‘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.  My husband, ever the helpful and resourceful onsite IT guy, put the two together for me:

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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)

978080509672  51ztprt2ol

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

avt_kate-summerscale_3112

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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Terror in Texas: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth

July 6, 2016 at 12:04 am (Book review, books, History, True crime)

9780805097672  He was  called by many names.

The Midnight Assassin was one. The Austin Axe Murderer was another. The Servant Girl Annihilator, a coinage  from the pen of William Sydney Porter, was yet another. (Porter, who was living in Austin at the time of the murders, later moved to New York City and eventually gained fame for his “twist at  the end” short stories, written under the pseudonym O. Henry.)

The basic facts are these: Between December of 1884 and December of 1885 eight people were brutally murdered with an axe, or axes, in the dead of night, in Austin Texas. Five of the victims were African-American woman who worked as servants in the homes of Austin’s well off denizens. In the course of one of the attacks, a male servant was also slain, most likely because he was in the perpetrator’s way. The final two killings were of white women; these both took place on Christmas Eve of 1885.

discover-the-chilling-tale-of-the-midnight-assassin-america-s-first-ever-serial-killer-s-921711

There are several striking aspects to these murders. To begin with, they were excessively cruel and brutal. The first thing that happens as you read about each one is that your sympathies are engaged in the extreme for these hapless and totally innocent victims. Then there are additional factors to  ponder. After committing each depredation, the killer vanished so quickly that no one ever got a good look at him. No motive was ever clearly discerned, except for possibly a kind of generalized misogyny. He struck erratically and unpredictably and proved virtually impossible to guard against. Police and city officials were helpless in the face of this rampage. The eerie elusiveness, not to mention viciousness, of the killer gave rise to speculation that he was not merely human:

A reporter for the Fort Worth Gazette actually suggested that Austin was being terrorized by a real-life version Frankenstein’s monster, the  hideous yellow-eyed creature created by Mary Shelley in her 1823 novel.

Yet in the midst of all this awfulness, life went on, as it must and does. In the 1880s, Austin was a striving city. A new state Capitol building was nearing completion; the newly established University of Texas had opened its doors earlier in the decade. Especially interesting is the picture Hollandsworth paints of the lives of the city’s inhabitants. In the late nineteenth century, Austin was indeed a busy and prosperous place. From the saloons and so-called “houses of assignation” to Millett’s Opera House, there was plenty of entertainment (of various kinds) on offer. And although the races occupied separate social spheres, with the majority of African Americans relegated to the servant class, there was little overt enmity between them. The first six murders were in no way considered to be of lesser import because of the race of the victims. (That said, in Hollandsworth’s telling, certain among Austin’s white citizens held benighted and repugnant beliefs regarding the African American populace of their city – of any city, for that matter.)

According to the New York Times, there were over four hundred arrests of both African American and white men during the course of the investigation into these crimes. Only one conviction resulted – that of Jimmy Phillips, husband of one of the white victims –  and that was later vacated. As suddenly as the killings had begun, they stopped. The perpetrator was never found.

Three years later, in London in 1888, the serial murder of prostitutes began. At least five are thought to have been done by the same man. The murders were savage, the killer elusive. Although he too was never found, the sobriquet by which he is known has echoed down though history to the present day: Jack the Ripper.

The case of the Texas Servant Girl Murders was featured on a segment of the PBS series The History Detectives. Among those interviewed by the investigators are Harold Schechter, whose anthology I used as the basis for the true crime class I taught last year, and Steven Saylor. Saylor writes a wonderful series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. From time to time, though, he takes on a different subject. This he did in his year 2000 novel A Twist at the End, which is partly set in Austin Texas and includes a retrospective examination of the Midnight Assassin and his dark doings by the above mentioned William Sydney Porter. 102725  I’ve not yet read it, but the Hollandsworth book (plus my high regard for this author) has made me eager to do so.

We are as fascinated by what we do not know as by what we do know. Indeed, in many ways, the rampage of the Midnight Assassin is the perfect crime story–a rip-roaring whodunit of murder, madness, and scandal, replete with the sorts of twists and shocks that give a page-turner its good name.

Except there is one catch. There is no dramatic last-act revelation, no drum-roll finale. Everything ends up precisely where it started, in a gray limbo of unknowing. The trail of clues  just stops, like bewildered bloodhounds baying in the night.

