Thursday, August 26, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides

480 pp.

My many thanks to Doubleday, who sent me this book as an ARC some time ago. And my apologies for just getting around to reading it.

On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down & killed with a single shot as he stood outside of his room on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  It didn't take long until the conspiracy theories began. As the author notes:
In a society already well marinated in conspiracy, it was only natural that every form of collusion would be bruited about.... Johnson had done it. Hoover had done it. Wallace had done it. The Klan, the White Citizens Council, the Memphis Police Department. The Mafia, the CIA, The National Security Agency, the generals who ran the war King had condemned. 
But Hampton Sides believes it was only one man, James Earl Ray, who committed this murder.  From the beginning, he traces the movements of this man (although he calls him Eric Stavro Galt rather than James Earl Ray, going by Ray's alias at the time) starting in 1967 in Puerto Vallarta where he'd hoped to make his mark in the porn industry. Before that time, Ray had been in prison, where he'd escaped in a bread truck some time before arriving in Mexico.

In the first part of the book, Sides puts this year into perspective both politically and socially.  LBJ's in the White House; faced with the Vietnam quagmire and growing social unrest at home, he has decided not to run for another term. He has been criticized by Martin Luther King for funneling money out of the country to finance the war rather than to help the poor in America.  J. Edgar Hoover is still FBI director, caught in a time warp chasing communists in America and expending an enormous amount of effort making Martin Luther King an FBI/Cointelpro target. Younger, urban African-Americans no longer believe that King's policies of nonviolence are effective in their fight against oppression, while King and his associates are  planning a "Poor People's Campaign" to take place in Washington DC.  George Wallace is starting his campaign for the presidency.  It's a turbulent time in American history and Sides captures it well.  He also traces the events that led Dr. King to the Lorraine Hotel, and simultaneously examines how Galt/Ray came to be there at the same time.

The second part of the book focuses on not only law enforcement efforts to find King's murderer, but Galt's efforts to elude capture.  Unlike today, there was no automated fingerprint identification system, nor was there DNA analysis to make the task any easier. FBI agents definitely had their work cut out for themselves. And while they're busy trying to sift through leads, Galt flees the country, making his way northward into Canada and then on to Europe via London and Portugal and back to London again.

The book raises many questions, the most notable being the motivation behind Galt/Ray's actions.  Sides believes that perhaps one reason behind his crime was that Ray wanted to accomplish something truly notable in his life, although we're never really privy to Ray's thoughts about why the death of  Martin Luther King would accomplish that goal. Did he do it for money? And speaking of money, until Ray got to Portugal, he seemed to be flush enough to take care of himself during that year; was someone paying him? How did he manage to always come up with needed funds when he left prison with very little cash?

Hellhound on His Trail may be a bit misnamed -- I never did get the sense that Ray was actually stalking King -- but it's a very readable and credible account of  what led up to a day that made a difference to America on several levels. It's also one I'd definitely recommend.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Murder Room: The Heirs to Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo

Gotham Books
439 pp.

The dustjacket blurb of this book notes that
Three of the world's finest sleuths -- an FBI agent turned private eye, a forensic artist and ladies' man who speaks to the dead, and an eccentric profiler known as "the living Sherlock Holmes" -- invited the greatest collection of ace detectives from around the world on a grand adventure for justice: to track down the killers in the toughest unsolved murders... The Murder Room draws the reader into the secret investigations of the crime-fighting Vidocq Society...
so, one would think that The Murder Room is an examination of the world-famous Vidocq Society as a whole and that its readers are going to be privileged to enter into the inner workings of this entire group.  But although Capuzzo does delve into the history of the Society and does offer a peek into a few of its meetings, the book is really dedicated to the lives of the founders of the Vidocq Society: William Fleisher, Richard Walter and Frank Bender, especially the latter two. The other "ace detectives from around the world," are rarely mentioned and their contributions as Vidocq Society Members (VSMs) are pretty much non-existent here.  Even when Capuzzo relates the events of a typical meeting of the Society, Walter and Bender tend to take center stage.

Frank Bender, an artist, although probably not a household name, has been featured on American television on America's Most Wanted, most famously as the man who recreated what John List might look like years after he had murdered his entire family and walked away to a new life.  Bender's sex life and his interest in women takes up a great deal of space throughout the book (and frankly, I got tired of reading phrases like "Chrissie has the cutest little butt") as does his on-again, off-again bickering with fellow Vidocq society founder and profiler Richard Walter over who should have received credit for List's capture. Walter can best be described as eccentric and arrogant, as well as a talented profiler who, according to the author, seems to be able to solve pretty much any crime tossed his way at the meetings, waiting until the very end to toss back the solution based on his profiling abilities. Capuzzo also notes that Walter is known as the "living Sherlock Holmes." Fleisher, who came up with the idea for the Vidocq society, doesn't get nearly as much air time as the other two, and the author often makes statements like “Bender and Walter were the most astonishing investigative team Fleischer had ever seen.”

