‘Willa noticed that another emotion she was experiencing was happiness.’ – Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

August 31, 2018 at 2:14 pm (Book review, books)

  The main character in Clock Dance is Willa Drake – or more precisely, Willa Drake MacIntyre – and finally there’s a second husband Peter, whose last name eludes me, by which she’s ultimately known.

We first encounter Willa as an energetic, ambitious eleven-year-old selling candy bars – or trying to sell them – to her neighbors in Lark City, Pennsylvania. (My immediate first thought was, Pennsylvania? But what about ‘Bawlamer?” I counsel patience,  Dear Reader. All will be revealed in time.)

My initial fear was that we’ll be  stuck in candy bar selling mode for a protracted period. It was a bit too sweet for me. But no, things moved along quickly – very quickly. I don’t want to be any more specific; to do so would mean straying into spoiler country. I will say this, though: Never was  the swift passage of time made to seem more inevitable and more poignant than it does here. There’s a sense of being carried along on the tide of events, and of being only minimally in control of how those same events unfold.

Tyler’s wonderful sense of humor is in evidence in this novel. In recounting for Willa the view from the middle seat on his last plane trip, Peter narrates the doings of the amply proportioned woman sitting in the aisle seat:

….the minute she got settled she dug into this giant tote that was crowding my feet and brought out a foot long salami sub with enough onions to kill a horse…and twice before they turned the seat belt sign off she pressed her call button to ask when drinks were going to be served, and when finally the cart showed up she ordered two Bloody Marys–this was before most people’s breakfast time, mind–and an extra pack of snack mix. Snack mix! Ha. Which was no food known to nature, believe me; some kind of crackerish objects coated with sidewalk salt. After the sub she dug out a slice of Boston cream pie wrapped in a sheet of wax paper that kept blowing off her tray into my lap because of course she had her overhead fan on….

And on it goes. You get the idea.

The warmth of the author’s wit offers a nice counterbalance to the overall air of melancholy that pervades this tale – indeed, that pervades most of the novels I’ve read by her. Accidental Tourist, the Pulitzer-winning Breathing Lessons, Ladder of Years, Digging to America, and my first and still favorite by her, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Oh how she broke my heart with that one!

Tyler possesses a nice sense of irony, as in the scene where Willa passes almost instantaneously from vacillation to certitude regarding the question of marriage to Derek (the husband of her youth and the father of her sons). Much later, a sudden disaster in her life seems, in retrospect, inevitable. (Most of us experience at least one of these in a lifetime. I’m reminded of what Evelyn Waugh remarked when after fifteen months of marriage, his wife left him for another man: “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable & live but I am told that this is a common experience.”)

A hoped for reciprocal warmth in her relationship with sons Ian and Sean never quite comes up to the mark. This in no way diminishes her maternal adoration of  them. I had to smile when I read  this sentence:

Willa was experiencing one of those rapt moments that often overcame her in the presence of her sons.

(Oh, thought I, so that happens to other people too….)

I love it when a character notices at a particular moment that he or she is experiencing actual happiness. Take careful note of such moments, Tyler seems to be saying, take note of them, cherish them, treasure them up.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins….

Clock Dance was a fast and wonderful read. A great book group selection, also. I confess to being somewhat perplexed by the ending and would love to talk it over with someone.

Anne Tyler

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The great book clear-out

August 25, 2018 at 6:04 pm (books)

And so it begins…With these three:

The Egyptian was recommended to me by my former husband’s father, a lovely man whose views were always worth attending to. I remember it as a vivid depiction of ancient Egypt, the Egypt of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaton.

I had this idea that the author Mika Waltari was Polish. Wrong – he was actually from Finland.

This book is not owned by the local library but should be obtainable via interlibary loan. Used copies can be purchased via Amazon. I’m not currently seeing any e-book availability, though several other titles by Waltari are available in that format.

Here is how The Egyptian begins:

I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this. I do not write it to the glory of  the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor  from any hope of the future but for myself alone. During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and, as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past  and to come.

First published immediately following World War II, this novel became available in English translation in 1949. The above paperback was published by Berkley Medallion Books in 1970. Price: $1.25.