Skip Hollandsworth

Skip Hollandsworth

 

 

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The enduring fascination with true crime

February 15, 2016 at 6:38 pm (books, Crime, Mystery fiction, True crime)

I’ve written a great deal on true crime in the past year, and it was my intention to stay away from  the subject for a while – really! – but I wanted to write about the presentation I made for my AAUW branch this past Saturday. It was entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” This was a rather outrageous attempt on my part to condense twelve hours of instructional material –  assembled for the course I taught last year –  into a fifty-minute program of  book talks interspersed with other items of interest.

First, I introduced the book I’d chosen as my text for the course: truecrimes. (This book was published by the Library of America in 2008.)

I then spoke of some of the more intriguing aspects of true crime:

1. The influence of actual crimes on crime fiction (see the post Further Adventures in True Crime for more on this.)
2.    Crimes that resonate down through the years
3.    Writers whose lives have been personally impacted by crime:

Celia Thaxter

James Ellroy

James Ellroy

Ann Rule

Ann Rule

Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne

4.   Murders that have never been solved:

Andrew and Abby Borden

Andrew and Abby Borden

Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia

Geneva Hilliker Ellroy

Geneva Hilliker Ellroy

5.    The emergence of the subgenre of historical true crime:

blood_royal_a_true_detective_tale_set_in_medieval_paris_by_eric_jager_m11

 

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In “The Trial of Guiteau,” Jose Marti describes President James A. Garfield’s assassin thus:

Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure. He resembles nothing so much as a wild pig: he has the gleaming eyes, full of hatred, the thick, bristling hair, the same way of charging to  the attack, taking fright, running away. It would be impossible to imagine him any uglier than he is–he is a fantastical creature out of the tales of Hoffmann.

included in the Schechter anthology (course text cited above)

Charles Guiteau

Charles Guiteau

American Experience on PBS recently featured Murder of a President, based on Candice Millard’s book.
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Finally, there is the question of why we are fascinated by true crime. Or, as Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough Community College rather plaintively asks: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”

Professor Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: Twentieth Century Murder and American Popular Culture, offers some interesting insight on this question. I like her simple and forthright summation:

A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth

After reading briefly from William Bradford’s “The Hanging of John Billington” (1651), I proceeded to Celia Thaxter and “A Memorable Murder.” I was amazed never to have heard of this terrible crime, the murder of two innocent young women, part of a group of five Norwegian immigrants living  on Smuttynose Island, one of The Isles of Shoals,  a group of islands located off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. In 1873, when the Smuttynose murders occurred, Celia Thaxter was living on nearby Appledore Island. She knew the victims, as well as the alleged perpetrator, Louis Wagner. Here she depicts him making his way to Smuttynose from the mainland:

A terrible piece of rowing must that have been, in one night! Twelve miles from the city to the Shoals,– three to the light-houses, where the river meets the open sea, nine more to the islands; nine back again to Newcastle next morning! He took that boat, and with the favoring tide dropped down the rapid river where the swift current is so strong that oars are scarcely needed, except to keep the boat steady. Truly all nature seemed to play into his hands; this first relenting night of earliest spring favored him with its stillness, the tide was fair, the wind was fair, the little moon gave him just enough light, without betraying him to any curious eyes, as he glided down the three miles between the river banks, in haste to reach the sea. Doubtless the light west wind played about him as delicately as if he had been the most human of God’s creatures; nothing breathed remonstrance in his ear, nothing whispered in the whispering water that rippled about his inexorable keel, steering straight for the Shoals through the quiet darkness.

I also wanted to cover the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette – again alleged, but almost certainly he was the cause of her death, as  they were out rowing on a lonely lake in upstate New York in 1906. (More rowing, strangely – at this point, I am thinking of the poetry collection by Anne Sexton entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God. Alas – as Celia Thaxter would say – these rowings were going in a quite different direction.)

Chester Gillette and Grace Brown

Chester Gillette and Grace Brown

Twenty years later, Theodore Dreiser made the murder of Grace Brown the centerpiece of his monumental novel An American Tragedy. As a result of my involvement with this subject, I finally read this book. Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.

This crime is also depicted in a 1951 movie of excruciating tension and uncommon beauty: A Place in the Sun starred an impossibly good looking Montgomery Clift, an equally impossibly beautiful nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters as the hapless victim in this classic love triangle.

PlaceinSun

An operatic version of An American Tragedy by American composer Tobias Picker was premiered in New York City in 2005:

I wanted to be sure to touch on story of the murder of white physician Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr. by Ruby McCollum, a comfortably off African American housewife. The killing, which took place in Florida in 1952, was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier. As fascinating and strange as this case was, I found the life and work of Hurston even more fascinating. Raised in poverty in Florida, she left her family  home at the age of fourteen and worked her way north. After a fruitful stop in the Washington area – she attended Morgan Academy, later Morgan State, and Howard University – she made it to New York City.

Encouraged by novelist Fanny Hurst, who had employed her as an assistant, Hurston attended Barnard College on a scholarship. She completed a BA degree in anthropology in 1928. She was 37 years old and had been the only African-American student on campus.

Hurston went on to do some graduate work at Columbia with the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas. He it was who urged her to return to Florida and collect the folk tales that she’d heard growing up there. Reflecting later on this directive, she wrote:

I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.

Obscure and impoverished, Zora Neale Hurston died in Florida in 1960. Inspired by her example, author Alice Walker made it her mission to resurrect Hurston’s life and work. With some difficulty, she located Zora’s final resting place and caused this headstone to be placed there:

stonel

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

At this point, I was running out of time – and breath! – so I did several rapid fire book talks on titles drawn from this handout which I’d prepared:

POSTWAR CLASSICS OF THE TRUE CRIME GENRE

Topcrime

POSSIBLE FUTURE CLASSICS OF THE GENRE

  1. DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: a tale of medicine, madness and the murder of a president, by Candice Millard
  2. BLOOD ROYAL: a true tale of crime and detection in medieval Paris, by Eric Jager
  3. THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: the story of a murder trial, by Helen Garner (Australian)
  4. GHETTOSIDE: a true story of murder in America, by Jill Leovy
  5. WITCHES: SALEM, 1692, by Tracy Schiff
  6. MURDER BY CANDLELIGHT: The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, by Michael Knox Beran
  7. MY DARK PLACES: An L.A. Crime Memoir, by James Ellroy
  8. JUSTICE: Trials, Crimes, and Punishments, by Dominick Dunne
  9. THE GOOD NURSE: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber
  10. THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York, by Deborah Blum
  11. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, by Geoffrey O’Brien
  12. SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective, by Kate Summerscale (British)

Nomination for pre-war classic:

GANGS OF NEW YORK: an informal history of the underworld, by Herbert Asbury
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As much as Thoreau, [Thomas] De Quincey believed that there is “a chasm between knowledge and ignorance which the arches of science can never span.” The same conclusion was reached by the physicist Max Planck. Having devoted, he said, “his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter,” he concluded that science “cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” The solution to the ultimate mystery of evil is perhaps no less elusive.

Murder by Candlelight, Thomas Knox Beran

*********************************                                                                                                                                                       

‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’

Thomas De Quincey, On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts

[End of handout]
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I’m glad I had the chance to talk about James Ellroy’s  quest  for his mother’s killer. I find Ellroy’s fiction nearly impossible to read – short, staccato sentences and lots of profanity – but My Dark Places was extremely poignant and moving.

An apostrophe to his mother prefaces this memoir:

A cheap Saturday night took you down. You dies stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear.
   Your run to safety was a brief reprieve. You brought me into hiding as your good-luck charm. I failed you as a talisman–so I stand now as your witness.
   Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.
   I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down  the distance between us.
   I want to give you breath.

And in a sense, by writing this, he is able to do so.  36061

This combined power of anguish and rage is also present – very much so – in the first piece in Dominick Dunne’s collection. The title says it all: Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer.

When you have read this, you will know that the word “Justice” fairly drips with a kind of savage irony.

dominick-dunne-justice

I had every intention of extolling the virtues of Thomas Thompson’s terrific Blood and Money. I didn’t get to it then, but you can read about it, and much else besides, in a post entitled A great deal of work with abundant rewards: the True Crime class concludes.

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Finally, I said a few words on the vast subject of crime fiction. I wanted to make everyone aware of the delightful new series British Library Crime Classics. I’ve already read  several of these reissues. While they’re not all uniformly engaging, there are some that are veritable treasures. My favorites so far:

mysteryinwhite4 511s1ab85al-_sy344_bo12042032001_

51CYk9jGBjL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_

Then I said a few words in praise of the late and very much lamented Ruth Rendell. My favorites: they are too great in number to enumerate here. But I will say this: A Fatal Inversion, published in 1987 under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine, is as powerful a work of psychological suspense as any I’ve ever read.

And on a completely different note, there’s the ever dependable Sue Grafton and her equally dependable creation Kinsey Millhone. I thoroughly enjoyed X!