There are some good moments here -- the dozen or so cold cases which the group examines and attempts to solve are all really interesting. For example, there's the case of the Cleveland Butcher, left unsolved by detective Eliot Ness in the 1930s, the "Case of the Shoeless Corpse," which had gone cold in 1984, in which a young student was found dead missing her shoes and socks. She had not been molested or robbed, and the crime made no sense. Then there's the "Case of the Prodigal Son," in which a young Texas man simply disappeared, and whose father just knows he was murdered. And most people are aware of the John List case, as well as one of the most famous and ongoing unsolved cases in the US, that of The Boy in the Box.  The problem is that when the author starts to discuss these and other cases, he interrupts them to go on to something else, bouncing about in time (and usually coming back to either Bender or Walter) so that the reader is left dangling until he decides to once again pick up the story's threads. It's often very distracting and the style is at times incoherent.

This book seems to be getting really good reviews, but my take on it is that I felt like the author promised something he didn't deliver -- and that was the workings of the Vidocq society as a whole. And while he notes how the society is able to take up cold cases and manage a pretty good success rate for solving these crimes, there's just way too much extraneous stuff in here that could be weeded out. I mean really, who cares if Bender spent three days on Bondi Beach with "bikinis cut low", discussing "the shark net, the killer riptide, the hermit in the rocky cave, the record number of bikinis" referring to a Guiness record for largest swimsuit photo shoot. And why does Capuzzo need to note how many cigarettes Walter lights over and over again or how often he coughs? It might have been a much tighter and more concise account of a group that does incredibly meaningful work if the author had kept a better focus. But in many ways, imho, he seemed to be a bit all over the map.

Bottom line: I really wanted to love this book, but that didn't happen, although I did enjoy the accounts of the cold cases and how some of their perpetrators were eventually brought to justice.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The End of the World in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski

original Polish title: Koniec świata w Breslau, 2003
translated by Danusia Stok

Eberhard Mock is back in yet another adventure, this one involving a series of bizarre murders whose victims seem to have no connection to one another, yet which the police know have been done by the same person. 

It's 1960, and Eberhard Mock is in New York City, dying of lung cancer. His old friend Herbert Anwaldt (who first appeared in Krajewski's Death in Breslau) comes to see him and Mock has a "confession" he needs to get off of his chest before he departs this earthly life.  Flash back in time to 1927, to Breslau (which at the time was part of Weimar Germany). A shoemaker who has rented space in a building notices a disgusting smell, which his brother-in-law suggests might be a rotten egg behind one of the walls -- a sort of joke played by masons when they felt they were not paid properly.  The shoemaker begins to knock down the wall and a body of a musician is discovered. The only clue is a page from a calendar with the date of September 12 of that year, written in blood. More bodies follow -- a follower of Hitler (who in 1927 had just made his rousing "Nuremberg Rally" speech), a Communist, a locksmith, and an historian -- each left with the calendar date of the victim's death left behind. Mock is charged with solving these crimes, and to do this, he must find what links all of these disparate victims -- a seemingly monumental task. However, he's got several things on his mind to keep him distracted from his duty, none the least of which involve his nephew and his young, beautiful and unhappy wife Sophie, as well as his own inner demons which have the power to destroy him both personally and professionally.

Once again, Krajewski takes his readers on a descent into the seamy side of Breslau's underworld,a place of hedonistic and lascivious delights designed for the higher-ups in society which would tempt even the most incorruptible of saints; where money will buy some of the most depraved pleasures the city's more adventurous entrepreneurs have to offer. Krajewski is the master of atmosphere, and creates an almost claustrophic aura that lingers throughout the novel, so much so that when you read the last page, you want to take a breath of clean air.  This installment of the Eberhard Mock series gets more into the psyche of the Criminal Councillor than the first book in the series, and rather than go forward in time as is the case of most crime fiction series, this one ratchets back a few years before the action of Death in Breslau.   Krajewski is also a most excellent writer -- my favorite scene that showcases his talent is one in which Mock has had to answer the queries of a private police investigator who is searching for the now-missing Sophie, and as Mock is working a crime scene, his answers to that questionnaire are juxtaposed with discoveries made at the site of this most appalling murder. The characterizations are excellent yet not stereotypical or predictable.  The period detail is plentiful without being bogged down (as is the case with many period pieces) in minutia, and the pacing is perfectly executed.

Highly recommended, but probably not for everyone. There is nothing even remotely cutesy or nice about this story. It is pure seedy, steamy and hard core noir that does not let up and which gets you in its unrelenting grip, keeping you there until the last page is turned. It's claustrophobic and edgy -- in short, my kind of crime fiction. I hope Krajewski keeps writing -- I love these books. And whoever designs these covers should be given some kind of award!

fiction from Poland

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: Murdering Stepmothers: The Execution of Martha Rendell, by Anna Haebich

UWA Publishing, Australia
217 pp.

The blurb for this book reads as follows:
... Professor Anna Haebich brings to life the people of Perth and the entangled mesh of self-righteous bigotry, slander and unbridled revenge they invoke to propel the trial of Martha Rendell - the last woman in the state to be hanged. Based on a true story and meticulously researched, this compelling novel is driven by passion, imagination and an eerie conjuring up of the past.

