The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise by Nick Foster

A chilling tale about an expat American in Panama whose murderous crimes went undetected for years.

jolly roger

Journalist Nick Foster explores a backwater archipelago of Panama in The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise, a work of true crime and national history. As he investigates the serial killer known locally as Wild Bill Cortez, Foster asks: What is it about this expat society, or this place, that allowed these events to unfold?

William Dathan Holbert was originally from western North Carolina, where he showed an early disrespect for the law and his friends. Foster’s investigative work follows a young man who defrauded his mentor and experimented with white supremacy before running for the border with his girlfriend, Laura Michelle Reese. But it was in the small village of Bocas del Toro in Panama that he came into his own, eventually killing a number of fellow American expatriates for their cash and real estate. On the property of an early victim, he opened a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club (“over 90 percent of our members survive”), where he groomed future victims. Holbert and Reese still await trial in Panama.

The Jolly Roger Social Club intersperses Holbert’s crimes with Panamanian history, from the building of the Canal to Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship and its ties to United States politics and economics. With this broader perspective and interviews with expats in Bocas del Toro who knew “Wild Bill,” Foster explores the factors that provided Holbert with the setting where his crimes went undetected for years: a remote corner of the Caribbean where people sometimes simply… disappear.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 signatures.

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood

This engrossing inquiry into faked deaths introduces curious characters and a litany of questions about life.

playing dead

Elizabeth Greenwood had recently quit teaching public school in New York City to return to school herself, and her student loan debt had hit six figures. She was feeling desperate, trapped and bored with her day-to-day existence. When a friend made a joke about faking her death to get away from it all, she was intrigued.

The idea became the research project that consumed her time and imagination for years, and resulted in Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. Greenwood explores the world of pseudocide from several angles. She speaks with several subjects of infamous botched cases, but fails to identify any successful fraudsters (by definition, they are hard to find). She visits with the investigators who pursue these attempted frauds on behalf of the insurance companies frequently scammed (“His workplace, in a way, is the DMV of death”), as well as with professionals in the field of helping people disappear. She also cozies up to a passionate “Believer” in Michael Jackson’s epic prank: that the singer is not dead at all, but in hiding, sending coded messages to his fans. When Greenwood sits down with family members who have been left behind, she finds the most damage inflicted. Finally, in the Philippines, she sets out to purchase her own death certificate.

Initially Playing Dead asks: Is this deception possible in a modern era of closed-circuit cameras, digital signatures and the inerasable Internet? Is it better to fake death, or simply to disappear? Are those who get caught really “morons and idiots,” as one specialist asserts? By the end of her journey, though, Greenwood asks different questions. Why are pseudocides overwhelmingly male? Is this an act of sacrifice or ego? “Is transformation without annihilation possible?” By the epilogue, she has reconsidered, for herself at least, which is preferable: a difficult life or a false death.

Along the way, she acquires a few tips: keep your first name when you take on a new identity. Stay in disguise. Don’t bother with a surrogate body. Quit driving altogether. Disappear on a hike, not into the ocean. And whatever you do, don’t assume you can return home to family and friends after just a few years dead. The exercise of seeking pseudocide for Greenwood, “acts as a gentle reminder that our realities are far from fixed.”

This energetic exploration of a world many readers may not have ever considered is perhaps slightly macabre, but ultimately very human; it is a questioning of how we seek satisfaction in life, and when we cut and run. Greenwood’s narrative voice is humble and approachable, but as an investigator she is tenacious, going the distance–to death and back–to bring this oddly fascinating story to her readers. Playing Dead will please those attracted to the eccentric, as well as anyone who has ever fantasized about leaving it all behind.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cars.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (audio)

book thiefI need to give up the audiobooks for a while. I know I’ve been saying this, but The Book Thief is the extreme case. I may have started listening to this in, like, March.