And I thoroughly enjoyed this get-together with my AAUW colleagues. These intriguing titles proved the springboard for a lively give and take among group members. In a spirited discussion, we covered both books and recent media related to true crime.

In particular, we wanted to know more about the root causes of murder, the most evil of acts. What about guilt and remorse – what role do they play in the grimmest of scenarios? Someone mentioned the role of forgiveness, and I think everyone agreed that if this could be achieved by those most affected, perhaps a sort of grace could be attained.

Wikipedia has a lengthy entry on this subject, and it includes one of the most moving paintings I know: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son.

69newtes

[click to enlarge]

This is Mikhail Baryshnikov in the final scene of the ballet The Prodigal Son. The music is by Sergei Prokofiev; the choreography, by George Balanchine:


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I recommend the interview with Harold Schechter that appears on the Library of America’s website.
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It was great to have Jennifer back with us, working hard for the branch, as always. And we wish Diane a full and speedy recovery.

Finally, I’d like to mention Kathy, who revealed that she’s read everything she could find on the subject of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The riddle of this man and his horrible acts is one she has long been trying to understand. At the end of my talk – during what I call the “post-presentation shmooze” – she came up to me and confided that when she was ten, she read two books that changed her life: In Cold Blood and The Diary of Anne Frank. Her eyes were shining as she was telling me this. I was  delighted: look what books have been able to do for people! Hopefully they still can, and always will, no matter the time, place, or the format.

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Aftermath of Snowzilla – random thoughts and observations

January 31, 2016 at 2:49 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), True crime)

A beautiful sight greeted me Wednesday morning: two rolled-up packages of newspaper lay in the (barely navigable) driveway. When I brought them in, I discovered that I had received not only that day’s paper, but all those that I’d missed due to the snow storm. Five issues awaited my joyful perusal!

Thank you so much, Washington Post.

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Meanwhile, I’ve made progress on my upcoming presentations. This has consisted mainly of coming up with a script for Book Bash and gathering books for the presentation (entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined”), and selecting the stories I want to emphasize for my July discussion of Capital Crimes: London Stories.

I’ve already mentioned the crowd that surged through the Central Branch right before the blizzard. I was gratified that so many people were searching for books as well as DVDs. How nice, thought I, they’ll be taking home some gentle and soothing tomes, like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series or Jan Karon’s Mitford novels – and cookbooks, too, judging by the stripped shelves of local supermarkets – to help them get through the coming storm. This assumption is probably accurate, generally speaking. But on Wednesday, when I began searching in earnest for books I need for Book Bash, there were no available copies at any of the six library branches of the following:

613n-qSYdrL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_ JamesEllroy_TheBlackDahlia

41f9c980eb43c7ef_stranger Psycho-by-Robert-Bloch-6

All needed to be reserved and are only now coming in. Clearly, escapism means different things to different people.

But Psycho…really?
**************************************

And finally, something from the Department of Transitory Phenomena:

I am sitting at my computer desk yesterday morning at about a quarter to nine, when I become aware of the sunlight entering through the window on my left and falling across the desk’s cluttered surface and the adjoining bookcase.

IMG_1795-X2

Problem: the room is on the west side of the house. Remember: it is 8:45 AM.

I get up and go to the window, where I observe the sun glinting madly of  the window of the house opposite. It is acting as a powerful reflector – but only for a short time.

IMG_1796-X2

The strange thing is, this room – formerly my son’s bedroom, as you might have guessed from the wall art – has been my de facto “office” for some ten years now, and I don’t recall ever noting this phenomenon.

 

 

 

 

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Snowzilla, Day Three: it’s getting old…

January 26, 2016 at 2:29 am (Book clubs, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction, True crime)

Initially, I was going to have this post consist of a single picture:

IMG_1767-X2

This was the sight that greeted us this morning, just outside our kitchen window, at the back of the house.

But this is what it still looked like out front:

IMG_1766-X23

Here in Maryland, they’ve been begging us to stay off the roads. At the moment, I can’t see any roads, no problem with that.

I couldn’t help recalling with a sort of bitter nostalgia the days of newspaper delivery, mail delivery, trips to the library to get yet another of my gazillion reserves…

I won’t deny it: I was getting cranky.

But in the afternoon, a crew making the rounds gained access to our front door and asked if we wanted to be dug out. Well, I guess so! And so they did the job.

Now, it looks like this:

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It’s better, but until they plow out the cul-de-sac, we’re still stuck.