This is just the sort of blurb that gets my nosy self's heart pumping. I first noticed this book in a copy of the New York Review of Books, and immediately I had to know who was Martha Rendell, why was she hanged, and  all of the gruesome details, never having heard of this person before. So I bought the book, thinking it was a new historical novel based on a real crime.  After reading it, it's a tough call as to whether it's actually a novel or no. But I'll get back to this later.

In 1909, a 14 year-old boy named George Morris ran away from his father William and his "stepmother" Martha Rendell (in reality the two were not actually married), back to the home of his mother. He had claimed that three of his siblings had died in their home in East Perth, and that he was worried he was next. Within the span of 18 months, all of the children had become ill, and after recovering, were being cared for by Rendell. One by one they began to develop strange symptoms, in particular a "peculiar membranous condition of the mouth and throat..." which the physician had never seen before. And then one by one, they died, except for George, who said that  Rendell had pretended to pour out his brother's Arthur medicine, but then replaced it with "spirits of salts." This caused Arthur to scream in pain, and become deadly ill. As the children began to die, George left, seeking shelter with his mother.  There was just enough doubt to cause authorities to dig up the children's bodies and charge both Rendell and Morris with murder.

Haebich tries to reconstruct the case from four different points of view: a newspaper photographer who followed the trial, a detective whose hero and model was Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a physician, and a reverend, who ministered to Rendell within the prison walls. She provides a wealth of information about the period, including  past poisoners, the power of the press, and the science of medicine and pathology of the time. In each person's narrative, the reader is left with some doubt as to whether or not Rendell was really guilty. If she was guilty, then perhaps there was some physical, psychological, social or emotional reasoning behind her crimes.

After the four different points of view are completed, the final say is given over to the author in a chapter entitled "the researcher." Here she notes that while trying to put together Rendell's story, she
realised early in the piece that a conventional historical narrative could not possibly convey the nuances of this complex and controversial case. Due to the many gaps in the records there were also many questions that could only answered via imaginative reconstructions of people and events.
She then goes on to provide an analysis of what may have actually happened, and discusses her experiences with descendants of the Morrises.

Although the approach she's taken plays out well, I don't think she needed to go that route. Within the different reconstructions, she provides a wealth of factual information related to the case that could have stood on its own put together in a singular historical retelling. There's very little dialogue in the narratives, the voices are not as distinct as those of different characters should be in a novel, and you never really get the feeling that you're actually reading a novel in its true sense. Now, having said that, Murdering Stepmothers is still a book that will keep you reading and involved. The case itself is interesting -- and you as the reader are left to put together all of the different sociological, psychological and physical threads to decide for yourself as to Rendell's guilt or innocence. Haebich's analysis of the available facts is very well done -- and the book is not just another over-sensationalized true crime account that crowds bookseller shelves. Overall -- it's a good book, with few distractions and a well-grounded sense of time and place.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Stone Murders, by Matti Joensuu

St. Martin's Press, 1987
Original Finnish Title: Harjunpää ja poliisin poika, 1983
First English publication by Gollancz, 1986 - Harjunpaa and the Stone Murders
translated by Raili Taylor

Set in Helsinki, The Stone Murders is the first in a series of three, followed by The Priest of Evil and To Steal Her Love. Timo Harjunpaa is a detective sergeant in homicide and he's seen his share of ugliness in the past. It's about to get uglier, as he's called out to investigate what seems to be another murder, but he finds the victim still alive yet barely clinging to life. The man has been brutally attacked -- while knocked out with a beer bottle, his assailant jumped on his chest, pounded his stomach area with a mass of heavy stones, and left him for dead.  Harjunpaa gets to work on the case but has no idea what's waiting for him as he gets closer to the killer.

The Stone Murders is not really a mystery, because the criminals are revealed right away to be young men from extremely dysfunctional families and backgrounds.  It is more of a police procedural, but at the same time, Joensuu interweaves into the story a brief look at the problems of 1980s Helsinki: child abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and teen gangs that have no respect for anyone (especially the police, who fear them), to name a few. There's also a look at the police force itself -- the ridiculous bureaucracy, the lack of officers to handle the ongoing crime problems, and the ineptitude of a few who are supposed to be in charge of others. Joensuu also offers a look into Harjunpaa's personal life, which as things get worse for this particular case, becomes his safe haven.

Considering that this book is a series first, it's very well done. The characters each have a separate identity without going into overly-detailed descriptions.  And every now and then Joensuu fleetingly allows the tough-guy façade of the criminals to fall away, replaced by the young and immature children that they are. Harjunpaa is a good cop, but even more, he's portrayed as a human being, with his own fears for the future of the police force, life in Helsinki, and for his family. All of this is done without ever devolving into something sappy and sentimental.  The story is well paced, the plotline is quite good and believable. There were no distractions that made me want to skim, which is something I always look for in any book.

Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction will enjoy this, as will anyone who likes a good police procedural. It's definitely difficult to believe that this is Joensuu's first novel.

fiction from Finland