And I had some trouble getting involved at first, but how can I criticize, when I’ve listened so infrequently and over such a long time? My bad, Zusak. Slowly but surely, I was pulled into the world of Liesel Meminger, who is (about) ten when we meet her. Her mother immediately deposits her with a foster family at the start of World War II. Liesel’s story is about the war and its effects on one child, her family and the town where she lives. Unusually, it is narrated by Death; and he is a weary one indeed, especially in 1930’s and ’40’s Germany.

I found out some time into my listening that the print version of those book includes illustrations. It is probably worth getting the print version for this reason!! I wish I had. Also, my poor perspective has been noted, but I think it may be true that the book opens a little slowly: Death reflects, and sets up Liesel’s circumstances, for perhaps a little too long before entering Liesel’s head and the intimacies of her life and struggles. Death develops as a character, too, but it is really in Liesel’s childlike, but wise and somber mind that this book becomes most absorbing and affecting.

This is barely a review. Go read someone else’s review – like this one from The New York Times, not entirely raving, or one of these, the first of which notes that slow-to-start observation I made. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook when I think the print would have been better, and going toooooo sloooooowly. But I can see from here that this is an intriguing perspective, and witty in several ways.

And wouldn’t you know, I just found out while writing this that there’s a movie too, as of 2013. It looks a little prettier and more sentimental than my impression of the book (just from the trailer); but it also looks beautiful, and moving. I will want to see that next. The movie never accomplishes what the book does, because of the limitations of the form (time, for one thing), but sometimes the movie is a fine thing in itself.

The Book Thief: worth more than I put into it.


Rating: 7 and a half stairs down to the basement.

Paraíso by Gordon Chaplin

Set in Mexican “Paradise,” this moody novel combines fantasy, noir and the complexities of every form of love.

paraiso

Paraíso is an atmospheric novel both realistic and rooted in fantasy, traveling from New York City to Baja, Mexico, and exploring the nuances of love in all its forms. Gordon Chaplin (Joyride) offers a cast of whimsical, imperfect, loveable characters that readers will not soon forget.

As children, they were almost preternaturally close. Their mother named them Peter and Wendy, perhaps an early sign of something odd in family undercurrents. As teenagers, they stole the family minivan and ran for Mexico, but they never made it, apprehended instead at the very point Huck Finn and Jim aimed for.

These episodes are visited in flashbacks, from a present in which Peter and Wendy have been estranged for a decade, over a mysterious family secret. Wendy has finally made it to the little Mexican town of Paraíso, on the Baja peninsula, where she finds herself at the intersection of love and peril. Peter fled New York City after the towers fell, seeking his lost sister. They circle one another as Paraíso nears its conclusion, joined by charismatic associates, friends and lovers. These include Wendy’s best friend, who has been the siblings’ go-between for years; a sinister half-Mexican auto mechanic; an artista from Mexico City; and a teenage girl Peter mentors at work. The momentum of this expertly paced noir fairy tale increases as it nears its denouement.

Gorgeous, vivid scenery and fascinating people enrich a story that is both eccentric and universal: how to love and how to handle betrayal.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 letters.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 details.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

jesus' sonThis is an intense, gritty collection of connected short stories that is almost a novel. The unnamed narrator (known only as Fuckhead) is clearly the same guy throughout, as we follow him through a nearly-chronological series of adventures in drug abuse, petty crime and violence, depravity and apathy. Also novelistically, there is something of an arc: the story ends with our narrator living sober with a part-time job, muddling along in a dingy, not-guilt-free version of redemption. It is not clearly told; the narrator is addled and deluded, and so is his story-telling style; it is performative of the character.

There is beauty throughout, as well. It is a fascinating, glittering series of tales in its emotional range and its tolerance for different viewpoints. Jesus’ Son has the power to entertain and amuse, to disturb and disquiet, and to uplift all at once. It is a strange, powerful creation.


Rating: 7 hits.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 542 other followers

%d bloggers like this: