description of pagan rites whose practice allegedly persists alongside the rites of traditional Christianity:
Despite the fact that the Pope resides among them, Italians are not as Catholic as one might expect. Italy remains, as the journalist Luigi Barzini put it, “gloriously pagan.” It Italy, “Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome” but is “a thin veneer over older customs.”
(I was pleased to encounter the name of Luigi Barzini. I well remember his celebrated work, published in 1964, claiming pride of place on my mother’s bookshelves. She had just begun traveling to that storied place, and she loved Barzini’s book.)
What, you may well ask, does all of this have to do with the crime that forms the centerpiece of The Fatal Gift of Beauty? The answer lies primarily with the crime scene, and the way certain features of it struck Giuliano Mignini, the magistrate whose brief it was to investigate and prosecute the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini, a devout Catholic, was struck by several odd aspects of the crime scene. First, there was the broken bedroom window that lacked any trace evidence whatsoever, either organic or inorganic, as though “whoever had come in through that window–if anyone had–possessed a superhuman power of levitation….” Then there was the cat’s blood on the lower floor.
Possibly most bizarre of all, there was a trail of bloody footprints made by a single shoe: “The removal of one shoe during Masonic initiation is a piece of pagan symbolism so ancient that historians don’t even understand its significance.” Burleigh continues:
After studying numerous statues with one sandal and myths such as Cinderella, involving lost shoes, or the laming or hobbling of one foot, as in the Achilles’ heel, the Italian cultural anthropologist Carlo Ginzburg theorized that the ritual laming of a foot or the removal of one shoe was a symbol of stepping into and out of the underworld.
There’s more – quite a bit more. By the time I finished this part of the book, I wanted to run and hide somewhere. (A church or synagogue would have served nicely.) Inevitably, these and other characteristics of the crime scene raised the specter of Satanic ritual.
In the final section of her book, Nina Burleigh brings us firmly back down to earth, to the hard reality of this case. She lays out the evidence in a clear and forthright manner. As the investigation and the trial have run their course, Amanda Knox has exhibited some strange behaviors. At times it was just a matter of an inappropriate demeanor. She seems throughout to have exhibited an oddly flat affect when faced with the horror of her roommate’s murder. At one point, while being questioned in open court, she shocked those present by imitating the sounds a person would make after his or her throat had been slashed. She has done herself no favors by these actions, but neither do they in and of themselves signify guilt.
I picked this book up last week and read it through to the end, with no break. It was riveting.
Closing arguments in Amanda Knox’s appeal were heard today. And once again, hundreds of reporters and photographers descended on Perugia. Click here for coverage by CBS News.
A verdict is expected on Monday.
I confess I approached last Tuesday night’s discussion with a certain diffidence. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents such an array of complex issues, I doubted I could do the book justice. But – doubts were vanquished almost as soon as we began. I have the incredible good luck to be associated with The Usual Suspects, a gratifyingly brainy group of people who brought their impressive intellects to bear full force upon Kate Summerscale’s many-layered, remarkable narrative. (Click here to read my original review of this book. Also, be warned: this post contains spoilers.)
I began our discussion by a reading a passage from the introduction:
“A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes – the vestiges of the beast in man – into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill the image of the detective darkened. Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle-class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve….
That paragraph in its entirety summed up many of the issues explored by the author in this book.
I next asked everyone to look at the Kent family tree. Several of the birth and dates there given serve as a sobering reminder of how prevalent infant death still was, even in the mid-nineteenth century in a progressive Western country.
I then went on to provide some biographical information on Kate Summerscale. This Wikipedia entry pretty much sums up what I was able to find. In addition, here is an interview with the author:
Then it was time to look at the murder itself, and the context in which it took place. When I asked what emotion this core aspect of the book evoked, someone immediately responded, “horror.” Everyone agreed at once. It seemed an especially heinous crime, compounded as it was of cool calculation and unimaginable rage. As Summerscale puts it, concerning the weeks that followed the grisly revelation :
“The puzzle of the Road Hill case lay in the killer’s peculiar combination of heat and cold, planning and passion. Whoever had murdered, mutilated and defiled Saville Kent must be horribly disturbed, possessed by unnaturally strong feelings: yet the same person, in remaining so far undiscovered, had shown startling powers of self-control.
The author concludes this paragraph by pointing out that “Whicher took Constance’s cold quiet as a clue that she had killed her brother.” And though he was made to pay dearly for it, he was exactly right to do so.
