One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2014

‘Women Behaving Badly’ — True Stories of Notorious Female Killers

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction,True Crime,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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One of America’s best historical true-crime writers recalls women who made a fatal mistake by the lake

Women Behaving Badly: True Tales of Cleveland’s Most Ferocious Female Killers: An Anthology. By John Stark Bellamy II. Gray & Co., 255 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What a pity that the FBI didn’t launch its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list until 1950. An earlier start might have allowed the spy agency to tap a few of the female killers in this sparkling collection of true-crime tales, most of which deal with murders committed in the Cleveland area in the late 19th or early 20th century.

It may or may not be true, as John Stark Bellamy asserts in the preface to Women Behaving Badly, that “there is simply no comparison in cunning, quality, and sheer entertainment value between the shallow, predictable murders of men and the complex, richly nuanced slayings by women.” But this book makes clear that Hollywood does an injustice to female killers when it stereotypes them as gun molls, action heroines or sex-obsessed stalkers.

The 16 tales in the collection deal chiefly with Bonnies without Clydes, women who took the initiative in crime instead of serving as men’s foils, and some testify to a different form of female solidarity than has inspired anthologies like Sisterhood is Powerful. One of the most chilling accounts recalls the fatal 1919 stabbing of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber by assassins his wife had hired, a crime that remains “the only homicide in the history of the world in which a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter were indicted for the same first-degree murder.” Another tale focuses on Velma West, who along with three other inmates escaped in 1939 from a women’s prison, where she was serving time for smashing her husband’s skull with a clawhammer. (Captured in Dallas, West went back to the Marysville Reformatory and implied that her murdered spouse had been too weak to live with her: “He couldn’t take it. I hit him playfully on the head with a hammer one night and that was that.”) A third tale reconsiders the case of the sadistic 1950s housewife Mary Barger, who had help from a 16-year-old niece when she tortured her brother-in-law’s two daughters, who were living with with her while their father served in the Air Force.

Bellamy tells his stories with an infectious zeal for his subjects’ audacity and an admiration for the prosecutors who matched wits with them, traits that in this and earlier books have established him as one of America’s best writers of historical true crime. He avoids the clichés and portentous tones of television shows like 48 Hours — which regularly describe victims “beautiful” people who “always had a smile” — and leaves the impression that he would shudder at the word “closure.” Just when you’re convinced that only the dimmest shield-wearer would have seen the 1905 death of Minnie Peters as a “suicide,” he writes: “But before you dismiss Cleveland police chief Fred Kohler as an utter moron, consider this: He may have been right about Minnie killing herself.” Without special pleading, Bellamy also shows a keen sympathy for the horrific circumstances that could drive women to crime. He notes rightly that some of his subjects might have had “a happier fate if they had lived in a more enlightened age.” Although he doesn’t doesn’t say so directly, at least a few of the women in his book might have avoided tragedy had they lived in times of safety nets like unemployment insurance, rape-crisis hotlines and shelters for abused women.

Perhaps the most poignant story in Women Behaving Badly involves Anna Kempf, a Hungarian immigrant who faced eviction from her home after being abandoned in 1928 by a husband who left her with three young daughters to support. Kempf had spent months visiting private and public welfare organizations, pleading vainly for financial help, and had tried unsuccessfully to place her children in an orphanage to keep them off the streets. The news that she was about to lose her job seems to have been the last straw: Kempf tried to kill herself and her children by dishing up bowls of chocolate ice cream laced with rat poison. Her youngest daughter died, and Kempf was indicted for first-degree murder. But her heartbreaking plight so struck the public that one prospective juror, upon receiving his jury-duty fee from the court clerk, said loudly: “Have this cashed for me and give the money to Mrs. Kempf to buy Christmas presents for the other two girls.” A judged sentenced her to probation and “took the opportunity to criticize the social service organizations that had so signally failed to help Anna Kempf in her hour of desperate need.” Stories like Kempf’s may have a Cleveland setting but speak to universal themes that give this book relevance beyond the Midwest.

