One-Minute Book Reviews

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

October 20, 2008

100 Reasons Not to Move to New Jersey, Including the Real-Life Tony Soprano

From the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel to anthrax-laced letters

Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels. By Jon Blackwell. Rutgers/Rivergate, 406 pp., $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Three hours before the start of a murder trial in New Jersey last week, someone gunned down the mother of a witness’s girlfriend. Defense lawyers dismissed the killing as a coincidence.

We have a lot of coincidences here in New Jersey, and Jon Blackwell serves them up in fine style in Notorious New Jersey. In this lively collection of 100 true-crime tales, Blackwell deals mostly with events so scandalous they made national news, or should have.

Take his profile of the Newark mob boss Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, whom Sopranos creator David Chase has called an inspiration for Tony Soprano (a fact oddly unmentioned in the book). Blackwell notes that the gangster lived in a stone mansion that Life magazine described as “Transylvanian traditional”:

“The road past his home in Livingston, New Jersey, was flanked by a pedestal on which stood a dozen painted busts of his family, staring blank-eyed like porcelain dolls. A statue of Boiardo himself, astride a white horse, towered above them. Vegetables and flowers grew in a grassy expanse marked by a sign, ‘Godfather’s Garden.’”

Ruggiero turned to his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and lieutenants like Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo when he needed help collecting kickbacks or disposing of bodies. At the age of 89, he became “the oldest mobster ever to be put on trial, anywhere” when the state tried to send him to jail for running a Mafia syndicate:

“Pleading ill health, he had the charges dismissed. He died four years later, having outlived his son and every other vestige of New Jersey’s swaggering gangland glory years.”

For all of its mobsters, Notorious New Jersey is more than a dishonor roll of leg-breakers of yesteryear. Blackwell’s masterstroke was to define “scandal” broadly. His book covers the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the anthrax-laced letters slipped into a Princeton mailbox in September 2001, the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel and the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander.

Then there are the corporate scandals, such as the cover-up at the Johns-Manville asbestos plant that Blackwell rightly calls “one of the worst corporate horror stories in U.S. history.” For decades the company withheld from its workers the news — gained from employee medical exams and X-rays — that many were gravely ill with lung-scarring asbestosis or other illnesses. The resulting litigation forced Johns-Manville into bankruptcy and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Why does scandal thrive in New Jersey? In the weakest section of the book, Blackwell tries to explain it by saying that the state attracts gangsters because, with 566 municipalities, it has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes.

But most of Blackwell’s scandals don’t involve bribery, and some have more complex causes than he implies. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and density creates opportunity. The state also has entrenched political machines, powerful unelected officials whom voters can’t remove, and a legislature that refuses to close legal loopholes that foster corruption. The advent of casino gambling didn’t help, either.

The scandals — whatever their cause — are here to stay. Blackwell provides a useful recap of the events that led to the resignation of governor James McGreevey in August 2004, some of them overshadowed by his declaration that he was gay:

“In the summer 2004, McGreevey’s knack for choosing bad friends came back to haunt him. That July, one of his top fund-raisers, David D’Amiano, was indicted on bribery charges. It emerged that a Piscataway, New Jersey, farmer was upset at being offered too little money for his land as part of an eminent domain proceeding. He turned to D’Amiano for help, and the money man promised to sweeten the deal in exchange for $10,000. The farmer would supposedly know the deal was on if a certain state official used the code word ‘Machiavelli’ – and McGreevey was afterward heard using that very word in conversation with the farmer, who wore a wire. The governor insisted his use of the word was a coincidence.”

Best line: On Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.: “H. L. Mencken was only half-joking when he called it ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection.’ Crowds of ten thousand people mobbed the Hunterdon County courthouse on especially dramatic days of testimony. Vendors sold them miniature kidnap ladders and phony locks of the Lindbergh baby’s hair.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Of the fifty states, maybe New York, California, Texas, and Illinois can match New Jersey for sheer sensational crime, but no place surpasses its blatant rascality.” Blackwell appears to be discounting all the “rascality” against blacks before the Civil Rights era. If you count lynchings — and you should — any state in the Deep South might surpass New Jersey. No. 2: In a section on Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palmero, Blackwell leaves the impression that the DeCavalcante crime family may have inspired The Sopranos when the Boiardos seem more likely models www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/revealed-the-real-tony-soprano-444869.html.

Published: December 2007 rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/notorious_nj.html

Furthermore: Blackwell is a copy editor at the New York Post. Notorious New Jersey should not be confused with the popular Weird New Jersey books, which deal with offbeat or lighter-weight topics such as legends, unsolved mysteries and a family that keeps a bowling-ball collection on its front lawn.

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

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

October 10, 2007

Ann Rule on Edna Buchanan’s Memorable Collection of True-Crime Stories, ‘The Corpse Had a Familiar Face’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:33 am
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My favorite series of short reviews is the “Five Best” column that appears weekly in the weekend edition of Wall Street Journal. Each Saturday a different well-known writer gives a one-paragraph review of some of the best books in his or her specialty.

A recent example: In the issue dated May 19-20, 2007, the true-crime writer Ann Rule www.annrules.com chose the books on murder that she most enjoys. One of them, Edna Buchanan’s The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (Random House, 1987) www.ednabuchanan.com, is also among my favorites the category. Rule said in part:

“Pulitzer Prize-winner Edna Buchanan spent 15 years as crime reporter for the Miami Herald after going to work for the paper in 1970; this is an intriguing memoir of her days and nights at crime scenes trying to unravel the truth. Along the way she memorably evokes the witnesses, families and cops that she encounters. Some of the crimes are comic — a jilted octogenarian tosses a Molotov cocktail into his girlfriend’s house but is nabbed by police after she recognizes the label on the container he used: his favorite brand of prune juice. Other crimes are horrific and will haunt you for weeks.”

Most true-crime books focus on a single case, and The Corpse Had a Familiar Face is unusual partly for the range of macabre events that it covers. And Buchanan was one of the first — and is still one of the best-known — women to earn a national reputation for her work on the historically macho police beat on newspapers. She now writes mysteries. But her most famous line remains her lead for a story about a man shot to death while waiting in line at a fast-food place: “He died hungry.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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