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The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter

An exhilarating real-life thriller about the murder that revealed the power of the telegraph.

peculiar electric

Australian historian Carol Baxter melds true crime and science in the gripping The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable. The electric telegraph (or the “electric constable,” as it was known) was a newfangled, doubtful-looking invention in 1845, when a well-liked young woman was found gasping her final breaths in the small English town of Slough. Fortuitously, Slough was connected by an experimental telegraph line to Paddington Station; when a distinctively dressed gentleman was seen leaving the apparent murder scene and boarding a train, quick-thinking locals sent word along the line. The pursuit by telegraph of a criminal suspect marked a turning point, Baxter argues, and sparked the communications revolution that continues today. That the suspect, John Tawell, was a Quaker made this case still more sensational, and his personal history as a transported convict helped to transfix the public.

This peculiar case involved not only the “electric constable” but also the new fields of toxicology and forensic science. The murder trial riveted the medical and legal professions, setting new precedents; the public, already inspired by poisoning cases, was riveted by the cyanide evidence that “the Quaker murderer” provided. Baxter’s accounts of the telegraph’s technology, the prevailing cultural climate regarding murder and poisonings, contemporary forensic methods and Tawell’s personal history are all worthy of an engrossing thriller. (Her research was meticulous, though, she explains in an author’s note, and all the dialogue attributed and factual.) Expertly told, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable is a captivating accomplishment in nonfiction.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 dark suits.

The Investigator by Terry Lenzner

An investigator’s caseload over the decades offers a captivating glimpse of the intersection of politics, celebrity and money in the U.S.

investigator

Terry Lenzner’s career began in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the 1960s, and has ranged from the Senate Watergate Committee through private legal practice to his own company, Investigative Group International. A lawyer by training, he found his passion in research and sleuthing. The Investigator reads like a Forrest-Gump-style catalogue of cases that have caught the public eye–from the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, to the Harrisburg 7′s federal case for antiwar activism, to Watergate, the Unabomber, Monica Lewinsky and the death of Princess Diana.

Lenzner’s clients include governments, politicians, businessmen and celebrities; the resulting wide-ranging subject matter in this memoir accounts in part for its appeal. Even the tedious financial fact-checking of an investigation into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is brought to life by Lenzner’s passion. He gives character sketches of public figures he’s known, debunks public perceptions of certain events and offers investigative tips along the way. He is concerned with the truth, not satisfying the client at any price, and shares anecdotes in which the two goals were irreconcilable.

Impressively, this seasoned investigator is also a fine writer. His story opens compellingly, giving background while simultaneously jumping right into the action. Although “this isn’t meant to be a history book,” Lenzner writes, The Investigator is an absorbing and intelligent sampling of American history, told in puzzles and–sometimes–solutions.


This review originally ran in the October 22, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 witnesses.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

An exhaustive, engaging examination of how murder and the murder mystery novel infiltrated our modern world by way of 19th-century Britain.

murder

Judith Flanders (A Circle of Sisters) tackles an unwieldy subject in The Invention of Murder, telling the tale admirably well, even entertainingly.

The Victorian British, Flanders tells us, were the first to identify murder as an object of fascination–inspiring in turn a passionate interest in trials, executions, motives and, eventually, the developing profession of solving crimes. The action opens in 1811 with the murdered Marr family, and quickly moves to 1820s Edinburgh, where Burke and Hare infamously killed so they could to sell the corpses to doctors as medical specimens. Flanders introduces a lengthy list of famous (and obscure) murderers and serial killers, culminating, of course, with Jack the Ripper. Alongside the killers and their victims, she presents Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and many contributions by Charles Dickens to illustrate her thesis that murder in life inspired murder in art. Fictional murderers and detectives play a role equal to their real-life counterparts, as Sweeney Todd and Sherlock Holmes take the stage.

Flanders also tracks the evolution of the police force from a force of deterrence to an investigative organization, along with the parallel development of murder and detection in literature and on the stage. The penny-blood (or penny-dreadful), a cheap booklet telling a sordid and often illustrated tale of horror, morphs into the detective novel (and play), as the public shifts its interest from bloody murder to the newly invented and increasingly sympathetic crimesolvers we know and love today.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 dismembered parts.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (audio)

destinyJames A. Garfield was the 20th president of the United States, and served one of our shortest terms: after being shot by assassin Charles J. Guiteau, he lived over two months before dying in September of 1881. Destiny of the Republic is the story of Garfield’s short presidency. As expressed in the subtitle, it is also the story of Guiteau’s madness and the medical era in which Garfield was unsuccessfully treated. What is left out of the title is the story of Alexander Graham Bell, who worked on a metal detector that was related to his recent invention, the telephone, with the intention of locating the bullet lodged in Garfield’s torso. So, to recap: this is the story of Garfield the President, Giteau the assassin, Bell the inventor, and a Dr. Bliss, who headed up the President’s medical team.

