Best of 2018, Seven: Nonfiction, part five: an unintended omission

January 2, 2019 at 1:20 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, True crime)

  In my recent posts on favorite nonfiction of 2018, I inadvertently omitted The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. The book is subtitled,  the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world. In it, Weinman tells the story of Sally Horner, an eleven-year-old girl from Camden, New Jersey, whose fateful encounter in 1948 with a man calling himself Frank La Salle resulted in a bizarre kidnapping and ensuing captivity that lasted for two years. During this time, Sally and La Salle made their way across the country to California, all the while assuming the roles of daughter and father respectively.

The strange odyssey of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle ended in 1950. The story received a fair amount of media attention. People were understandably intrigued by it. One of those who certainly knew about it was a somewhat eccentric Russian expatriate and butterfly collector. Oh and brilliant novelist. His name was Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov’s succès de scandale, Lolita, appeared in 1955. In her book, Sarah Weinman raises a provocative question:; namely. to what extent was Lolita inspired by the true life misadventure of Sally Horner and her sinister captor?

Vladimir Nabokov’s otherwise scrupulous archive of Lolita-related clippings failed to include anything about Sally Horner because if it had, then the dots would connect with more force, which would upset the carefully constructed myth of Nabokov, the sui generis artist, whose imagination and gifts were far superior to others’. It’s as if he didn’t trust Lolita to stand on its own against the real story of Sally Horner. As a result, Sally’s plight was sanded over, all but forgotten.

But with this provocative and beautifully written book, Sarah Weinman has shone a bright on that story and given it new life.

 

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Best of 2018, Six: Nonfiction, part four – the best of the rest

January 1, 2019 at 11:30 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, France, True crime)

For This Reader, it was a great year for nonfiction.

In history:

 

To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, Ninth Earl Spencer (brother to the late Princess Diana)

A History of France by John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, a terrific – and prolific – historian whom we lost in June of this year.

The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport. A commenter on this blog post said: “Sounds like a fine book about an endlessly fascinating topic.” I certainly find it so. Endlessly fascinating and endlessly tragic.

In current affairs:

 

      Nomadland: Surviving American the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard. This small book consists of the text of two lectures delivered by Mary Beard, a renowned Cambridge classicist, courtesy of  The London Review of Books.

Beard’s book also contains a priceless picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel in matching power suits!

   Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy

In a variety of other areas, hard to pin down:

   The White Darkness by David Grann. The author of Killers of the Flower Moon delivers yet another powerful narrative.

   Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, by Kathryn Hughes

   Ghosts of the Tsunami  by Richard Lloyd Parry. This is a devastating story, told with great sensitivity. Parry is an excellent writer. For an exceptional work of true crime, try People Who Eat Darkness.

In nature:

The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes. I finished it – Yay! Also downloaded it from Amazon and so will have it forever. Mr. Barnes, you have opened a world to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

I can’t resist sharing two more videos of avian nature:

 

(With thanks to Sir David Attenborough)

In Art and Architecture:

How Do We Look: the body, the divine, and the question of civilisation, by Mary Beard. This is a companion volume to the BBC’s Civilisations: From the Ancient to the Modern. (The three DVD’s that comprise this series are owned by the local library.)

True Crime / International Intrigue:

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, by Gilbert King

Blood & Ivy: the 1849 murder that scandalized Harvard, by  Paul Collins

    Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective, by  Margalit Fox.  Fox comes up with an especially well expressed locution when she compares crime writing to doctoring. Both, she says, are rooted in “the art of diagnosis,” an art “…which hinges on the identification, discrimination, and interpretation of barely discernible clues in order to reconstruct an unseen past….”

The Spy and the Traitor: the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: one woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara. Inevitably, the impact of this powerful narrative is augmented by the fact of the untimely passing of its author.  Michelle McNamara did not live to complete this labor. Two researchers, crime writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, performed that task, and did an admirable job. And McNamara’s husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, also deserves credit for assigning the task the highest possible priority. He could have arranged no better memorial for his wife.

An Accident? – or Something Else?

