Criminal Tales

Title: The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession

Author: David Gann

Described as “a collection of spellbinding narrative journalism,” this book contains an amazing assortment of stories. From the opening story about the Sherlock Holmes fan who died in real life mysterious circumstances, to the final profile of a truly nasty criminal, this was a compelling read (or rather, listen, as I got the audiobook from my library. It’s not quite up to his book, The Lost City of Z, but it’s quite good. I think what I missed was something to tie all these stories together. These were pieces that appeared in print previously, so maybe there wasn’t really a thread that tied them together, but I think he could have grouped them differently or something. As it was, it was sort of odd. My favorite story was the one about the sandhogs, construction workers building a giant series of tunnels under NYC. Recommended, but not so strongly that you should add it to the top of your list.

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Review: The 31st of February

Title: The 31st of February

Author: Julian Symons

Old school crime thriller

Anderson’s wife fell down the stairs three weeks ago. It wasn’t that they were close. In fact, he can’t remember now why he ever married her. But for some reason, he’s falling apart after her death. Maybe it’s because the police have been coming around asking questions. He’s been finding strange letters. And his office calendar keeps changing its date. He can’t keep his mind on his work at the advertising firm. What really happened to Valerie?

This is perhaps the book that Symons is best known for, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of his others. A Three Pipe Problem was better. The feeling of being unable to know whether Anderson had really killed his wife, was he going crazy or was he being persecuted – it made for a good story, but it could have been better. What saved it for me was the ending. Suddenly, I looked at everything in a different light and it was much more interesting. 3.5 stars

Review reprinted from earlier

Review: My Sister’s Grave

Title: My Sister’s Grave (Tracy Crosswhite, #1)

Author: Robert Dugoni

Setting: Washington state

Themes: Crime, Secrets, Family, Second Chances

Plot: Tracy Crosswhite’s sister disappeared 20 years ago. She was never found. Now her body has turned up, and Tracy has her doubts that the right man was convicted of Sarah’s murder. Especially since someone is trying to keep Tracy from asking questions. Tracy won’t rest until she finds out what really happened to her sister, even if she has to go through hell to find out.

Reaction: It’s been a little while since I read this one, but I did enjoy it. This is the first book I’ve read by this author. I was able to guess what was going on long before it happened, but I read to the end anyway. It was pretty dark and gruesome towards the end, but I think I will give this series another try. Just maybe not right away. I’m only giving it 3.1 stars out of 5, but like I said, I liked it enough to finish it.

Can’t Get Enough Hamilton

Who doesn’t love this guy? Besides Aaron Burr. Which brings me to this book I read: Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins.

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The subtitle here is: The true story of how Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to take on American’s first sensational murder mystery. It was pretty sensational, and I loved the look at how the court system has changed, but I was really reading it for the interplay between Hamilton and Burr.

Elma Sands and Levi Weeks lived at the same boarding house in Manhattan. They had a close friendship, so close that when she went missing, all eyes turned to him. Then her body turned up in a well nearby. He was arrested for her murder, just before the mob closed in and lynched him themselves. But was he really guilty?

The description of the early court system was really interesting. Hamilton and Burr both worked for the defense. NYC being as small as it was, everyone involved on the case knew each other and had worked together – the defense, the jury, the prosecution, the witnesses – they all had ties. Burr’s company even owned the well where the body was found. But there wasn’t a lot of room to choose anyone else.

This wasn’t the best book ever, but it was good. The author and I have very different takes on Hamilton and Burr. He would describe Burr as a war hero. Um, no. Not buying it. Burr was an opportunistic show-off. Hamilton was the true hero. And his description of the duel left out a few key parts. But the emphasis was on the trial, and he did a good job there. Recommended for those interested in New York, in law, or in the Founding Fathers.

I received this free in exchange for an unbiased review.

Review of Two Vintage Crime Novels

(Above: Homicide squad, NYPD 1970s. Fashion was their true victim.)

Books:

Sick to Death by Douglas Clark

and

End of Chapter by Nicholas Blake

At the end of every month, my library takes all the book sale books and marks them down to $1/bag. At a price like that, it’s easy to just grab several, in the hope that one of them will be a real winner. Both of these books were in my latest haul. Neither was a real winner, but they weren’t a waste of time either.

The first book features a pair of English detectives who don’t like each other paired up to investigate the death of a pretty young diabetic girl. The second features a private gentlemanly type detective called in to find out who’s causing trouble at a English publishing house. Both were written and published in the 1970s.

One definite thing about these books – they are white. Really white. Kind of like that picture up there. Apparently people of color had not been invented in England in the 1970s. Neither had female cops. Women are around, but mostly as victims, secretaries, suspects, nurses, and even – wow – as a publishing executive. So Blake wins on that one, but not by much.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, although odds are small that anyone else will actually read these two. But the books are fairly predictable, and I spotted the murderers without any trouble. Our private eye gets attacked – shock! – but of course, he’s fine. The characters are also predictable, flat, and kinda dull. Motive and solution are pretty straightforward, with again, the edge given to Blake.