Rather to my amazement, I was able to pull up the original Kirkus review:

The Egyptian was made into a film in 1954. I’ve never seen it, but it boasts a rather impressive cast, not to mention a first rate director and a famous producer:

(A terrific novel set in roughly the same remote era is Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood.)
The King Must Die brings to vivid life the legend of Theseus, a hero of Greek mythology. I recall none of the particulars of this novel, yet I know that while reading it – a long time  ago – I felt transported to that remote realm. I went on to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

Mary Renault was born in Essex, England, now part of Greater London. She received her undergraduate degree in English from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. In 1948, when she was in her early forties, Renault, with her partner Julie Mullard, moved to South Africa. She remained there until her death in 1983.

The King Must Die was originally published in 1958. The Cardinal Giant edition pictured above, published by Pocket Books Inc., came out shortly thereafter. Price – if you can believe it  – 50 cents.

  This is the original hardback. The Wikipedia entry names the cover artist as Eric Carle. This startled me. Could they possibly mean, this Eric Carle? Well, they most certainly did!

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929, Eric Carle was taken to Germany to live when he was six years old. He grew up and was educated there, graduating from the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. Meanwhile, Carle yearned to return to the U.S. This he did in 1952, when he was in his early twenties. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? came out in 1967; The Very Hungry Caterpillar followed in 1969.

Back to The King Must Die. The novel opens thus:

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands,was built by giants before anyone remembers.But  the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it  from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.

The King Must Die is not owned by the local library; however, it is in print in paperback, thanks to Vintage Books. (And they’ve given it a rather splendid cover.) It’s also available in Kindle download  format for $2.99.

Giants in the Earth tells of a group of Norwegian immigrants trying to make a go of a farm in the Dakota Territory in the early 1870’s. My chief recollection of this story is that it was magnificently told and deeply tragic. There is a plague of grasshoppers, Biblical in its ferocity, and a winter of relentless blizzards. (I believe I read this book while I was living in Wisconsin and getting my own first taste of winter in the upper Midwest. I recall at one point driving past a sign outside a bank that announced the temperature as  being minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. That of course did not take into account the wind chill. Also I remember trying to coax a dog down from atop a snow drift higher than my head.)

Vernon Parrington, author of the landmark study Main Currents in American Thought, says of Giants in the Earth:

We have been used to viewing the frontier in broad and generous perspective and have responded most sympathetically to the epic note that runs through the tale of the conquest of the continent. It is the great American romance that gives life and drama to our history. It was this epic quality that de Tocqueville felt when he discovered the poetry of America in the silent march of a race toward the far-off Pacific, hewing its way triumphantly through forests and mountains to arrive at its objective. But the emotional side, the final ledger of human values, we have too little considered–the men and women broken by the frontier, the great army of derelicts who failed and were laid away, like the Norse immigrant lad, in forgotten graves. The cost of it all in human happiness–the loneliness, the disappointments, the renunciations, the severing of old ties and quitting of familiar places, the appalling lack of those intangible cushions for the nerves that could not be transported on horseback or in prairie schooners: these imponderables too often have been left out of the reckoning in our traditional romantic interpretation…..

Giants in the Earth is a great and beautiful book that suggests the wealth of human potentialities brought to America year after year by the peasant immigrants who pass through Ellis Island and scatter the length and breadth of the land. Written in Norwegian, and stemming from a rich old-world literary tradition, it is at the same time deeply and vitally American. The very atmosphere of the Dakota plains is in its pages, and it could have been written only by one to whom the background was a familiar scene. The artist has lived with these peasant folk; he is one of them, and he penetrates sympathetically to the simple kindly hearts hidden to alien eyes by the unfamiliar folk ways.

(Full text of this essay can be accessed here.)

Ole Edvart Rolvaag was born in Norway in 1876. Twenty years later, he emigrated to America, living first in South Dakota, where he worked as a farm hand. He traveled to Northfield, Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree at St. Olaf’s College, and then a master’s degree at the same institution. In 1906, he was asked by the college’s president to join the faculty. He continued to serve in that capacity, eventually becoming head of the Norwegian Studies department. In addition, he was the first secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. He followed both of these vocations for the remainder of his working life.

And of course, he wrote novels. Giants in the Earth, the first novel in a trilogy, was originally written in Norwegian and published in two successive volumes in 1924 and 1925. It was shortly thereafter translated into English by the author with the help of his friend and colleague Lincoln Colcord.