I knew next to nothing about Garfield, although I had a vague sense of his dying journey to the sea, passing by train through crowds of Americans gathered to honor him. I assume I’m not alone in my ignorance; he’s a long-dead president who (necessarily, by virtue of his short service) made no historical contributions sufficient to bring him to a modern layperson’s consciousness. So, I’ll fill in a little more. Garfield is painted in the opening chapters as a very sympathetic man: he did not aspire to the White House, but rather was nominated against his will by a post-Civil-War Republic Party that could not agree on any of the more favored candidates for nomination (Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine and John Sherman). He was humble. In this book, he is a likeable character (more on that to follow).

Interspersed with descriptions of Garfield, his very humble past as a poverty-stricken and fatherless child, and his marriage to Lucretia (“Crete” ), are descriptions of Guiteau. Guiteau is, briefly, delusional. I don’t know what his diagnosis would be in today’s mental health establishment, but he would be diagnosed. He believes he deserves great things and the world owes him; he is a chronic petty criminal, and because he once wrote a speech (never delivered) stumping for Garfield, he believes upon Garfield’s election that he deserves a lucrative posting, preferably to Paris. (One of the hot political issues of this age was the spoils system.) In his diseased mind, Garfield’s failure to honor him becomes a crime punishable by death; and/or it’s God’s will that Garfield be killed; and/or Vice President Chester Arthur needs to be President for the sake of the country, etc. Thus the assassination.

Also interspersed are some of the thinkers of the era. Alexander Graham Bell has just invented the telephone, which although not ubiquitous, is beginning to change communications for some of the population, and will have great future impact; in the meantime Bell works feverishly on that and other inventions. Also contemporary is the British Joseph Lister, pioneer of the concept of antisepsis, or sterilization of medical (especially surgical) equipment. Medical minds of the day did not generally believe in germs, because they could not see them, and practiced surgery on the second patient with the blood of the first still wet on their hands (not to mention pus and general dirt). Lister tried to convince American doctors of the lifesaving power of sterilization, but in the case of Garfield’s Dr. Bliss, failed.

So the action of the story follows Garfield’s nomination, election, and early days in office; Guiteau’s descent into madness, and his shooting of the President; Bell’s laboratory work, including work on a machine to locate the bullet lost inside the President; and the medical community’s thoughts on antisepsis. Dr. Bliss is an unsympathetic character. He successfully bluffs a small crowd of other doctors, several better qualified, and at least one more open to the idea of sterile surgery, out of the White House, taking over Garfield’s care himself. He is imperious, intolerant, and unpleasant; it also turns out that he had the wrong medical ideas, with the knowledge we have now. Garfield suffers in the White House for some two months after being shot, with a bullet lodged near his liver. During this time he is endlessly poked and prodded with filthy fingers and probing implements, deep into his wound. We know now – indeed, they mostly understood upon his autopsy – that it was not the gunshot that killed him, but the massive infection caused by unsterilized instruments. And then, we hear of the First Lady’s mourning, and the trial and hanging of Guiteau. In the epilogue, we also follow Bell, Bliss and Lister through to their eventual ends.

I found this story fascinating, as perhaps is clear from my lengthy synopsis. I liked that Millard sketched the political background of the United States in the decades after the Civil War, the lingering divisiveness of North vs. South, the corruption of the spoils system and the conflict between VP Arthur and Garfield’s presidency. I found the characters interesting, compelling, and real. This history is told relatively briefly and at a quick pace: I think reluctant readers of nonfiction will be pleased, and yet I don’t have reason to think it was dumbed down or oversimplified. Destiny of the Republic is good, readable history for the mainstream reader, and I recommend it.

I do have one concern. Garfield is portrayed in a wholly sympathetic light. I don’t know enough to criticize him; but I’m always suspicious of such a glowing picture of a historical figure. Surely he wasn’t all good? I worry about so much praise, as I said in my review of Team of Rivals.

