One-Minute Book Reviews

August 4, 2008

Around the World in 80 Sleuths — A List of Crime-Solvers and Their Turf

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:43 pm
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Kerrie at the Mysteries in Paradise blog steered me to Jonathan Gibbs’s traveler-friendly post Around the World in 80 Sleuths in the Independent
www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/crime-fiction-around-the-world-in-80-sleuths-873660.html, which has thumbnail descriptions of 80 fictional crime-solvers and their haunts. The featured sleuths work in places that span the alphabet from roughly Amsterdam (Nicholas Freeling’s Inspector Piet Van der Valk in Because of Cats) to Ystad, Sweden (Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander in Faceless Killers). Kerrie covers additional ground on her unusually well-organized mystery blog paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/, some of it in a recent review of R. N. Morris’s A Gentle Axe, set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1866.

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

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 8, 2008

Modern-Day Slavery on Long Island, in Florida and Elsewhere

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:06 pm
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Last month a federal judge sentenced an upper-middle-class Long Island woman to 11 years in prison after immigration officials found that she and her husband had kept two Indonesian housekeepers as virtual slaves in their home. The victims testified that they had been “beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives and forced to climb stairs and take freezing showers as punishment,” the Associated Press said www.nytimes.com/2008/06/27/nyregion/27slave.html?ref=nyregion.

The judge called it “eye-opening, to say the least – that things like that go on in our country.” John Bowe makes clear in Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (Random House, 336 pp., $15, paperback) that such brutality is far from unique. Nobodies is an uneven book that blends strong reporting on the abuse of migrant and other workers with a weaker analysis of why it has occurred. But there is real power in its first section, “Florida,” which deals with the plight of Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, parts of which first appeared in different form in The New Yorker www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/22/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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
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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 3, 2008

The Five Essential Crime Novels Published Since 2000 Are …

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:45 am
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Since the 1970s, the two major branches of crime fiction — the English cozy and the American hard-boiled — have “divided and proliferated,” Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison argue in their 100 Must-Read Crime Novels (A&C Black, 2006), a Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide www.acblack.com. One result is that the field now ranges from “the tartan noir of Ian Rankin to the Roman scandals of Steven Saylor, from Donna Leon’s shadow-filled Venice to the mean streets of Walter Mosley’s LA.”

But can the recent expansion be sustained? How many of those “must-read” crime novels have appeared in the 21st century? Among the 100 essential books reviewed in their guide, Shephard and Rennison list five published since 2000:

Flinch (2001) by Robert Ferrigno. Ferrigno has set his books “mainly in the sun-kissed idyll and moral vacuum” of southern California, and he returns to it in Flinch. Reporter Jimmy Gage becomes involved in the hunt for a serial killer in a novel that, Shephard and Rennison say, “may well be Ferrigno’s finest offering.”

The Bottoms (2000) by Joe R. Lansdale. “Joe Lansdale is best known for his series of violently farcical novels in which Hap Collins, white and straight, and Leonard Pine, black and gay, join forces in an odd crime team let loose among the rednecks in the Deep South, but The Bottoms is something very different,” Shephard and Rennison write. The novel, set east Texas in the mid-1930s, involves the discovery of a mutilated body bound to a tree in the river bottoms near the home of its young narrator, Harry Crane.

Tell No One (2001) by Harlan Coben. A young married couple plan to celebrate the anniversary of their first kiss at a lake in Pennsylvania, but during the tryst Elizabeth is murdered and David is beaten and left for dead. Eight years later to the day, David receives an e-mail message telling him to visit a Web site that contains the command: “tell no one.” “Coben masterfully piles on the suspense and tension,” the editors say, and sets “a relentless pace that holds till the final page.”

Mystic River (2001) by Dennis Lehane. The plot may hinge on implausible coincidences, but Shephard and Rennison see this as an “entirely compelling story” about three friends and something terrible that happened to them twenty-five years ago in Boston. For an alternate view of Mystic River, see the review posted on this site on Oct. 17, 2006 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/17/.

Dialogues of the Dead (2002) by Reginald Hill. In a novel that brings back Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe of the Mid-Yorkshire police, two deaths regarded as accidents come under new scrutiny when stories entered in a library’s short story contest contain details only someone close to the crimes could have known. All of Hill’s fiction shows his love of word games and literary allusions, Shephard and Rennison say, and this book places that love at the heart of the plot.

Not sure you’d like any of those books? Bill Peschel has an archive of reviews of other mysteries at Reader’s Almanac www.planetpeschel.com/index?/reviews/index/C5/.

Have you read a good crime novel that you would recommend that others? If so why not leave a comment on the post for the latest meeting of One-Minute Book Reviews online book club www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/, where people are discussing the books they are taking on vacation?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 2, 2008

Five ‘Must-Read’ Crime Novels of the 20th Century — What Are Their 21st-Century Equivalents?