   The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, by Dale Peterson. For those of us who have long admired the work of Jane Goodall, this book provides  a fascinating look at how the research camp she established in Tanzania, East Africa, functioned on a day to day basis in the 1960s. At the same time, Peterson relates the story of a researcher who goes missing. In July of 1969, as part of her research project, Ruth Davis follows a chimpanzee into the forest. She does not return to camp. An investigation follows, with the outcome everyone dreads.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

And of course, there was  this rather specialized publication…handmade by two doting grandparents, with the help of Google Photos:

Some highlights:

Dad and Welles enjoying some quality time

 

Mom, Welles, and Etta making art at the Art Institute

I asked Etta strike a pose appropriately “Gothic.” As you can see, she obliged!

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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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“In Okahumpka, he was known as the boy on the bike.” – Beneath a Ruthless Sun, by Gilbert King

July 1, 2018 at 9:40 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

This is the story of Lake County, Florida, in the mid twentieth century. It is a powder keg of a place where the corrupt law enforcement apparatus was controlled by a ruthless, pitiless sheriff named Willis McCall.

Sheriff Willis McCall, center, with two of his deputies

McCall presides over a process whereby Jesse Daniels, a slow and unworldly nineteen-year-old who spends most of his time bicycling around the tiny town of Okahumpka, is made to take  the blame for the rape of Blanche Knowles, a wife and mother from a socially prominent family. From this basic cast, King’s narrative expands outward to encompass numerous individuals hapless enough to catch the eye of the sheriff, as well as those who fought him any way they could (and there were not many safe ways in which to do this).

Location of Lake County, Florida, in red.

Oh and by the way, I say of Jesse Daniels that he was “made to take the blame’ rather than being convicted because initially, he was never tried. Instead, he was declared insane and sent to the Florida Asylum for the Indigent Insane, now know simply as the Florida State Hospital,  in Chattahoochee. If you’re imagining a place of sheer awfulness right out of a film shocker, you’d  be about right.

As this saga commences, Jesse Daniels was a gentle, loving soul, an only child with devoted parents. He was not insane but rather developmentally disabled. He had committed no criminal act. Yet he spent fourteen years in Chattahoochee.

(Another famous inmate of this notorious institution, also in the 1950s, was Ruby McCollum, whose case was written about so memorably by Zora Neale Hurston.)

Both Blanche Knowles and Jesse Daniels were white. The Knowles family had money and status; the Daniels family had neither. Pearl Daniels had suffered repeated miscarriages before having Jesse. Pearl’s husband Charles, Jesse’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was functionally illiterate and beset with arthritis and other adverse health conditions. He was unable to work.

As I was reading this book, I was experiencing many emotions: astonishment, dismay, and anger were just a few of  them. But reading about Pearl Daniels evoked feelings of almost unbearable sadness. Here was a woman for whom almost nothing in life had gone smoothly, who possessed so  little of material value. But the one thing she did prize above all else was her son Jesse.

Pearl Daniels and her son Jesse

Pearl never stopped fighting for Jesse. And in this fight she was aided and supported by a most extraordinary woman. At the time she enters this story, Mabel Norris Reese, later Chesley, was the editor of a small weekly newspaper, the Mount Dora Topic. (Her husband Paul Reese had bought the paper in 1947.) From the start, Reese was relentless in her effort to free Jesse Daniels. By means of her fiery editorials, she went after Sheriff McCall and the corrupt minions who carried out his orders. (A historian of the paper refers to one of them as “McCall’s right-hand thug.”) She was treading in dangerous territory. Her dog was poisoned. She received death threats. Her house was firebombed. Nothing stopped her.

Reading her editorials on microfilm at the library in Eustis, I didn’t know what was odder, Reese’s willingness to take on a fight no one else cared to get into, or that her struggle with such a venomous foe was wedged it inbetween innumerable reports on the everyday — city council meetings, oak tree plantings, bass fishing, library events, shuffleboard results, Easter services, rosy copy about the city’s fine weather (intended to lure the northern visitor), prep sports, performances the local theater, election politics, engagement announcements, “East Town News” (goings-on in the city’s black neighborhood), car crashes and farm reports. She reported on it all, sold all the ads, too. She didn’t quit her day-job obligation to cover her community while at the same time challenging it to live up to the highest standards.

From A History of Mount Dora’s News (2), by David Cohea

Eventually, because of financial strain and the danger of their position in the town, it became impossible for Mabel and Paul Reese to continue to put out the Mount Dora Topic. The marriage cracked under the strain. Mabel remarried, moved to Daytona Beach, and joined the staff of the Daytona Beach News. Her efforts to seek justice continued. She died in 1995, at the age of 80.

Mabel Norris Reese

Woven around the story of Jesse Daniels are numerous other crime narratives, most involving African Americans. They are painful to read. The depth of the racist sentiment is simply appalling. It was exacerbated by the changes being wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. The subtitle of  this book is ‘A True Story of  Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.’ Found, that is, if you believe that justice delayed – in Jesse Daniels’s case long delayed – is still justice.

My heart ached as I read this book. At the same time I was mesmerized by it. I had to keep reminding myself of the quotation from Martin Luther King:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(For an interesting backgrounder on this quote, click here.)

Beneath a Ruthless Sun was preceded by Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Published in 2012, this book tells the story of four young black men accused of raping a white woman in Lake County Florida, in 1949. Thurgood Marshall was their defending attorney. Beneath a Ruthless Sun is in a sense a follow-up to that first narrative. Gilbert King refers to the events told therein several times. While it’s not necessary to have read Devil in the Grove first, I rather wish that I had.

Devil in the Grove won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2013. I’d love to see Beneath a Ruthless Son receive a similar accolade.

[My family lived in Miami Beach, Florida, from 1953 to 1962, when I went north to college. Miami Beach was an oddly insular community, largely composed of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia, their children – such as my parents – and their grandchildren – such as my brothers and myself. If there was any awareness of what was going on in Lake County, it was not, to the best of my recollection, communicated to us children.]

In 2007, Willis McCall’s son Douglas said of his father: “He was a son of the old South,” adding that “He was investigated more times than the Kennedy assassination and they never found anything.” Oh, but there was plenty to find, if one only knew where to look (and then how to impanel an impartial jury to hear the  evidence and judge accordingly).

 

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‘An act that becomes its own purifying absolution….’ – American Fire by Monica Hesse

August 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  It started in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in November of 2012. It went on  for the next five months: the burning down of random empty buildings. The county had an abundant stock of such structures, and someone was apparently determined to take a torch to every one of them.

By some miracle, no one was killed, or even hurt, during this pyromaniacal rampage. But the effort to catch the perpetrator strained law enforcement to the breaking point. Firefighters in particular were hard hit and utterly exhausted. Still, the effort put forth during this siege was enormous and unstinting.

Whispering Pines, a once flourishing motel/resort, had been sitting empty before being set ablaze.

One tactic involved staking out buildings that were deemed to be likely targets. All sorts of electronic surveillance devices, especially motion sensitive cameras, were deployed. Agents of law enforcement huddled in tents at night, some distance – but not too far – from the focus of incendiary temptation.

Sure enough, five months into the investigation, this was the set-up that suddenly broke the case wide open.

Monica Hesse has done a prodigious amount of research in order to bring this stranger-than-fiction tale to life. In addition, she introduces us to a varied cast of characters who live and work – at least occasionally – in the insular community that is Accomack. Some are strong and purposeful; others are quirky drifters. And one, Charlie Smith, is – well, you need to read  the book to make your own assessment of Charlie.

Including notes, American Fire is 255 pages long; the experience of reading of it is propulsive. I put pretty much everything else aside as I raced though this narrative. If you’re looking for a page turner, this is it.

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‘…unbefriended men with long-simmering rage and elaborate plans for revenge.’ – Incendiary by Michael Cannell

May 3, 2017 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, New York City, True crime)

   New York’s so called Mad Bomber was just such a man. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, he terrified the city with homemade explosive devices. He placed them in movie theaters,  train stations, phone booths, and rest rooms. All anyone knew about him was that he held a powerful grudge against Con Edison.

For sixteen years, the New York City Police pursued this wraith, with no results. Finally, in desperation, they consulted Dr. James Brussel.

An assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, his day job  was supervising the treatment of more than six thousand anguished souls at Creedmoor and other public asylums in and around New York City.

In addition to his responsibilities to the city, Dr. Brussel also saw private patients.

The question the police had for him was this: From the brief, handwritten correspondence provided by the Bomber, in addition to his actions and methods, could this distinguished psychiatrist venture any conclusions as to who this cunning and elusive person might be?

He could. And did. Hence, the book’s subtitle: The Psychiatrist, The Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

In Incendiary, Michael Cannell does a first class of job of reporting, particularly on the reporters themselves. He brings the world of the mid- century newsroom to vivid life. You can almost hear the noisy clattering of the typewriters and smell the tobacco smoke that suffused these places. In fact, the city itself, in that era, springs vividly to life. (As one who spent a fair amount of time in Gotham in the early sixties, this portrait really resonated.)

Standing on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Broadway, F.P. [as the bomber was known at first] could see the full neon honky-tonk shine of Times Square pulsating above him. Camel cigarettes. Admiral appliances. Chevrolet. The billboards glimmered and blinked with the wattage of a thousand light bulbs, as if to compensate for the gloom of a dying afternoon.

As I was reading this book, I found that George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, especially the adagio (middle movement) kept resonating in the back of my mind. And in my mind’s eye I kept seeing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

 

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

April 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

 I experienced the usual angst in preparing to lead a discussion of  The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale. Well, perhaps more than the usual angst.

I sang the praises of this book in a post I wrote last year. I’ve recently reread it –  the book I mean, not the post –  and the effect was the same as it was the first time: riveting and  deeply unsettling.

But because of the upcoming discussion, I was having a slightly different reading experience. (This is rather inevitable.) In addition to my admiration for the author’s terrific writing and prodigious research, I was feeling perplexed. Just how was I to organize this brilliant but somewhat oddly shaped narrative?

I struggled. I wrangled. Eventually I reached the point where, as my husband is fond of saying. you stick a fork in it and pronounce it done. I reached that point about an hour before show time.

So: Here, in part, is how it went:

I began with a passage from the Stratford Express, a local newspaper  widely read at the time that the crime took place (1895). The reporter, as you will see, does not mince words, referring to the murder as “…the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.” It goes on:

In the wildest dreams of fiction, nothing has ever  been depicted which equals in loathsomeness this story of sons playing at cards in a room which the dead body of their murdered mother filled with the stench of corruption.

Upon my second reading of The Wicked Boy, this passage put me in mind of a work which, although written more than four hundred years ago, remains probably the most harrowing depiction of the effect of murder upon the perpetrators that was ever recorded.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
It is Act Two, Scene One of Macbeth, in which the eponymous protagonist anticipates the terrible crime he is about to commit.

And afterwards, oh, afterwards…He tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. He is nearly incoherent from the horror of it. For some moments, the known world is held in some kind of awful suspension, until a knocking at the gate is heard, a knocking that perversely prefigures a scene of comic relief featuring a porter too drunk to do his job.Thomas De Quincey describes  this unholy sequence of events brilliantly in his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:”

Here … the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires…. In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

This critique is followed by an apostrophe to the greatness of Shakespeare that begins, “O, mighty poet!” Indeed, but be assured, Mr. De Quincey, thou art no slouch thyself in the eloquence department!

(I am at present reading a fascinating biography of Thomas De Quincey: The Opium Eater, by Grevel Lindop.)

After giving a brief backgrounder on Kate Summerscale – necessarily brief, as  there’s not much material about her personal life out there, at least not that I could find – I focused on the three books she authored before The Wicked Boy:

I’ve not read The Queen of Whale Cay, but it sounds interesting. “Joe” Carstairs was apparently a rather unique character, in more than one way. I read and very much enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Neither of these two works was in the true crime genre, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher certainly was. I led a discussion on that title back in 2009. What a rich concoction of a tale that is! It was Summerscale’s breakthrough book, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. (This has since been renamed The Baillie Gifford Prize. Presumably the British penchant for renaming literary awards is meant to keep us book lovers awake and alert.) In 2010, she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (which appears to retain that name as of this writing.)