I really enjoyed getting a glimpse of the medical thinking of this era, which I thought was well handled, although in brief. The conceptual leap to believing in invisible germs and the risk of infection has to be one of the more important in the history of medicine, and I can understand how people like Bliss who thought they knew what they were doing would be skeptical, although it’s hard to sympathize with him in this story of the huge consequences of his skepticism (coupled with his egotism and nasty personality, of course). There was another angle I wish had been explored as well, regarding Bliss’s very imposing nature, the bossiness with which he took over Garfield’s care, and his unwillingness to let either the President or the First Lady choose a doctor or make medical decisions. This is another area of medical practice in which change has occurred much more recently: the authority of doctor versus patient. We’re still working this one out, but today, no doctor would be so likely to barge in and tell the wife of an unconscious man which doctor would be treating him; and if she called in the doctors of her choosing and fired the first, her decision would stand. Now, Mrs. Garfield never tried to “fire” Bliss – it wasn’t done. But that’s my point: the concept of who holds the power in that relationship, doctor vs. patient (& family/caregiver) has changed drastically. As someone who works in a hospital setting with patients and family members, not to mention some of the decisions I’ve seen made in my own family, my mind jumped at this part of Garfield’s story. He had no advocate to protect him against the failures of the medical establishment; no second opinions were allowed; the patient and his family were allowed no part in the decision-making process. Not only would antisepsis have made the difference to Garfield, but, I submit, patient advocacy and empowerment would likely have made a major change as well: if he had still died, at least he might have been much more comfortable, and I think quality of life even at the end of life should not be discounted. If I had written this story (with my perspective as a medical librarian), I would have added this facet to Garfield’s story as well.

Minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed Destiny of the Republic and found it an easy, engaging, quick read that I would recommend to anyone. The audio production, read by Paul Micheal, was entertaining and gave the varying voices to the story that I think it needed. Well done.


Rating: 8 propaganda-ridden medical bulletins.

The Honored Society by Petra Reski

An intriguing and sensational, but not sensationalist, study of the Italian Mafia through character sketches.

Petra Reski had covered the Mafia as an investigative journalist in Germany for years, to the minimal interest of her editors and readers, who considered it an Italian problem. Then, in 2007, six Calabrians were executed in the town of Duisburg, and suddenly the German public was interested in the Mafia.

In The Honored Society, Reski composes character studies of various players both within the Mafia and fighting against it, based on her reminiscences of meetings and interviews. In addition to mafiosi and police investigators, her subjects include public prosecutors, defense lawyers, priests, fellow journalists and Mafia wives and daughters. Accompanied by her cabbie, Salvo, and her photographer, Shobha (as well as Shobha’s mother, a famous anti-Mafia photographer in her own right), Reski travels the streets of Italy and recalls the personalities she’s known. Her sketches of these “bad guys” and their adversaries are intimate and contemplative, rooted in years of experience. Even while excoriating the actions and influence of the Mafia, she seems to feel respect, even affection, toward certain individuals, revealing a conflicted relationship much like the one she describes between the Italian public and its famous criminal organization.

Generally, Shaun Whiteside’s translation of Reski’s work (from the German original of 2008) reads as straightforward, simple prose; but a quiet poetry lurks in certain turns of phrase and carefully crafted images. The Honored Society is an unusually structured view into the strange and powerful world of the Italian Mafia.


This review originally ran in the January 15, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 expensive handbags.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Honored Society by Petra Reski

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

honoredsociety

This is an interesting book. Its subject is the Italian Mafia and its global role; and most of the prose is straightforward. But it occasionally meanders into fancy, even poetry, as here:

In the middle of Piazza Marina there’s a huge magnolia fig tree that has grown into a vast and magical forest. The trunk is reddish brown, like the Sicilian soil, and has transformed itself into some fabulous creature that consists of knotted, frozen snakes, dragons half hidden in the ground, and elongated elephants. Every time I turn my back on this tree I half expect it to stretch out its arms and grab me.

I am charmed. And the Mafia bits are fine, too. :)

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped while walking to school in 1991. She was 11 years old. She was held by her captor, Phillip, and his wife Nancy, for 18 years, until 2009, when she was discovered very much by accident. By this time she had two daughters, products of Phillip’s repeatedly raping her while she was in captivity. This is her memoir.