I have read some by Blake before – The Widow’s Cruise and Thou Shell of Death were both better than this one – but Clark was a new author. I won’t bother to seek out anything else by these two, but if I find something by them, I think I will read it too. There’s a nostalgic old-fashioned sort of mindlessness in reading books like this. It’s sort of like watching an old episode of Dragnet or something – fun just because it’s so foreign to a modern viewer. 2.75 stars for Clark, 3 for Blake.

 

 

Book Review: Allegedly

Title: Allegedly

Author: Tiffany D. Jackson

Challenge: Read Diverse Books

Setting: Modern day, not sure about place

Themes: Race, family, criminal justice system, mental illness – just wow, so much going on in here, it’s hard to wrap my mind around it.

Story:

Mary is fresh out of prison, what she calls “baby jail.” She’s been stashed there since she was convicted of murder at 9 years old. Which makes no sense, because that’s not at all what would have happened, but this is a book about how messed up things can get. As soon as she’s out, she gets stuck in a group home and given a job working at a nursing home. That’s where she meets Ted, who’s also living in a group home. Now Mary’s pregnant, and if she doesn’t do something, the state will take her baby.

Because Mary was convicted not just of murder, but of murdering a baby. A white baby. And Mary is black.

My Reactions:

This is one messed up book. It’s also really good, so I was torn between wanting, needing to know what happened and having to take break from the horror of it all and where I thought it was going. Everything in this story is so messed up. Her mother is horrible. The workers at the group home don’t care about anyone. The other girls, wow, there’s some seriously bad stuff going on there. But what really made this book good was Mary. Just when you think you have her figured out, the author changes things up and you don’t know what to believe. By the time you get to the ending, you think nothing will surprise you. But you would be wrong.

Would I recommend it? It depends. I admit that I found it so tough to read that I skipped a big chunk in the middle. Then when I got to the ending, I had to go back and read more. But I know that a lot of my friends are not going to be interested in something so dark and grim. I tried to tell my kid about the book (they’re 21), and they found it very upsetting to even hear about it. What hooked me was the mystery aspect of the story – did she or didn’t she? But this is a murder of a BABY, and I should have been more prepared for the emotional impact of that.

Book Review: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe

Title: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe

Author: Robert Goldsborough

Genre: 1930s crime fiction

Setting: NYC 1930s

Review:

My grandma collected mysteries. Most of them were by Agatha Christie, but once I had read all of those, there was another sizable chunk by this author, Rex Stout. Their covers were different, often featuring a woman in distress on the cover, but they sounded interesting. I don’t remember which book I started with, but I wound up reading them too.

This one is what is called fan fiction today – a tribute by author Robert Goldsborough. It’s an imagining of the first time Archie Goodwin, smart ass and tough guy, meets the cerebral genius of Nero Wolfe. In the first book by Stout, Fer-de-Lance, the two are already working together. But how did it all start? When and why did Archie come to New York? And why are the police always so willing to give him a hard time?

I really liked this one. Not only did  he get the setting right – early Depression era, jobs are scarce, society very stratified – but the characters are less defined versions of themselves. Which is exactly right, I think. Wolfe is still himself, with his fascination with orchids, his profoundly sedentary lifestyle, his gourmet taste. Even his office looks the same. And Archie is a much younger and less experienced version of himself, but it’s apparent what he will become.

I’m giving this one a solid 4 stars and a recommendation. However, if you haven’t already read a Rex Stout book, you might not enjoy it as much as I did, so start by reading Fer-de-Lance and then see if you like the style.

Book Review: City of Scoundrels

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Title: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Author: Gary Krist

Setting: Chicago, Illinois, July 1919

Themes: Race, Politics, Labor Relations, Crime

My parents moved to Chicago after I graduated, but I would visit them during my summer break from college. It was a great place to be single. The food, the energy, the shopping, the cultural events, and most of all, the people – I loved it. It’s still one of my favorite cities in the world.

So this book really caught my eye. I have read about New York’s history, and about New Orleans, but I didn’t know much about Chicago. This was an eye opener. So many historic Chicago figures are in here. And like the title promises, the events in this brief period really did affect the shape of the city for years to come. The roots of racial tension, of political corruption, of the rise of Al Capone – it’s all here.

The action starts with the first documented air disaster when a hydrogen-filled dirigible crashes into a bank. Yeah, who saw that one coming? But that’s only the beginning. Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson soon has to deal with broiling racial tensions, a looming transit strike, and the widely publicized disappearance of a little girl. By themselves, none of these incidents would have been that difficult to resolve. But with them all occurring in a two week period, the problems just built on one another until there were riots in the streets and hundreds left dead. The press didn’t make matters better, by whitewashing the whole the thing and inflaming the crowds.

I would definitely recommend it if you love Chicago, or if you are interested in politics or 20th century racial tensions. I liked the pictures that were included, as well as the map. They really helped set the scene. Toward the end of the book, I felt a little overwhelmed by so many names to keep track of, but it was worth my time.