Among the women in the book who became fugitives, only Mabel Champion had the last laugh on the law. Champion kept a four-inch stiletto in her purse and was wearing eight large diamond rings when, at a crowded restaurant in Cleveland’s theater district on a summer night in 1922, she pulled out a .38-caliber Colt revolver and shot a carnival promoter who had questioned her virtue. (“I did what any woman would do,” she explained to reporters. “I shot Edward O’Connell because he insulted me.”) She received a 20-year sentence, but after serving less than two years, she tucked a crude dummy into her prison bed and walked out of the Marysville Reformatory forever. A nationwide dragnet failed to find her. And although it’s unlikely, given her age — which would today be more than 100 – Bellamy “likes to think she’s still out there, laughing her low Texas belly laugh at the baffled lawmen who couldn’t keep this sensational Jazz-Age baby tied down.” Perhaps she even felt insulted that — when the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list has included only eight women — the FBI never chose, however belatedly, include her.

Best line: Why do women use poison as a murder weapon? “Poisoning is generally furtive, an ideal quality for someone confronting an adversary of superior muscular strength of social power,” Bellamy writes. “No messy hand-to-hand combat, knowledge of firearms, or knife-fighting technique is required. Poison is easily acquired, hidden, and disguised: many lethal poisons have nonhomicidal uses and are part of the fabric of everyday life, as any amateur gardener or pest control professional can attest. It can be stealthily administered and is difficult to detect — as many a delayed exhumation has shown.”

Worst line: Fred Gienke suffered “days of excruciating agony” after his niece, Martha Wise, put arsenic in his water. When is agony not “excruciating”?

Published: 2005. All but two of the true-crime stories in Women Behaving Badly first appeared in one of Bellamy’s earlier collections, which include the delightful They Died Crawling and The Maniac in the Bushes. The book has 32 black-and-white photographs.

Conflict alert: Bellamy wrote so many excellent reviews for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor that I have a permanent bias in favor of his writing.

Jan is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Her novels include The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s). She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 12, 2009

If Only the Recession Were Like This for Writers and Artists — More on R. A. Scotti’s Forthcoming ‘Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa’

The cover of the advance reader's edition of 'Vanished Smile'

I’ve been reading R. A. Scotti’s historical true-crime book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, April 2009), which I mentioned yesterday. And it’s been a pleasure after trudging through the finalists for the 2009 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, the winners of which will be announced Monday. Another quote from Scotti’s fascinating tale, this one about Picasso’s Rose period:

“In those happy days, Picasso would sell his art by the armful – a hundred francs (then worth about twenty dollars) for a stack of drawings; two thousand francs for thirty canvases. A few dealers – notably, Ambrose Vollard, astute and fair, and Clovis Sagot, an unscrupulous ex-clown who sold art out of an old apothecary – were scooping up Picasso’s harlequins and saltimbanques for the price of a meal … money was a luxury, and freeloading was a way of life. ‘You could owe money for years for your paints and canvases and rent and restaurant and practically everything except coal and luxuries,’ Picasso remembered.”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By Kate Summerscale
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize for fiction may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable recipient of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction. In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. The case stymied the Wiltshire police, and Scotland Yard sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill House to help with the investigation. Whicher quickly became convinced that he knew who killed young Saville Kent. But in trying to prove it, he faced obstacles that included public scorn for his work, rooted partly Victorian notions of privacy and the sanctity of the family home. Five years later, the killer confessed, vindicating Whicher without answering all of the questions raised by one of the most notorious murders of its day.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/, Britain’s most prestigious nonfiction award. Was it worthy of a prize?

2. In this book, Kate Summerscale tells a true crime story structured like a detective novel that includes a startling twist in the last pages. How well does that technique work? Was the book more or less effective or than the best mysteries you’ve read?

3. Would you have believed the story in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher if the book had been labeled “fiction”? What does your response tell you about the different requirements of fiction and nonfiction?

4. “Like any novelist, Summerscale follows her storytelling instincts in making the detective the hero of her book,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “While her efforts to humanize his sketchy character are limited at best, she does far better at illustrating how he was fictionally transformed, both in the mysteries of his day and in subsequent permutations of the genre.” [“True-Lit-Hist-Myst,” The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2008, page 19.] Do you agree or disagree with Stasio?

5. Good detective novelists avoid the use of obvious red herrings, narrative devices intended to mislead or distract you from more important facts. Many authors try to avoid even subtle red herrings, which some readers see as cheating. Did Summerscale’s book have red herrings, whether blatant or discreet? If so, how did they affect the story?

6. Some of the Amazon.com reviewers fault Summerscale for what they see as a just-the-facts approach, a literary style similar to that of Agatha Christie and other mid-20th-century mystery novelists. What did you think of that style? How appropriate was it?

7. Summerscale quotes the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler as saying: “The detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” [Pages 303–304] How, if at all, does that comment apply to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? Does the book have a happy ending?

8. Have you read any other nonfiction books about 19th-century crimes, such as the bestselling Manhunt? How did they compare to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher?

9. The publisher of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher has revived the practice, little used in the U.S. today, of including floor plans and similar art in a crime story. What did the illustrations add to the book? Would you like to see other publishers revive the practice?

10. After reading the book, what did you think of the use of the small photograph in the oval on the cover of the American edition? Was this fair in book that uses detective-novel techniques? Would this picture have appeared of a work on fiction?

Vital statistics:
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95. Published: April 2008 (first American edition) www.mrwhicher.com.

Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

A review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/30. You can find an interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com/twitter

July 10, 2008

Gunning for Love — ‘Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge’

Love didn’t go by the book for two FBI agents, one of them a specialist in undercover work

Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. By Caitlin Rother with John Hess. Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

You know the old Woody Allen joke about how the great thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chances of getting a Saturday-night date? This book reminds us that it can also halve your chances of getting out of it alive.

Twisted Triangle grew out of a macabre story about two married FBI agents that got splashy coverage in Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the 1990s. Gene Bennett had taken part in two successful undercover operations before he tried to kill his wife, Margo, in the apparent belief that she had become infatuated with the novelist Patricia Cornwell. His past raises interesting questions touched on in the book: Does undercover work – which requires agents to assume a false identity – foster personality disintegration? Can it lead to disassociative disorder, commonly known as multiple personality disorder, to which Gene’s lawyers attributed his violent behavior? Might undercover work attract people predisposed to the condition?

These questions have a relevance that may extend beyond the Bennett case to those involved in covert operations in places like Afghanistan. So you wish Caitlin Rother and John Hess had gotten better material from Margo, whose story they tell.

The essential problem surfaces in the subtitle, A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. Margo Bennett says repeatedly that she and Cornwell had two intimate “encounters” — or what sounds like a two-night stand — and Cornwell has confirmed it in interviews. On the witness stand, Margo corrected a lawyer who said she’d had “an adulterous lesbian affair” with Patricia Cornwell: “I said I had two encounters with Ms. Cornwell.”

So why is Twisted Triangle billed as the story of “a lesbian love affair”? The publisher may have imposed that subtitle on the authors. But Margo comes across as such an unreliable source that the unreliable subtitle, in a sense, represents a book driven by what sound like rationalizations instead of explanations. Margo signed phony documents in a home-relocation scam because, she says, Gene threatened to leave her if she didn’t. She lied on the witness stand when he was tried for the fraud because, she says, she was afraid he would hurt their children if she didn’t. To explain other unflattering actions, she invokes the Stockholm syndrome and — you guessed it — her “fragile self-esteem.” But if Margo lied under oath to protect her children, how do we know she didn’t try to protect them again by distorting the facts when she was interviewed for this book?

Rother and Hess confirmed some of what Margo told them through court documents and other sources. But much of this book has a “he said, she said” quality. Margo complains that a 1996 Washington Post story made her seem “very careless, uncaring, and crazy on my own.” Twisted Triangle does little to correct that impression and, in some ways, deepens it. In the Post story, Karl Vick expressed the theme of the Bennett case in seven words. Those words also sum up the moral of this book: “Sometimes, homo sapiens behave very, very badly.”

Best line: “Louis Freeh, who had just been appointed director [of the FBI], had instituted a zero-tolerance approach and was taking a hard line on disciplinary issues. Some agents described him as Hoover without the compassion.”

Worst line: Margo says that after working as an FBI agent for a few years, she learned that her husband had $60,000 in cash that he insisted was a gift from his dead father: “Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”
This passage shows one of the many hard-to-believe rationalizations that Margo Bennett gives for why she accepted her husband’s shady behavior.