She begins with her childhood, briefly; she grew up in California and then moved to Tahoe with her mother, new stepfather, and baby (half-)sister. Then she was kidnapped. Phillip was a sex offender on parole; he had two small sheds, and eventually a series of tents, built in a “secret” backyard, hidden by fencing and foliage, where he kept Jaycee and her daughters. Nancy was complicit in his crime. Jaycee was so young when she was kidnapped, lived with Phillip for so many of her formative years, that she was very confused – some would say “brainwashed” I suppose. She knew he was bad, that he hurt her, that what he did was wrong, but she was also convinced that he was trying to protect her and her girls, that the world out there was bad and frightening. In her increasing freedom, she may have been able to escape or to ask for help from the outside world, but she was confused and scared. When she was finally rescued and her true identity known, it took quite a bit of adjustment and therapy to help rebuild her family (her mother, sister, and aunt were very supportive when finally reconnected) and adjust to the larger world. She always loved animals, placing great store in pets – and she was eventually allowed to keep a small menagerie in Phillip’s backyard. Now, she has established a foundation (the JAYC Foundation, which stands for “Just Ask Yourself to Care”) to help families recover from trauma, using animal therapy.

Jaycee’s memoir is, most obviously, heart-wrenching and horrific and tragic; I don’t need to explain that aspect to you. It is also very raw and real. Jaycee has only a 5th grade education, and this book appears to have gone straight to print from her own rough writing. It is full of run-on sentences, fragments, ramblings that change tense throughout, grammatical errors, etc. I found this distracting at first, but ultimately I can’t help but respect how fully and authentically she’s put herself out there. The decision to publish her memoir must have been a difficult one. She speaks of wanting to publicize the bad things that Phillip and Nancy did, to not let them get away with it (or get away with thinking it was okay, or that Phillip was a victim – ugh). Also, some proceeds from the sale of the book go to the JAYC Foundation.

She tells her story very candidly and discusses her feelings very candidly. It has rather a different feeling than most memoirs you’ll find; it reads like a journal, unpolished. But again, once you get used to it, it makes for a unique experience.

What led me to pick this book up, you ask? I’m still wondering, myself. I felt a little weird reading it: voyeuristic, prurient, icky. I guess it’s the same as the train wreck you can’t look away from. My heart certainly goes out to Jaycee. She works very hard to stay positive and hopeful, and states that she doesn’t harbor hatred for the people who’ve done this to her; she doesn’t have time for hate, it’s wasteful, she wants to move forward and live and think positively. Good for her. She’s definitely still innocent, inexperienced, and lacking in formal education. But I’m impressed with her attitude, and she seems to have a really excellent support system in place; her family sounds great. I think she’ll be okay; she certainly has my best wishes.

This was a quick and easy read, and good for helping us be grateful for what we have in life (to put it mildly).

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (audio)

Truman Capote captured my undivided attention with this medium-largeish* book in remarkable fashion. My first issue for this review: is this fiction, or non? It is most commonly referred to as a “nonfiction novel,” a term I have a lot of trouble with. The story is either based very closely on, or is, the true story of the quadruple murder of the Clutter family in small-town Kansas, and the investigation, arrest, and eventual execution of the two perpetrators. (My library’s OCLC listing calls it “postmodern fiction.”) Capote himself said, “I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” So, fiction or non? I’m going with fiction, but clearly this is one of those areas where the line blurs. More on that in a bit.**

I came across this book recently in several blogs, which is curious because it’s not new; it was first published serially in Life magazine in 1965, and in book form in 1966. I already had the book on my radar, but these fine fellow bloggers definitely solidified my interest. In telling you about the story, and the book constructed about the story, I’m going to be fairly spoilery, because this is history. If you want to read it yourself and be surprised, I’m not your top-choice review.

So. The subtitle reads, “A True Account of a Multiple Murder.” On the night of November 15, 1959, the Clutter family was bedding down on their farm in Kansas, just outside the small town of Holcomb, itself a suburb of Garden City. Herbert Clutter, the patriarch, was a respected member of the community and devout Methodist; his wife Bonnie had been suffering from depression and had been in and out of hospital, but at this time was home. Sixteen-year-old Nancy, the belle of local society, sweet, talented, generous, and universally beloved, had just sent her boyfriend Bobby home and was getting ready for bed. Fifteen-year-old Kenyon was slightly socially awkward but friendly and respected as a member of a well-liked and important family. The two older Clutter daughters were living on their own outside the home – one married, one about to be.