Original cover of the first edition in English

The novel was made into an opera by Douglas Moore in 1951. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Giants in the Earth is not owned by the local library, but a number of other systems in the interlibrary loan network do own it, so it can be requested from one of them. In addition, it’s in print in paperback, published by Perennial Classics. Presumably this is the same publisher – Perennial Library – that I am looking at right now. I’m not finding a publication date for this particular edition, but judging by the Library of Congress cataloguing number it is most likely 1965. Price: $1.95.

At the front of the book, Rolvaag makes this statement:

To those of my people who took part in the great settling, to them and their generations, I dedicate this novel.

The novel opens in this wise:

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon…Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

…And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light–then soften into shades of red and purple, as evening fell…Pure color everywhere.

The novel takes its title from a verse in Genesis vi: 4:

‘There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.’

There is a beautiful selection that goes well as an accompaniment to this subject: The Last Spring, by Norway’s great composer Edvard Grieg:

It’s with some regret that I let go of these volumes. But the pages have yellowed and the print is now too small for my aging eyes. I don’t rule out rereading them, but the print will need to be larger and crisper.


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“…this strange land they called ‘la France profonde,’ deepest France.” – Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

August 19, 2018 at 12:52 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is the opening paragraph of Bruno, Chief of Police:

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked  the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired  the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie [mayor’s office], and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

This vivid descriptive passage segues nicely into a short lesson on the region’s history:

On the far side of the square stood the venerable church, its thick walls and squat tower a reminder of the ages past when churches, too, were part of the town’s defenses, guarding the river crossing and the approach to the  great stone bridge. A great “N” carved into the rock above the central of the three arches asserted that the bridge had  been rebuilt on the orders of Napoleon himself. This did not greatly impress the town’s inhabitants, who knew  that the upstart emperor had but restored a bridge their ancestors had first built five centuries earlier. And now it had been established that the first bridge over their river dated from Roman times.

Then a final return to the present era:

Across the river stretched  the new part of town, the Crédit Agricole bank and its parking lot, the supermarket ad the rugby stadium discreetly shaded by tall oaks and think belts of walnut trees.

Thus we are drawn into the world of St. Denis, a small, seemingly pristine commune nestled in the verdant Dordogne region of southwestern France. (St. Denis is a fictional town. For more on the sources used to create it, click here.)

The Dordogne department takes its name from the river that runs through it:

France’s green and pleasant land….Don’t know about you, but one look at this picture and I was ready to pack up and move. [Click to enlarge]

The man in that first paragraph surveys the land before him with deep contentment and a certain sense of  proprietorship. He is Benoît Courrèges, known to his fellow townsfolk as Bruno. Having survived a difficult childhood, Bruno fought in Bosnia for a time before joining law enforcement. He chose to live in St. Denis, perceiving it to be “the quiet heart of rural France.”

But alas, as so often happens, there is a serpent dwelling in this Eden, a serpent  that periodically bares its fangs. When an elderly man living alone is brutally killed, it’s up to Bruno to solve the terrible crime.The deeper the investigation goes, the more apparent it becomes that the root cause of this murder lies buried in the old man’s past – in fact, in France’s past.

Ann, our presenter, was particularly fascinated by the role of Algerian fighters in the Second World War. The rest of us shared that interest. But even more, we found the author’s depiction of this region of France, with its distinctive culture, physical beauty, and meticulously detailed cuisine, to be utterly captivating. (Is that too many adjectives? Oh well – that’s what they’re for, n’est-ce pas?)

There was another aspect of the novel that folks were eager to discuss; namely, the civic and social aspects of small town governance. (Here we have one of  the reasons I so appreciate the Suspects: their interest in all aspects of the work being considered – even the wonky ones!)

We also talked about the famous cave paintings that can be found in the Dordogne. I recommended Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

Surely one of the major attractions of this novel and succeeding ones is the character of Bruno himself. He is not only a skilled and conscientious policeman, but he’s also deeply embedded in the town’s social and political life. It’s easy to believe in his affection for his fellow citizens of St. Denis; it’s bodied forth in everything he says and does with regard to them. And then there’s his love life….

In Bruno, Chief of Police, we become acquainted with, among others, Pamela, a relocated Scotswoman who’s become an innkeeper, and Isabelle, a rising star in French law enforcement. Bruno is attracted to both women. What will ultimately come of this attraction is anyone’s guess, but I can tell you that they both appear in subsequent entries in the series.

Oh, and Bruno’s love of the Périgord extends to its denizens of the animal world. He owns a horse named Hector, whose stabling is provided by the aforementioned Pamela. And he has a basset hound named Gigi. (Eventually Bruno acquires a basset puppy named Balzac – un nom parfait pour un chien français, je pense (a perfect name for a French dog, I think). And here’s one of my favorite sentences in the novel:

As Bruno fed his chickens, he pondered what to wear fro dinner that evening.

If you follow this series, you’ll find that the present in St. Denis is often shadowed by the events of the Second World War. There were some heroes, to be sure, but there were also some who sought the coward’s way of survival. There were even traitors. There are moments when the past simply refuses to stay buried; when this happens, sometimes crime results, and pain comes along with it. This happens in Bruno, Chief of Police.

And yet, the beauty of the present day can still be celebrated by good and decent people whom it’s a pleasure to know. Chief among them is Bruno Courrèges.

The reaction of the Suspects to this novel was generally positive, I’d say. There were some reservations; for instance, Marge felt that the proliferating involvement of multiple law enforcement entities was confusing. (Hard to argue with that.) And Carol felt that Martin Walker’s writing did not compare favorably with that of one of her favorite writers, Peter May. May is indeed a fine writer; we read The Black House in 2013 and were suitably impressed. Frank observed that Bruno, Chief of Police was not as much a conventional detective novel as it was a story about how things could be resolved for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. That’s actually a good description of the series as a whole, as it happens. (As for me, it’s impossible to maintain objectivity on this subject. I simply love  these  books.)

For whatever reason, our discussion ranged far and wide, often straying from the book itself. We never worry too much about that; we return to the matter at hand, eventually. Our surroundings at Hilda’s house were gracious and comfortable – thanks, Hilda! – and Cookie, the resident canine, was uniformly affectionate and companionable.

I confess that the novels in this series always arouse the latent Francophile in me. While reading one, I tend to wander through the house articulating phrases in that most beautiful of languages. (Luckily my husband gets it, being, like me, a Francophile with a small but carefully tended knowledge of la langue française.)

From top down, left to right: prefecture building in Périgueux, Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Lourde River and La Roque-Gageac. [Courtesy of Wikipedia; click to enlarge]

Ah the glories of French culture! Here is one of my favorite music videos:

The biography on Martin Walker’s website states that he and his wife, novelist and food writer Julia Watson, “divide their time between Washington DC and the Périgord region of France.”

In the Acknowledgments at the end of Fatal Pursuit (2016), Martin Walker states the following:

All the Bruno books are indebted to my friends and neighbors in the Périgord and the lovely landscape they nurture. It has fertile soil, wonderful food, excellent wines, a temperate climate and more history packed into its borders than anywhere else on earth. It is a very special place, filled with enchantments.

The bookstore Politics and Prose is something of an institution in Washington DC. The venue has been favored by numerous author appearances. Martin Walker was there on the occasion of the publication of The Devil’s Cave, fifth entry in the Bruno series:

It’s been a pleasure, but I must fly: A Taste for Vengeance (2018) is waiting on my night table.






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Stay Hidden, a Mike Bowditch mystery by Paul Doiron

August 8, 2018 at 1:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was very impressed by The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in Paul Doiron’s series featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. So were other readers, apparently: the book was a finalist for the 2011 Anthony, Edgar, and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel. It won the Barry Award in that same category.

For whatever reasons – mostly having to do with the”so many books, so little time” mantra – I did not continue with the series until I was lured back by positive reviews to Widowmaker (#5). My reaction: “This guy is only getting better and better!” The next book, Knife Creek, was also excellent. And so, on to number seven, Stay Hidden.

Mike Bowditch has achieved his long-sought goal of becoming a Warden Investigator. But the case he’s investigating – his first in that capacity – is a real puzzler. It takes him to the remote island of Maquoit, off the coast of Maine. A woman has been shot and killed while in the prosaic act of hanging laundry outside her rented home. Ariel Evans was an investigative journalist. More significant, she was an incomer, not native to the island or even to the state. That made her presence on Maquoit suspect, to begin with. At least, that’s how the natives saw things.

Hunting is a major activity on the island, and accidents do happen. Ariel Evans was a stranger who presumably was not well versed in the folkways of the natives. Although she was out of doors during hunting season, she was not wearing blaze orange.

Was this shooting in fact, an accident? Or is there something more to this story? Mike’s brief while on this island is to drill down to the truth. This will not be easy; some of  the long time residents consider him as much of an alien as Ariel Levy was.

One of the pleasures of this novel, as with others in the series, is Paul Doiron’s vivid descriptions. To wit:

Autumn is the season of rot in the Maine woods. Out of the sun and wind, under the scraggly boughs of the apple  trees, the light had an almost-sepia tint. The air was still and the odor of decomposition was strong. The miasma blotted out even the smell of the sea.

I particularly like this sentence:

Past the seawall were the remains of vanished wharfs in the form of pilings rising like a submerged forest from the surface of the sea.

Doiron clearly appreciates the beauty of the Pine Tree State, but at the same time he is clear-eyed and unsentimental. In this passage, he’s out on the water:

I came upon a raftlike float called a lobster car. In a month the island lobstermen would tie up crates to it. But for now it waited. A cormorant surfaced from beneath the raft and confronted me with red eyes. Clamped in its cruel bill was a writhing pollack, which the bird swallowed whole.

Nature red in tooth and claw….

Mike Bowditch is the kind of protagonist you find yourself empathizing with and rooting for. His  dogged efforts in the face thinly disguised and sometimes mean spirited opposition are admirable. His personal life is characterized by thwarted romance. In this, and in other particulars, he reminds me of Martin Walker’s wonderful series featuring Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in St. Denis, a fictional town in the southwest of France.

In an interview in Yankee Magazine from last year, Paul Doiron says this of his background:

Well, I grew up in Maine—my family is from Sanford originally, but I grew up in Scarborough. I come from a family of mill workers, and growing up I had relatives who were working as dishwashers and those sorts of jobs. I was fortunate to have a very different kind of experience. I grew up in a suburb and I went to Cheverus High School in Portland and I got a Jesuit education, and then went to Yale. I’ve always felt as if I am a child of “the two Maines,” as they are often spoken of.

Pine trees on the coast at Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine; photo by John Schinker on Flickr

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‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

August 5, 2018 at 7:42 pm (California, True crime)

  I wasn’t planning to read this book. In fact, I was definitely planning NOT to read this book.

But I read it anyway. I finished it yesterday and have thought of little else ever since. The Golden State Killer – that moniker was bestowed upon him by Michelle McNamara – was an incredibly evil man.

After committing a hundred deliberately messy thefts, he was  dubbed the Visalia Ransacker.   He then embarked on a series of cruel and sadistic sexual assaults in the Sacramento area. Wikipedia estimates the known total of these to be fifty-one. This aggregation of atrocities resulted in his being called the East Area Rapist, or EAR. But there was worse to come.

The attacker wanted “justification” for killing, the psychiatrist said, and it was only time before he found it.

[“Salem man recalls obsessive search for the Golden State Killer,’ in The Statesman Journal]

Twelve murders followed. Twelve known murders, that is. The acronym was expanded to reflect this grim new reality. EAR became EAR/ONS. (The ONS stands for ‘Original Night Stalker;’ this, to differentiate him from Richard Ramirez, who was first dubbed the Night Stalker by the press in the mid 1980s.)

Unfortunately GSK (the Golden State Killer) was as cunning as he was brutal. He managed to avoid capture even when police appeared to be within a hair’s breadth of apprehending him.

This one man crime spree began in 1976 and ended ten years later. No one knows why it ended. Perhaps now that they have a suspect in custody, they will find out. I rather doubt it. The Wikipedia entry provides most of the known particulars. The sheer length of the list of offenses is gasp-inducing. Reading about even a few of them, one is sickened. Why read about it at all?