All Summerscale’s books save the first one take place – or, as in the case of The Wicked Boy, have their beginnings – in the Victorian era. In an interview in the Independent, quoted in the September/October 2016 issue of Bookmarks Magazine, she enlarges on her attraction to that particular time in history:

…it feels far enough away to be gripping, like a mystery or an adventure, but near enough to also recognise…..It’s strange on the surface, but you can get it. My sense of what we’re like as English people–the idea of the Englishness I inhabit–I have a sense of it being forged [then].

The subject matter of The Wicked Boy is grim enough. The murdered mother alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this post was done to  death by her own son. His name was Robert Coombes. At the time of the murder he was thirteen years old. What made the crime appear even more appalling – then as now – was the fact that once it had been done, Robert, his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, and a somewhat simple minded  adult companion named John Fox, whom Robert recruited for various purposes, not only played cards, but also attended cricket matches and amused themselves in various other ways as if they hadn’t a care in the world. (Their father, a merchant seaman, was away from home.)

What was their ultimate plan? There didn’t seem to be one, except to make the most of this hard won freedom for as long as they could. In ten days, the gig was up. When asked, Robert came clean and took the rap.

An even more pressing question involved Robert’s motive. Although he readily admitted to stabbing his mother, he didn’t supply a motive that seemed commensurate with the crime. Their mother thrashed Nattie for stealing food, presumably from their own larder. Adolescent boys develop powerful appetites, and Emily Coombes might not have been making allowances for this. At least one reviewer I encountered felt that this denial of needed nourishment might have been enough to trigger the killing. Neither of the boys was undernourished, though it’s worth noting that neither attained much height in adulthood. Nattie in particular was not much more than five feet tall.

One theory frequently offered was that Robert had fallen prey to the malign influence exerted by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ that he read compulsively. As defined by Wikipedia, these were “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” (America had its own similarly flourishing industry; they were called “dime novels” here.) Summerscale provides an interesting context for this phenomenon:

Between 1870 and 1885, the number of children at elementary schools trebled, and by 1892 four and a half million children were being educated in the board schools. The new wave of literate boys sought out penny fiction as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum….Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

Sound familiar? A reviewer in The Guardian called penny dreadfuls “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”

I went off on a lengthy quest to find one of these, or at least a facsimile thereof. This American equivalent, published in 1903, is what I finally came up with, courtesy of eBay:

 Front and back covers

 

Inside front cover

Proclaiming the entries in this series to be “excellent books of generous length,” the editor goes on to offer this assurance: “One of the best features about these books is that they are all of the highest moral tone, containing nothing that could be objectionable to the most particular parents.”

Our group went on to discuss the types of emotional and mental disturbances that might have affected Robert. (Thank you, Frank, for your enlightening and professionally informed comments on this subject.) Ultimately Robert was adjudged guilty but insane. John Fox was not made to  stand trial. Nattie testified against his brother – he was “flipped,” as they in contemporary police dramas – and was granted immunity.

And Robert was sent off to a rather extraordinary institution called Broadmoor, originally opened in 1863. Under the enlightened regime in place there, he reached a more or less normal and potentially productive adulthood. He learned a marketable skill – tailoring, played in the band, something he loved to do and was good at, and participated in various sports.

In 1912, at age 30, he was released from Broadmoor and went to live at another interesting residential facility, The Salvation Army Farm Colony at Hadleigh, in Essex. Both Broadmoor and the Salvation Army facility are still in existence. The latter, in fact, has been repurposed  in a way that truly give one hope for the future.

Robert only stayed a year at the Hadleigh colony before emigrating to Australia. At that point in Kate Summerscale’s research, she nearly lost the plot. She was afraid that Robert Coombes might have changed his name. He hadn’t. She  picked up the thread once again when a Google search led her to a database of headstones in Australian cemeteries. Click here for the listing. And here is the inscribed memorial:

So: there was a record of Robert’s military service; in addition, an unknown name of one for whom he had apparently done a good turn. She could pick up her research from that point. And she did. Robert’s life in Australia – including Army service in foreign parts on behalf of his adopted country – occupies the second half of The Wicked Boy. It is a virtually unbroken chronicle of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, freely offered with no expectation of any kind of return.