Meanwhile, two paroled convicts of the Kansas state prison system were on the road. Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock had been cellmates and although very different in temperament, had teamed up for an endeavor that Dick described as being the perfect crime. As you’ve already guessed (or already knew), these six characters converge when Dick and Perry kill the Clutters in the night and make off almost as perfectly as Dick imagined. They spend months traveling, living briefly in Mexico where Perry hoped to become a successful treasure hunter, and then roaming the US again until they were apprehended in Las Vegas. They were tried in Kansas, convicted, and finally hanged in April of 1965.

Capote follows both groups of characters – the Clutters, and Perry & Dick – alternately in the days leading up to the night of the murder. Then he follows Perry and Dick in their roaming, and then through their imprisonment and trial, and right up to the hangings. His voice is omnipotent third person, and he quotes extensively from letters, documents, and trial proceedings, as well as from his interviews with various players and especially Dick and Perry themselves. Capote was on the case (so to speak) well before they became suspects, and published after they were killed, so his perspective and the timeline of his coverage is pretty extensive.

But, perhaps not entirely objective. The Clutters are painted in admirable detail, in lovely little vignettes. But their role is minor and short-lived (ouch, pun not intended). And of the two killers, Perry Smith is treated far more sympathetically and examined more deeply. I was pondering this as I listened to the book, wondering if this was all Capote’s apparent subjectivity, or if Perry was inherently more sympathetic; in other words, would I have found him so if I had been researching this case myself? There are a few fairly easy markers for this, at least for me: for one, Dick liked to rape little girls. Perry apparently stopped him from raping Nancy (by both their accounts). Dick ran over stray dogs with his car for fun, which Perry found revolting (as do I, obviously). Perry’s childhood was patently rough, while Dick’s is characterized as fairly normal. Perry seems to more clearly have a mental illness or defect that “causes” his criminal and violent tendencies. But, I’m not sure we get all of Dick’s story; Capote looks much more closely into Perry’s past. So what I’m trying to say is, I think there may be a bias in favor of poor Perry the murderer, having been manipulated by evil Dick. Apparently, it was alleged that Capote in fact had a sexual relationship with Perry while he was imprisoned, although obviously I can’t speak to that. This is not a criticism. I just want to point out that perhaps Capote is not entirely impartial with regards to his two main characters.

I found this book incredibly powerful. Capote has a fine sense of drama and of timing. Scenes and people are sketched artfully, sometimes quickly and with broad strokes that paint a pretty complete picture just briefly, and sometimes in painstaking detail. The stories of the Clutters’ deaths and Dick and Perry’s adventure and executions are fascinating and engrossing, yes. But it’s Capote’s rendering that makes this book, more than his subject matter. (I guess this is always the case.) I was blown away by the emotional effect of this story. I couldn’t get enough; I wanted more of the inside of Perry’s head, of Dick’s (ew, how creepy), of the small-town life of Holcomb and Garden City. This is my first experience with Truman Capote, and I’m a fan.


Also, as Marie said at The Boston Bibliophile, Scott Brick’s narration is excellent. I recommend this book on audio if you’re so inclined. (I also picked up a paperback, though, to have on hand. I never did reference it while listening but I think I’d like to have it for future use.)


*My audio version is 12 cd and 14.5 hours; my paperback edition is just under 400 pages.

**Back to the fact vs. fiction question. It does seem that Capote behaved like a journalist in putting this book together: gathering facts, interviewing key players, confirming dates. It could pass as “true crime,” a genre which itself may have trouble with fact vs. fiction. The biggest place where Capote appears to leave the realm of nonfiction behind is in dialogue; he has recreated a great many pieces of dialogue, mostly between Perry and Dick, that were unrecorded. He has relied upon Perry and Dick themselves in this recreation, I think, but memory being what it is, some creativity definitely come into play. I did note that on the night of the Clutters’ deaths, Capote has not tried to recreate their experience or any dialogue, except in the accounts shared by Perry and Dick in their confessions. This seems to show a reluctance to just “make things up,” and a respect for the question that (I think) still remains: did Perry kill the two male Clutters and Dick the two women, as Perry originally claimed? Or did he Perry kill all four, as he amended his story to say, and as Dick claimed all along? Capote doesn’t answer this question for us – presumably because he respects the fact that he can’t answer it authoritatively. (I do wonder what he thought, though, considering that he apparently was very close to Perry in particular.)

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

THIS is how I like my nonfiction! See, Castaneda? Like this! I can’t exactly explain the difference. There’s just something very narrative, conversational, interesting about this. Similarly, Dethroning the King, Janet Malcolm, Annie Londonderry, etc. It’s not sensationalist; it’s just exciting. Written like a thriller or like a work of fiction, but no less serious a work of nonfiction for it. How to explain? Let me quote a very average paragraph for you, from page 27:

Each man recognized and respected the other’s skills. The resultant harmony was reflected in the operation of their office, which, according to one historian, functioned with the mechanical precision of a “slaughterhouse,” an apt allusion, given Burnham’s close professional and personal association with the stockyards. But Burham also created an office culture that anticipated that of businesses that would not appear for another century. He installed a gym. During lunch hour employees played handball. Burnham gave fencing lessons. Root played impromptu recitals on a rented piano. “The office was full of a rush of work,” Starrett said, “but the spirit of the place was delightfully free and easy and human in comparison with other offices I had worked in.”

See, that second sentence is long and convoluted and uses biggish words, but it flows and communicates; it doesn’t impede communication, and what it certainly doesn’t do is brag.

All right, rant aside, this is an excellent book! I started it Friday night and finished it Sunday afternoon. Not to repeat the back-of-the-book blurbs, but this work of nonfiction absolutely reads like a thriller; it’s difficult to put down. Very enjoyable. After years (literally) on my TBR shelves, I picked it up because I had such a groove going, after Annie Londonderry and Clara and Mr. Tiffany, two books set in the same era with overlapping locations – Annie in New York, Boston, and Chicago as well as all around the world, and Clara in New York, with the Chicago World Fair playing a role as well. I enjoyed both of these books so much, and especially the extra immersion in time-and-place I got by reading them back-to-back, that I wanted to go straight into The Devil and the White City next. And I’m so glad I did.

The story is this: Daniel H. Burnham, along with a huge cast of other talents and characters and against all odds, pulled together the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known to us as the Chicago World Fair. Concurrently, a man named Herman Webster Mudgett but known by his most-used alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes, murdered an unknown number of people, at least 27 but estimated as high as 200, in Chicago on the very edge of the fair grounds. Larson tells the story of the fair, of the serial murders, and of a larger time-and-place from the points of view of these two men, mostly, with side journeys into several other lives.

The World’s Fair is a character unto itself, as is the city of Chicago. Larson gives us the styles and morals of the time, and helps us to understand how it was that dozens of people, mostly young women experiencing a freedom unknown to their parents’ generation, could disappear into Holmes’ grasp. We see the wonder and beauty and ambition and angst of those who worked to produce the landmark event that was the White City, as the fair was known. We see the everyday struggles that allowed Holmes to methodically go about his evil pleasures.

Larson walks a fine line in trying to enter the heads of historical figures, especially the elusive Holmes, and still call his book nonfiction; but he’s got me convinced. He points out that everything in quotation marks is attributable, and defends the two murder scenes he chooses to portray with the evidence available to him in his research. In fact, as an aside, I enjoyed his “Notes and Sources,” and the brief story of his research there. He even mentions, in some cases, in which library or rare book room he found a particular elusive source. Further, also from Notes and Sources, page 395-6:

I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story.

I know all of us booklovers (and librarians) enjoy that.

This is an engaging, riveting read. The historical value is vast. I’m always amazed by how the pieces of our history fit together. Am I the only one? I feel like there are so many names, personalities, and events in our history, but we learn them as individual bits; it’s always a little thrill when they come together in ways I don’t expect. For example, reading that Elias Disney worked as a carpenter and furniture-maker in the building of the fair, and went home to tell his sons, including little Walt, stories of the “magical realm beside the lake.” Isn’t that a charming little anecdote? Several of these connections are left in suspense, too; if your history is a bit weak in the right places, as mine was, you get these happy little surprises. I like that.

I found this book captivating, and I recommend it as a pleasurable read that may sneak some learning in on you. I invite readers of thrillers and evocative nonfiction to enter this fantastic, glittering, magical, and deadly – and true – world.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

So, Janet Malcolm is a journalist and writes for the New Yorker as well as having published a number of acclaimed works of nonfiction and biography. I have been interested for some time in reading The Silent Woman (biography of Sylvia Plath), and actually own Two Lives (of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), although I have not yet read it. Her latest release is Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and I was interested enough to buy it at once, for the library, and to take it to lunch with my on the day of its arrival to start reading it.

First impressions: I guess the cover is boring to you here in image form, but I find it striking and respectable in its simplicity. I wish more books would try this style of straightforwardness; not that I don’t appreciate beautiful, elegant, well-designed covers that involve color and images, but this slim, simple, black book is very eye-catching in a world of graphics.

It starts off very strong. I’ve said before, my kind of nonfiction is narrative style; this is just right for me. Malcolm has a voice in her own story, including occasionally referring to herself: how she would have reacted to a certain question in the jury selection process, for example. Or, later in the book, how she interacted with the families in question during interviews; or her discussion of the different journalists and their interactions during the trial. I like that Malcolm plays a part in the book. It seems more realistic that way. Who can help being a part of the story she writes, especially in a case such as this? Malcolm followed the case for many months. She couldn’t have helped but be involved on some level.

The story is this. NYC is home to a community of Bukharan Jews in a neighborhood called Forest Hills, in Queens. Boy meets girl; they marry, and have a baby girl. Four years later, husband Daniel is murdered while handing off daughter to ex-wife. She stands trial for his murder, along with the man who allegedly fired the gun, as her hired hit man.

There are accusations that Daniel physically abused his wife and sexually abused their young daughter. There is a heated custody battle and suspicions of emotional neglect and attempts to turn her against one parent or another. The event that allegedly pushes the wife to have the husband killed, is that a custody judge chooses to remove the child from her mother’s care and place her with her father. This looks like a crazy decision, since the child barely knows her father and he was not asking for custody, merely visitation rights. There is questionable evidence; both the prosecuting and defense attorneys come in confident of victory. There are issues of culture. I learned a lot about the Bukharan sect of Jews, which I knew nothing about before reading this book.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills reads a little bit like a courtroom-procedural novel of criminal intrigue. Our questions, however, are not finally answered, as they almost certainly would be in a novel. Malcolm is not sure whether Mazeltuv Borukhova did, in fact, hire Mikhail Mallayev to kill her ex-husband Daniel Malakov. (Her title, by the way, is part of what initially attracted me to this book, along with Malcolm’s excellent reputation as an author of biographical nonfiction. It references the story of Agamemnon and his family, which I know best, and love, as told by Aeschylus. Of which, more below.*) I love that Malcolm interviews and interacts with both families and both sides involved in the legal battle, while noting her personal reactions including any bias she sees herself develop. She recognizes and gives weight to emotional reactions and personalities. It’s not a sterile treatment – because our legal justice system is far from sterile. In the end, she doesn’t tell us what really happened, because she doesn’t know. The blurb inside the front cover begins with the defining quotation of the book:

She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.

So there you have it. A story of ambiguities and questions, beautifully and insightfully told, from myriad angles. My first Malcolm read has come far too late, and I’m more eager than ever to get into more of hers.


*The Oresteia by Aeschylus is a trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies: The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. I could go on all day; I love ancient Greek drama. But I’ll try to be brief. Iphigenia’s story:

As the Greeks prepare to sail to Troy (to lay seige, in the Trojan War, to recover Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother, stolen by Paris), the winds are against them; to appease an angry goddess, they choose to sacrifice Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia. She is brought to the harbor in a wedding dress, believing she will marry Achilles, but instead is killed by her father, who then sails for Troy. Upon Agamemnon’s triumphant return ten years later, his wife (Iphigenia’s mother), Clytemnestra, along with her new lover, entrap and kill Agamemnon.

Thus, Malcolm’s title suggests that the mother in this story, Borukhova, is so angered by the “theft” of her daughter (through custody court, not sacrificial slaughter) by the girl’s father that she has him killed (by a man implied to be her new lover). As I said, I was drawn in by this allusive title. I find the allegory a bit weak in the end: the daughter in Malcolm’s story is not murdered (although there is some question that she might have been raped!); and the title’s implication suggests a bias that Malcolm generally does not profess in the body of the book. But still, it is a dramatic title, one that got my attention; and it makes a larger point, that this tale is one of epic tragedy and does no one good in the end. There is no victor; no one’s lot is improved by these sordid events (as the victim’s father points out repeatedly), regardless of whether Daniel Malakov was a good man and doctor or a deplorable and sick abuser.

I recommend Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills; and I also recommend Aeschylus!!

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