Published: April 2008 www.catilinrother.com

If you like true crime, consider reading instead: Stanley Alpert’s The Birthday Party (Putnam, 2007) www.stanleyalpert.com, a memoir by a former federal prosecutor abducted on a Manhattan street and held for 25 hours by captors who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. A review appeared on this site on Jan. 30, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/ and a reading group guide on Feb. 4, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/.

Furthermore: The Bennetts met while working in the Atlanta office of the FBI. Margo is a campus police captain at the University of California at Berkeley. Gene is serving a 23-year sentence in a Virginia prison. Patricia Cornwell has responded to Twisted Triangle in an Advocate article www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid54596.asp.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept books, catalogs, advance reading copies, press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 7, 2008

‘Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge’ – Coming This Week

Filed under: News,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:53 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One morning in July of 1996, readers of the Washington Post saw a tantalizing headline on the Style section front: “The Ex Files: Here’s What Can Happen When Two Heavily Armed People Fall Out of Love. A Story of Sex, Guns and a Crime Novelist’s Nightmare.” The article dealt with the failed marriage of two FBI agents, one of whom would later go to jail for attempting to murder his wife, whom he believed was infatuated with the bestselling author Patricia Cornwell. Caitlin Rother tells the story of the intended victim, Margo Bennett, in her new Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95) www.caitlinrother.com, written with John Hess. One-Minute Book Reviews will review the book later this week.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 26, 2007

Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘The Adversary’: The Best True Crime Book of the Decade?

What makes a man capable of feeding his children cocoa puffs and milk before murdering them?

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception. By Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Picador, 191 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Does reading the New York Times Book Review on Sundays feel like a penance to you? Consider switching to the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It has a small but superb book review section, distinguished especially by a feature called “Five Best” in which a different expert each week picks and describes the five best books on a subject.

The “experts” aren’t usually the people you might expect, literary critics and English professors. But they do hit the mark week after week. A case in point: On Memorial Day weekend Sen. John McCain chose his five favorite books about “soldiers in wartime.” And who could disagree with his choice of, for example, Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front?

Last month the Journal listed the five best books about “the criminal mind,” selected by Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name for the astringent British psychiatrist and former prison doctor Anthony Daniels. Again, bingo.

Dalrymple’s choices included perhaps the best true crime book of the decade: Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, the story of a middle-class Frenchman and the “pride of his village” who led a double life. After failing to complete medical school, Jean-Claude Romand married, had two children, and stayed close to his parents, all the while passing himself off as a respected doctor with the World Health Organization, just across the border in Geneva. Romand kept up the pose for more than 17 years, supporting his family by embezzling money from relatives and others. When exposure became certain, he could see no way out except to murder his wife, children, and parents.

Yet this remarkable – and remarkably elegant story – has a depth absent from similar accounts on American news shows. Carrère does not focus on the minutiae of evidence or the grandstanding of lawyers. One question above all interests him: How could a man keep up such a monstrous fiction, including feeding his children cocoa puffs with milk before murdering them in their beds? The answer has social, financial, psychological and religious dimensions, all artfully woven into fewer than 200 pages. And the implications extend far beyond Roman’s village – you could say, all the way to Virginia Tech.

Best line: “The father had been shot in the back, the mother full in the chest. Certainly she – perhaps both of them – had known that they were dying at the hands of their son … The priest promised [at their funeral] that now they saw God. For believers, the moment of death is the moment when one sees God no longer through a glass darkly but face-to-face. Even nonbelievers believe in something of the sort, that in the instant of passing to the other side, the dying see the movie of their whole lives flash by, its meaning clear at last. And this vision that should have brought the elderly Romands the joy of accomplishment had been the triumph of deception and evil. They should have seen God and in his place they had seen, taking on the features of their beloved son, the one the Bible calls Satan, ‘the adversary.'”

Worst line: None

Recommendation? A great book-club book. And Holt has given it an exemplary reading group guide. It’s the only reading group guide I’ve seen that actually suggests other books you might want to read as well … even if they weren’t published by Holt. This is shocking by the standards of the self-absorbed guides of most publishers, who rarely suggest that you buy a book by another firm.

Reading group guide: www.henryholt.com/readingguides/

Published: 2000 (First American edition), January 2002 (Picador paperback).

Furthermore: Dalrymple’s “Five Best” column appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 2007, page P8.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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