And so, at the end of this sad and tragic narrative, one question looms over all. At first, I phrased the query in terms of atonement or redemption. Frank however felt that the real question was whether, over the course of his life, Robert Coombes had changed in a fundamental way. But that begs the question as to what exactly was the make-up of his nature on that fateful day in 1895?  And anyway,  a 13-year-old is a half formed thing. Anyone would change from that point in time up until he or she reached adulthood. Of course, most 13-year-olds, whatever the conflicts with their parents, do not up and kill one of them out of spite, frustration – or whatever it was. Was there a deadness in Robert’s heart where at least some degree of regard for his mother should have reposed? Frank thought there was.

One of the things that those attempting to adjudicate Robert’s case had to grapple with was the fact that at the time he committed the crime, he was no longer really a child but not yet an adult. The identification of adolescence as a distinct stage of development was only just then gaining acceptance in the literature of psychology and child rearing. (Wikipedia has an interesting post on the subject.)

In talking this over with my husband, he pointed out that a person who atones or genuinely repents a past act has by definition changed from what he or she was when the act was first committed.

At any rate, in this case of Robert Coombes, these questions must remain at least to some extent speculative. Summerscale not only did not unearth a journal or diary of any kind, she did not even find any letters. We can only judge him by his outward actions. And in his adult life, those belonged to a human being who was almost desperately striving toward goodness.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly. Kate Summerscale was asked whether she was concerned about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer. This was her response:

No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.

The Wicked Boy has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book of 2017 by the Mystery Writers of America. Winners will be announced later this month.

Robert Coombes in the late 1930s or early 1940s

 

 

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Best Reading in 2016: Nonfiction, part one: true crime

December 12, 2016 at 1:55 pm (Best of 2016, books, True crime)

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978159420781

Okay, here goes:

I had a great reading year in nonfiction; in fact, it’s probably accurate to say that this is where most of my 2016 reading joy resided.

The true crime subgenre came through for me  as it almost always  does. In The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth tells the harrowing story of a serial killer, all the while bringing late nineteenth Texas history vividly to life. Hollandsworth writes for Texas Monthly Magazine, which has for some time featured exceptional true crime reportage.

True Crime Addict differs from most books in this genre that I’ve heretofore read in that journalist James Renner’s obsession with the case of  young woman’s baffling disappearance results in his personal life becoming hopelessly entangled in the investigation.

In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale once again proves herself a master of the true crime narrative. As with the award-winning Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), meticulous research combined with a compelling story results in yet another outstanding book. There are more questions than answers in The Wicked Boy, and there is one questions that, when all is said and done,  hangs over this whole affair of a misbegotten son and his fatally impulsive act: one of the profoundest questions we humans can ask of ourselves, or of one another.

In 2009, I chose The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to present to the Usual Suspects. In April of next year, I’ll be doing the same with The Wicked Boy. (I recommend Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, also by Kate Summerscale. Not exactly true crime, but the book provides a fascinating window onto the mores of Victorian Britain.) mrs-robinsonsdisgrace1

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Kate Summerscale

James Renner

James Renner

Skip Hollandsworth

Skip Hollandsworth

 

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‘It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.’ – The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

August 17, 2016 at 10:47 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

9781594205781     Matricide. It is certainly one of the most loathed and loathsome crimes imaginable. Surely the killer would have to be irredeemably evil.

And yet…. In July of 1895, in a house in Plaistow, “a poor but respectable working-class  district in the borough of West Ham” in East London, Robert Coombes, age 13, stabbed his mother Emily to death as she lay in her bed.

He then closed and locked her bedroom door.

Robert had a brother a year younger than himself. He was called Nattie. Their father, a seaman bound for New York, had no idea of the horror awaiting him back home.

Acquiring funds any way they could, Robert and Nattie proceeded to live large. When friends and family asked after their mother, they invented various excuses for her absence. Aside from running around town and generally enjoying themselves, especially when watching cricket test matches  at Lord’s, Robert and Nattie spent time at home playing cards with their friend John Fox, a man in his mid-forties of apparently limited intellect.