We all agreed that this book was greatly enriched by the frequent allusions to works that were seminal in the evolution of the detective fiction genre. Some time ago, the suspects had discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, so it was particularly enjoyable to encounter this great writer once again, in this context. Collins coined the phrase “detective fever,” declaring that Charles Dickens had a bad case of it where the Road Hill House crime was concerned.
Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone are both to some extent modeled on the real life character of Jonathan Whicher. Another novel mentioned in connection with the Road Hill House case is Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. When I first read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, I was intrigued by the mention of this title. It was a book – and author – which rang only the faintest of bells for me, dating from my English major days at Goucher College and Georgetown University. I then tried to read it, but got bogged down in the rather protracted description of Audley Court with which the novel begins.
This time, after completing my second traversal of Summerscale’s book, I decided yet again to read Lady Audley. And a strange thing happened:I was mesmerized by this novel! Once past that slow-moving opening passage, I found myself completely engrossed in a genuinely fascinating story. It was hard for me to believe I that a work of such positively juicy readability was originally published in 1862. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you sorceress – where have you been all my life?
Lady Audley’s Secret is the exemplar of a genre known as the novel of sensation. Attaining great popularity in the 1860′s and 1870′s, such works aimed to jolt the reader by turning certain staid Victorian conventions on their collective heads, and by dealing deliberately in shocking subject matter, such as “adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder” (Wikipedia). Well gosh, no wonder that was so much fun!
To a considerable extent, novels of sensation were the forerunners of the detective story, so they should naturally be of interest to those of us who are ardent readers of crime fiction. Kate Summerscale advances the possibility that “…the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional…[is] to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.” Summerscale goes on to quote Raymond Chandler to the effect that “The detective story…is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Our group kicked this provocative observation around a bit. IMHO, this is Chandler speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. This is, after all, the man who wrote, at the conclusion of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written:
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
No happy ending there ( though the writing itself is stunning.) Summerscale’s theory, on the other hand, has real merit.
I’ll have more to say about Lady Audley’s Secret in a later post. But first: more on the book under consideration Tuesday night.
As with much sensation fiction, madness runs as a dark undercurrent throughout Kate Sumerscale’s narrative. The Kent family was a blended one, comprising Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus, and those he fathered subsequently by Mary Drewe Pratt.
Mary Ann Windus was a sad case. Married to Samuel Kent in 1829 at the age of twenty-one, she became repeatedly pregnant. Out of a total ten live births, only five children survived infancy. When still young, Mary Ann purportedly showed signs of ‘weakness and bewilderment of intellect.’ The repeated pregnancies and infant deaths she had to endure can only have made matters worse.
Also unhelpful was the introduction into the household of Mary Drewe Pratt as governess to Constance, who was born in 1844. Pratt, an apparently imperious presence on the domestic scene, disparaged and marginalized Mary Ann Windus. The latter finally died in 1852. A year later, Samuel Kent married Mary Drewe Pratt. Proving to be just as fecund as her predecessor, Pratt gave birth to three children in quick succession. Francis Saville, born in 1856, was the murder victim in 1860.
The initial revelations concerning the murder caused a kind of feeding frenzy among members of the public and the press. Jack Whicher obstinately insisted that Constance Kent was the culprit, but his methods were blunt and ham handed, and he lacked any convincing evidence. People found another theory more compelling; namely, that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, were lovers and had been observed in flagrante by little Saville. Gough slept in the same room with the younger children and was present when Saville was taken from his bed. Although she insisted that she had slept through the abduction, neither seeing nor hearing anything, she nevertheless made an attractive suspect.
In the short term, no further compelling evidence appeared. No breakthrough was achieved. The hubbub gradually died down. Whicher, his investigative techniques and seemingly arbitrary conclusions thoroughly vilified by both the press and the public at large, slunk back to London. The public’s attention was diverted to other matters. (Whicher stayed with the police force for several more years. After retiring from the force, he became a private “agent of inquiry,” a career path similar to that of Anne Perry’s fictional protagonist William Monk. It’s also worth noting that amid the general disapproval, Whicher did have his defenders.)
Then, in 1865, Constance Kent came forward and confessed to the murder of her step-brother. Her initial explanations in regard to her motive tended to be murky and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it emerged that Constance was possessed of a great animus toward her stepmother. Mary Drewe Pratt had sewn a huge resentment in the bosom of Mary Ann Windus’s daughter by denigrating and ultimately seeking to replace her own mother. To make matters worse, Pratt displayed blatant favoritism toward the children she and Samuel had together. With Saville’s murder, she seems to have reaped the fruits of her own actions. If her sole aim was to secure Samuel Kent for her husband and thereby make a place for herself among the middle classes of nineteenth century England, she achieved her goal, but at a terrible price.
When it became known that Constance had confessed of her own free will, the question arose as to whether she, like her mother, suffered from “the taint of madness.” How else to account for an adolescent girl’s commission of such a terrible act? In recent years, the theory has surfaced that the real trouble – or at least, the medical trouble – in the Kent family was caused by Samuel’s having had syphilis, and having passed the infection on to Mary Ann Windus. Among its other scourges, this disease can cause early infant death and mental instability. Men were extremely reluctant to seek medical help for this particular ailment, or even to admit to be suffering from it.
At any rate, Summerscale advances this theory cautiously, warning that “Syphilis is an affliction easy to suspect in retrospect.”
We talked about the strange lack of emotion displayed by members of the Kent family. Samuel is reported to have been seen weeping at one point, but we are not told of any other demonstrative displays. This is perhaps understandable in the context in which the crime occurred. First of all, Summerscale could report on only what was supported by written testimony. And this was an era in which people – especially those belonging to the upper classes - were taught to reign in their emotions.
The one member of the Kent family to whom Constance felt genuinely close was her brother William. Indeed, several years before the murder, the two had attempted to run away to sea. Some commentators on the crime believe that it would have been impossible for Constance alone to have abducted and killed Saville. She must, in other words, have had an accomplice. Was that accomplice William? Proof positive of this has never been found. Many, though, consider it to be highly likely. Our group was of that opinion. We felt it likely that Constance deliberately “took the rap” for the crime, insisting that she acted alone. This admission effectively lifted the cloud of guilt from other members of the Kent family. Constance would have been especially keen to have William no longer suspected of complicity. And in fact, William went on to enjoy a distinguished career in microscopy and marine biology.
As we discussed this outcome, Pauline put this question to us: in the matter of the murder of Saville Kent, was justice done? The group’s consensus: in the main, it was not. Constance Kent did serve a 20-year prison term, but she was still only 41 years old upon her release. Assuming the name Ruth Emilie Kaye, she emigrated to Australia, where she received training as a nurse. She never married and spent the remainder of her life in service to others. And it was a very long life: Constance Kent, aka Ruth Emilie Kaye, died in 1944 at the age of 100. Her obituary mentions that at one time, she nursed lepers.
It would appear that Constance was trying to make restitution for her crime to society. Did she achieve this? It’s a subjective question, one that can never be answered conclusively. (And the same question could be asked of the aforementioned Anne Perry.) Even if one wishes to concede that a good faith effort was made here – What, then, about William Kent? His role in the events at Road Hill House was never proven and remains a matter for speculation. As an adult, he was free to live a full and productive life.
From the question of justice in this particular instance, our discussion widened to include the issue of the death penalty. It was necessary to tread carefully here, as people have strong opinions on this issue, but I thought our group handled that part of the discussion with admirable tact and diplomacy. I observed that Britain had come a long way since the day when executions were a form of public spectacle. Pauline, our “token Brit,” told us about the John Christie and Derek Bentley cases. Both involved wrongful execution; the ensuing revulsion proved instrumental in the decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.
Several of us had read “Trial by Fire,” an article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker concerning the possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. (At one point in this article, author David Grann recounts the following case from British history:
“In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.
Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.
We talked about other high profile murder cases in which justice has proved elusive. We’ve all had the experience of learning of a verdict or a sentence and exclaiming in disbelief: How could they? or words to that effect. What is the answer to this perennial question? Mine is that just as human beings are hard wired to want to solve puzzles, so are we equally hardwired to yearn for justice – and to keep up the relentless effort to see that justice is served.
Kate Summerscale won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.
At 12:30 AM on March 18, 1990, two men gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Employing subterfuge – they were dressed as policemen – they had deceived the two duty guards, whom they tied up and left in the basement of the building. As of that moment, the impostors had the run of the lightly secured premises. They proceeded to help themselves to some of the world’s most priceless objets d’art. At 2:41 AM, they left as they had entered, through the building’s side entrance:
“The thieves were inside for a total of eighty-one minutes and nabbed thirteen works of art, valued today at over $500 million. They’ve just pulled off the largest robbery in history. In the wet, empty streets, the thieves and their faceless associates start up their cars and speed down Palace Road, and as their tail-lights disappear into the night, so do the Gardner masterpieces.
Thus did an audacious dead-of-night caper instantly attain the status of legend, giving rise to questions that have perplexed police, federal agents, private investigators, and art lovers for almost two decades: Who masterminded this heist? And where is the stolen art?
This is the question that at first intrigued, then perplexed, then ultimately obsessed journalist Ulrich Boser. Boser’s quest led him first to Harold Smith, a man who, in the course of a career as an international expert on art theft, had amassed an enviable track record when it came to locating stolen art work and jewelry. For years, Smith had focused on the Gardner theft and occasionally came tantalizingly close to cracking the case. But he died without solving the mystery.
Spending time with Harold Smith was an edifying experience for Boser; it was, vicariously, for me as well. Despite being ravaged by an aggressive form of skin cancer, Smith never lost his drive, his acuity, or his generosity. Up to the end, he maintained a vigorous work ethic enlivened by a sense of humor that was probably his salvation. When Smith died in 2005, Boser vowed to take up the search where his mentor had left off.
As the investigation proceeded, Boser encountered, among others, members of the so-called New England Mafia, the most notorious of which is the famously elusive James “Whitey” Bulger.
Bulger and others of his ilk have long been suspected of, at the very least, harboring guilty knowledge concerning the Gardner theft and the whereabouts of the stolen treasures. Now, I admit that I often think of Boston as an island of cultural riches amid the sea of vulgarity threatening to engulf the rest of the country. I have heard about the existence of a criminal underworld in the environs, but I was rather taken aback by the viciousness of some of its denizens, as described by Boser. I found myself thinking back to Martin Scorsese’s harrowing film, The Departed.
In addition to the aforementioned mobsters, we meet members of various law enforcement agencies. My particular favorite among these was Charlie Sabba, a New Jersey police officer with a Bachelor of fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. A painter himself and passionate about art in general, he put me in mind of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler and P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.
The list of dramatis personae goes on. There are run-of-the-mill grifters, art and antiques dealers, and a few who are a bit of both. Boser followed the trail of the missing masterpieces to Ireland, where many in the know believe they are hidden. (Whitey Bulger himself is rumored to be concealed somewhere on the Emerald Isle.)
The book features an intriguing section about how great painting affects some viewers:
“Philosopher Richard Wollheim made three trips to Germany to view the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald’s sixteenth-century masterwork, but each time he looked at the canvas, he found it unbearable and had to turn away. There is a book dedicated to people who cry in front of paintings, and a disease called Stendhal’s Syndrome, where extensive exposure to Old Master paintings can cause dizziness, confusion, and hallucinations.
The book referenced in this passage is Pictures & Tears by James Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And as for the Isenheim Altarpiece, read this description, provided by Hungary’s superb Web Gallery of Art. Then gaze upon the altarpiece itself (by clicking on links at lower left). You may then better understand Richard Wollheim’s reaction.
Generally the pace of The Gardner Heist is lively, although as events unfold, Boser has some difficulty keeping the suspense ratcheted up. I think this is primarily the fault of the narrative arc of the story. It starts with a bang – the lightning strike, in the dead of night, by the two daring thieves. Boser then goes on to detail the investigation, which is, alas, a tale of fizzling leads, dashed hopes, and profound frustration. Ultimately, one does tire of all the evasive tactics, coyness, legal maneuvering, posturing, and outright lying on the part of many of the individuals interviewed by Boser. Especially since the stakes are so very, very high…
The Rembrandt is the only known seascape by that great master. The Vermeer is one of only thirty-four works positively identified as being by him. And as for Chez Tortoni, there is such mystery in that man’s expression… More than once, while engrossed in The Gardner Heist, I wanted to stand up and shout, enough already! Give us back our paintings, our art, our patrimony.
In the fall of 1990, my husband and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time. Just beyond the entryway, there was a table displaying reproductions of the stolen art. Contact numbers for the FBI and the Boston Police were provided. “If you have any information…” Since then, there has been plenty of information, ranging from tantalizing to fraudulent, virtually all of it useless.
In 2005, The Boston Globe published this multimedia review by Steve Kurkjian of the facts of the case. And in “A Wounded Museum Feels a Jolt of Progress” (New York Times, March 13, 2009), Abby Goodnough updates us on the Gardner’s efforts to move into the future – this, despite the strictures forbidding change that “Mrs. Jack” placed in her will. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains, after all, a repository of countless treasures placed in the most gracious of settings.
A final note: one of my favorite mystery authors, Jane Langton, sets most of her novels in the greater Boston area, where she is a long time resident. Langton published Murder at the Gardner in 1988. I often wonder what she thought when she opened her paper on that March morning two years later.