I have been trying to employ my time in useful pursuits. I have two presentations to prepare for, one a week from this Saturday and the other, in July.

The first is a presentation for the many book lovers in my AAUW chapter. It is called Book Bash. I’ve been involved in this event for several years now. Sometimes others collaborate with me, but this year I’m going solo. I’m basing my presentation on last year’s True Crime class and calling it “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” Here’s the handout I prepared and sent out in advance:

Time for Crime: True and Imagined

Last year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on the literature of true crime at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. I chose as my principal source/textbook True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008. Several copies are available at the library, call no. 364.1523T

Here are some especially interesting excerpts from this anthology. Where these excerpts are available online, I’ve provided the URL; additional URL’s contain related material of interest:

  1. “The Recent Tragedy” by James Gordon Bennett p. 63
  2. “Crime News from California: The Criminal Market Is Active” by Ambrose Bierce pp. 80-81

http://files.umwblogs.org/blogs.dir/8178/files/2013/08/Beirce_1.pdf

https://robertarood.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/ambrose-bierce/

  1. “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter p. 131

http://www.seacoastnh.com/smuttynose/memo.html

  1. Murder Ballads: “The Murder at Fall River” p. 205; “The Murder of Grace Brown” p. 203

https://robertarood.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/001dq.gif

http://www.nycourts.gov/publications/benchmarks/issue4/historiccourthouses.shtml

  1. The Eternal Blonde” by Damon Runyon pp. 236-246
  2. Excerpt from The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury p.303

https://robertarood.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/the-true-crime-course-a-progress-report-of-sorts/

(Lots of additional material concerning true crime is included in the above blog post.)

7. “The Trial of Ruby McCollum” by Zora Neale Hurston  p. 512

8.  “The Black Dahlia” by  Jack Webb p. 524

http://files.umwblogs.org/blogs.dir/8178/files/2013/10/webb.pdf

9. My Mother’s Killer” by James Ellroy p. 707

http://www.gq.com/story/james-ellroy-murder

10. “Nightmare on Elm Drive” by Dominick Dunne p. 737

http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1990/10/dunne199010

http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1984/03/dunne198403

Related titles:

The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower
“The Murder of Marie Roget” by Edgar Allan Poe

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
A Place in the Sun: film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift
An American Tragedy: opera composed by Tobias Picker

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity: film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson

My Dark Places by James Ellroy

Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments by Dominick Dunne

CRIME FICTION

British Library Crime Classics

Resorting To Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
The Sussex Downs Murders by John Bude
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon

https://robertarood.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/classics-of-the-golden-age-come-into-their-own-courtesy-of-the-british-library/

The irreplaceable excellence of Ruth Rendell

Psychological novels:

A Judgement in Stone
A Fatal Inversion (as Barbara Vine)

The Wexford novels: http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/R_Authors/Rendell_Ruth.html

And finally…

The absolute wonderfulness of Sue Grafton, as embodied in

X

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I’ve included many mysteries and quite a few works of true crime in my yearly round-up of favorites:

https://robertarood.wordpress.com/category/best-of-2015/

The second presentation is actually a book discussion I’m planning to hold with the Usual Suspects. I’ve chosen to discuss  Capital Crimes: London Stories, edited by Martin Edwards. (It’s one of the British Library Crime Classics mentioned above.) I’m trying to decide which stories to single out, but they’re all so good, it’s proving to be a real challenge. (My friend and fellow Suspect Pauline is assisting me with this task. Thanks, Pauline.)

Oh – and one other useful pursuit for today: I made a batch of famously mysterious Lacy Parmesan Wafers.

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I often bring these little guys to meetings and get-togethers, and whenever I do, folks tend to wax rhapsodic. What’s in them? they demand to know. Well, let’s see, there’s shredded Parmesan cheese… That’s it – just that one ingredient. Make little mounds of it – about a tablespoon in volume – and space them out regularly on a cookie sheet. (I put nonstick aluminum foil on the sheet.) They go into a 400 degree oven for about eight minutes. Take them out, give them several seconds to cool, then transfer them to a paper towel to await the arrival more Lacy Wafers. Keep doing batches until you run out of Parmesan cheese.

That’s all there is to it. And it makes a great snack for diabetics like Yours Truly. Cheese is blessedly low in carbohydrates, often containing only trace amounts or none at all.

So, this single-ingredient thing is my idea of hassle free cooking. It’s the only kind of cooking that I have the patience  for, at present.

 

 

 

 

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