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 am
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Vera Caspary’s Laura. George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time. Georges Simenon’s Maigret Sets a Trap. Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens. These five 20th-century books made a list of “100 Must-Read Crime Novels” in recent guide to detective stories and other kinds of suspense fiction. (Speaking just for myself: You could argue with some of those choices — is any of the scores of Maigret novels really the “best”? — but would even the most curmudgeonly fan of the genre object to The Friends of Eddie Coyle?) What are the five essential crime novels of the 21st century? Yes, the guide lists only five. The answer will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 19, 2008

Who Killed Chuck Ramkissoon? ‘Netherland’ and Unreliable Narration – Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 am
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At the heart of Joseph O’Neill’s beautifully written new novel, Netherland, lies a mystery that remains unresolved at the end of the book: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricketer who in the first chapter turns up dead in the Gowanus Canal? But is the mystery really unresolved? Is Netherland an oddly unfinished tale? Or is it a bold exercise in the unreliable narration that also drove Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent? An analysis of the evidence in Netherland www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043 will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews.

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

June 12, 2008

The Best Book to Have on Hand in a Power Blackout

We’re still living in a state of emergency in my part of New Jersey, where some streets look like a scene from the Book of Revelation with pizza deliveries. Tens of thousands of people aren’t expected to get their electricity back until Friday. And it made me wonder: What’s the best book to have on hand during a power blackout? Pragmatists might argue for the American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook or, possibly, the Kama Sutra. But – speaking just for myself – I’d want The Complete Sherlock Holmes in any edition. What book makes for better reading aloud by candlelight to anyone over the age of six? What plot device offers a more reliable diversion from the inconveniences of life without microwave popcorn than the deadly swamp adder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” or that strange dog on the moors in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”? You can download 48 Sherlock Holmes stories for free at 221bakerstreet.org/, which also has a discussion forum and more.

Here’s news on the blackout that inspired this post: www.nj.com/newsflash/index.ssf?/base/news-32/1213231759129640.xml&storylist=jersey

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 14, 2008

A True Library Story

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:54 am
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Late this afternoon I was working in the café of a public library in New Jersey when I overheard two teenage boys marveling about how safe the library was – “by far the safest in the area.” Their reasons included that a) the library had not been forced to close during the after-school hours like Maplewood’s because of all the crime; b) it wasn’t nearly as bad as the library in Irvington, where they had heard that people tried to smuggle in guns behind books; and c) as for the library in Newark – just forget it.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 29, 2008

English on the Outside, American on the Inside – Sleuth Maisie Dobbs Returns in Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘An Incomplete Revenge’

A World War I battlefield nurse-turned-private-eye looks into a series of unexplained fires in a village in Kent

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. By Jacqueline Winspear. Holt, 303 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

For a sleuth in Depression–era England, Maisie Dobbs acts remarkably like a modern American. She relies less on gathering tangible clues than on asking personal questions that Brits of her day – or any day – would have answered with nowhere near the speed they do in this book. And instead of favoring Holmesian deduction she tends to heed her unerring instincts, honed by her work as a World War I battlefield nurse and her training as a professional psychologist.

But for all its incongruities, An Incomplete Revenge is a stellar cozy, the name often applied to the type of mystery that has an amateur female sleuth and no gratuitous sex or violence. This is a book you can give your mother for Mother’s Day without worrying that she’ll disinherit you because it turns into snuff on page 167.

In her fifth outing, Maisie Dobbs travels from her home in London to a troubled village in Kent, where she investigates a series of fires and petty crimes for a friend who is hoping to buy property there. It’s the season for picking hops, the bitter herb essential to beer-making, and migrants have streamed into town on trains known as a “Hoppers’ Specials.” Some locals blame those outsiders or an influx of gypsies for the unsolved crimes in the village. Maisie isn’t so sure — and not just because there’s Roma blood on her late mother’s side of the family — and goes after the truth.

For many mystery writers, that would be the beginning and end of the story. Winspear goes further in An Incomplete Revenge. Her several plotlines neatly weave together topics as diverse as gypsy lore, violin-making, equestrian care, the Kentish landscape and the effects of a World War I zeppelin bombing on rural England. But these subjects never become a drag on the plot or devolve into a history lesson. Maisie may be American on the inside and English on the outside, but she inhabits a world uniquely her own.

Best line: Maisie reflects as she sees gypsy women cooking while wearing big white aprons: “The apron, Maisie knew, was worn less to protect clothing from stains and splashes than to provide a barrier between the body of the cook and the food to be eaten. In gypsy lore, if food came in close proximity to a woman’s body, it was considered mokada – sullied – and not worth the eating.”

Worst line: Winspear’s dialogue is occasionally too expositional. A friend of Maisie’s says: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.” Then there’s the passage in which Maisie tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”

Published: February 2008 www.jacquelinewinspear.com

Reading group guide: At us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.You can also read or listen to an excerpt at this site.

Furthermore: Winspear grew up, in part, in Kent, and lives in California. Her honors for the Maisie Dobbs series include an Agatha Award (given by Malice Domestic to books that, like Christie’s, have no gratuitous sex or violence).

For an English perspective on Maisie Dobbs, read this post by Michael Allen of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/2006/03/jacqueline-winspear-maisie-dobbs.html. For more on hops, visit the site for America Hop Museum www.americanhopmuseum.org in the Yakima Valley.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

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