Meanwhile, a noxious odor had begun to emanate from the upper floor. It was beginning to pervade the entire house and could even  be detected from the outside. Robert and Nattie’s excuses began to wear thin. They were even barring the door to their mother’s friends and her sister-in-law, also named Emily. Soon the latter would brook no further obstruction. She and her friend Mary Jane Burrage forced their way into the house as Nattie fled out  the back. Once again, Aunt Emily demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert and Nattie’s mother. Robert claimed that she was in Liverpool. Mrs Burrage was having none of it. She stated bluntly: “‘Your mother is lying dead in that room upstairs.” With Robert still denying, she and Aunt Emily went up and gained entry to the bedroom.

Although they could not see only mounded up sheets and pillows, the stench was overwhelming. They backed out of the room and sent for the police. When PC Twort finally arrived and removed the coverings, he was greeted by a gruesome sight: a woman’s dead body, already undergoing putrefaction and crawling with maggots.

Nattie and Robert Coombes were arrested, as was their friend John Fox. Fox was soon discharged; charges against Nattie were withdrawn on condition that he testify against his brother. This he did.

Both the public and the press the followed the legal proceedings avidly, while all the time condemning the appalling nature of the crime. From a local paper called the Stratford Express:

“The ‘Plaistow Horror’ is a story which must depress all who are longing for the improvement of mankind. It will pain public feeling to an extent which has rarely been equalled . It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”

The only way that Robert Coombes could escape the death penalty – his youth was no bar to it – was if he were found to be insane. In due course, this judgment was handed down. Robert was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.

Broadmoar Asylum Terrace in 1885

Broadmoor Asylum Terrace in 1885

Upon its founding in 1863, the facility’s official name was The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In the late 1890s, as per Summerscale’s fascinating description, it was operated in a remarkably humane manor. In addition, the grounds were bucolic and offered appealing views to all who dwelt therein.

It was as idyllic a prospect as a city boy like Robert had ever seen. In this pastoral setting the inmates of Broadmoor were returned to a kind of innocence: they were stripped of their freedoms and responsibilities, rendered as powerless and unencumbered as children. In Broadmoor they were unlikely to be reproached for their crimes. They entered a suspended  existence, with little reference to the past or the future, a strange corollary to the dissociated, dreamlike state that often attended psychosis. The asylum was both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle. The spell by which the patients were bound within its walls could be lifted only at the behest of the queen.

(I am deeply grateful that there are still among us people who have such a marvelous command of the language.)

Having lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years, Robert was discharged in 1912.. He was thirty years old. In January of 1914 he set sail for Australia. (Nattie, who had become a seaman like their father. had also emigrated.) Once there, Robert set about creating a new life for himself as a farmer. But the outbreak of war intervened.

In August of 1914, Robert joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He had already had experience playing in brass bands in England, specifically at Broadmoor; he took on that role with his mates in the battalion. He was also trained as a stretcher bearer; his task, along with his fellow bearers,  was to rescue the wounded from the battlefield and bring them to a place behind the lines where they could be treated in relative safety. His ability to perform this task effectively would be tested to the limit when, in April of 1915, his battalion set off for Gallipoli, “a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey.” (Smithsonian Magazine)

I’d heard of this battle and seen the 1981 film Gallipoli. I didn’t remember much about it. Possibly I repressed the memory.  I knew that words such as carnage and slaughter were frequently used to describe the battle. All I can say is that Kate Summerscale’s description of what actually happened there was so harrowing that I had to fight my way through it. If  there was ever a Hell on Earth, Gallipoli was it.

An Australian soldier lies wounded in the foreground, as hundreds of other soldiers move among the dead and wounded on the beach at Anzac Cove on the day of the landing. The soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands are tending to the wounded. Boxes of equipment are stacked among the men and the beach is also littered with discarded personal equipment. This scene is looking along the beach to the north. Photograph by Charles Atkins. [AWM PS1659]

An Australian soldier lies wounded in the foreground, as hundreds of other soldiers move among the dead and wounded on the beach at Anzac Cove on the day of the landing. The soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands are tending to the wounded. Boxes of equipment are stacked among the men and the beach is also littered with discarded personal equipment. This scene is looking along the beach to the north. Photograph by Charles Atkins. [AWM PS1659] From the site Gallipoli and the Anzacs

As for Robert, his performance as stretcher bearer under  these extreme conditions was exemplary. He managed to survive the experience, an achievement in itself. He was directly or indirectly responsible for saving numerous lives, and was awarded several medals, richly deserved by all reports.

Robert Coombes, in the late 1960s or early 1940s

Robert Coombes, in the late 1960s or early 1940s

The above summary of Kate Summerscale’s narrative is cursory in the extreme. She not only covers the trial of Robert Coombes in fascinating detail, but she also pulls back from his story to provide a wider  context for the reader. She’s especially good at conveying the mindset of the people who lived at the turn of the century, both in England and Australia.

As this book approached its conclusion, I began to appreciate its true heft. For me, The Wicked Boy addresses a most profound issue; namely, can a person live his or her in such a way as to expiate a “primal eldest” sin? It is a matter that only the individual reader and thinker can decide. But Kate Summerscale has given us the perfect case study with which to ponder the question.

A mesmerizing read; a terrific book.

Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale

 

 

 

 

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Crime fiction – and fact – in the New York Times

August 11, 2016 at 1:37 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

A special issue of the July 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review – “Summer Thrills” –  was fairly bursting with great suggestions for us crime fiction fans. And there was even a two page spread allotted to true crime! The writer was none other than the paper’s long time mystery reviewer (and taste maker for many of us), Marilyn Stasio.

Before plunging into specifics, Stasio admits that “…true crime unnerves me. It’s so…real.” Well of course it is! (I found this confession rather endearing.) But plunge ahead she does, to the tune of six different titles. There’s a nice variety here: contemporary, historical, a visit to the morgue, obsession with a rare tropical fish (the Asian arowana), etc.

51ZtPrT2OHL  I’ve read two of the six: True Crime Addict and The Wicked Boy. In a way, they represent the extremes of true crime writing. In the first, journalist James Renner recounts his obsessive search for Maura Murray. On February 9 2004, while standing beside her disabled vehicle in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Murray went missing. Between the time she was spotted by a passerby who offered to help, and seven minutes later when the police arrived, she had disappeared. Just like that. One minute she was there; the next, she was gone.

Maura Murray in 2003

Maura Murray in 2003

She has not been seen or heard from since.

Renner’s determination to solve this mystery is impressive. He conducted many interviews, reviewed a great deal of evidence, and in general worked tirelessly. This is an unusual true crime narrative, though, in the sense that the writer/investigator keeps getting in his own way. There’s a definite manic aspect to this quest that seems to take root in an already volatile personality. It probably didn’t help that after taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, he was informed by the psychologist that “‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.'”

After this bomb is dropped, Renner comments: “That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.” (It turns out that hard charging individuals such as law enforcement officers and CEO’s tend to score in a similar range.)

Sometimes the prose gets a bit ragged around the edges, but the book is never dull. In fact, there are times when Renner’s observations are striking. At one point, he hikes an area near where Maura disappeared. It’s treacherous going, and icy to boot. When he finally gets back to his vehicle, he’s tearful, exhausted, and drenched in sweat.

We forget how dangerous nature can be. We want to forget, I think. We don’t want to be reminded that nature is more deadly than man. Man can be cruel, but nature is indifferent. It is the unrivaled psychopath.

Throughout this book, the author veers from intense concentration on the task at hand to a self-absorption that’s almost as intense. He’s married with children; they must perforce go along with him on this wild ride. (The term I’d use to describe his wife Julie is ‘long suffering.’) Renner’s taking – or not taking – the drug Cymbalta is a thread that runs through this story. He’s grateful for the calming affect it has on him. On the other hand: “…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.” At one point, he gives himself over to it in court and as a result, lands in jail.

James Renner

James Renner

I actually had trouble putting this book down. I might even read it again.
*****************************

9781594205781 Kate Summerscale is the author of the terrific Victorian true crime narrative, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). In my view, The Wicked Boy is just as good, perhaps even better. It deserves a review of its own, and will get it in this space, soon.

 

 

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