Here we come to Michelle McNamara. Michelle grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Notre Dame University. She also possessed an advanced degree in creative writing (MFA), attained at the University of Minnesota.  She maintained a  blog called True Crime Diary.
She was especially intrigued by the case of the Golden State Killer. That interest became, by her own admission, an obsession. The obsession, in turn, became a book project.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a painstaking elucidation of a repugnant series of crimes. Michelle McNamara subjected some exceptionally painful scenarios to an unflinching gaze and then tried to draw from that process some useful knowledge about the perpetrator. Although she was able to synthesize and put in order a great deal of information, she was not able to pinpoint his identity. Small wonder. Several law enforcement entities brought all their resources to bear on this stubborn mystery and did not  get any further than Michelle did. The geography alone is challenging, especially for those of us not familiar with the terrain. The map below gives a general idea of where and when the crimes occurred.

Michelle McNamara might have gotten there, or at least gotten closer, eventually. But fate had decreed otherwise. She passed away in her sleep in April of 2016, leaving behind her husband Patton Oswalt and a seven-year-old daughter.

And the book, only partially written.

Once Patton Oswalt had begun to recover from this sudden, awful blow, he made the finishing of Michelle’s book a top priority. Working together, investigative journalist Billy Jensen and crime writer Paul Haynes saw the project through to completion.

The individual accused of the Golden State Killer crimes is Joseph James DeAngelo. He is 72 years old, a Vietnam veteran and a former police officer. At the time of his arrest, he was living in Citrus Heights, not far from the scene of several of his many depredations.

To my eyes, DeAngelo’s visage is frightful to behold. Some photos of the man when young have appeared online; they show him as more or less agreeable looking, in an average sort of way. I choose not to place any of those images here. Instead, I’d like to recall a novel by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of one man’s descent into depravity. In a portrait painted in his youth, Dorian Gray is handsome and appealing, even alluring. His face is smooth and unmarked. In life, it stays that way, even as his his actions become more and more cruel and unforgivable. But the portrait, hidden away in an attic room, tells the real story. And of course, this state of affairs cannot persist indefinitely…

Another classic work of fiction this subject has brought to mind is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Michelle McNamara was an excellent writer; her  style was ideally suited to the subject matter. To wit:

Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily. They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard slinks by.

I love her use of figurative language and  short, punchy sentences. Stylistically it’s like the nonfiction equivalent of noir mystery fiction.

Here’s another passage, with longer sentences, equally effective. It concerns the very crucial question of whether these crimes could be linked to the same perpetrator:

A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.

This excerpt brought to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd:”

“The old man,” I said at length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.

Illustration by NC Mallory of E.A. Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.”


From the blog Madness and Insight

Paul Holes is the cold case investigator who worked with Michelle, up until her death, on the Golden State Killer case. He had  this to say about the experience:

“The ability to learn the case, have insights that many do not have the aptitude for, the persistence, and the fun and engaging personality all wrapped up in one person was amazing. I know she was the only person who could have accomplished what she did in this case starting out as an outsider and  becoming one of us over time. I think this private/public partnership was truly unique in a criminal investigation. Michelle was perfect for it.”

So yes, this was a tough book to get through but at the same time I couldn’t stop reading it. I’m glad all of these facts have been read into the record. The victims and their families deserve to have their ordeals known and acknowledged. The fight for justice has, after all, been very much waged on their behalf. And those criminalists and officers of the law and of the court who have been in the trenches, in some cases for years – Detective Paul Holes, Sergeant Larry Crompton, Detective Richard Shelby, forensic scientist Mary Hong, and numerous others – are owed an enormous debt of gratitude.

Here is Paul Holes on how DNA was used to solve this case::

These words by Elizabeth Bruenig, appearing in today’s Washington Post, are part of a passionate brief opposing the death penalty. Wherever you stand on that issue, I believe that her thoughts on the most basic aspects of human nature are eloquently expressed here; as such they are, I think, a good way to conclude this post:

In the world we encounter evil. Our impulse is to destroy it. But here in the world, good and evil are hopelessly entwined; you contain evil, bring it to account, heal injuries and make restitution for wrongs — but it is impossible to finally destroy all evil without also taking the good with it. This is because good and evil are tangled in the hearts of human beings and cannot be sorted out in this life. And since the goodness in us — the humanity — is worth preserving, we ought not inflict death as a punishment, but rather cling to life, even unto the very last moment of hope.

Michelle Eileen McNamara: April 14,1970-April 21, 2016


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