Books

“Zodiac” Audiobook A Roadtrip Staple

Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Nation’s Most Bizarre Mass Murderer
Robert Graysmith
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Blackstone Audio
Approximately 10 hours, 40 minutes of listening time

Back in July, before I was hit in the face by this thing called “grad school,” I took a road trip to D.C. On that same drive, I listened to Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices and, having finished that, turned to Robert Graysmith’s heavy 1976 Zodiac. This recording, available on Audible, is narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, whose low voice and grave cadence suit the subject matter without becoming overly dramatic.

Graysmith was a political cartoonist at one of the San Francisco papers that received the Zodiac killer’s cryptic letters, often finding himself in the room when the editors opened the missives. Admitting as much, he became obsessed with the case. Considering the gravity and mystique posed by a masked madman with a love of Gilbert & Sullivan shows, I’d have to say the obsession is understandable. The personal element shines through not only as Graysmith enters the narrative as a sleuth on the killer’s trail, but also in his deft and sensitive portrayals of the victims.

In addition to this book on the Zodiac killer, he also wrote the 2002 Zodiac Unmasked. The 2007 movie Zodiac is based on Graysmith’s earlier book, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing the author as a young man.

Graysmith’s book is masterfully, even overwhelmingly, researched. I have to conclude I held off on reviewing it for so long because it would be impossible to provide anything more than surface-level analysis in a short-form post. Without the text of the book, I was still able to enjoy the story and learn a lot about the case, like the Zodiac’s aforementioned love of classic operettas.

Why he thought quoting the Lord High Executioner’s comic aria at length would make him more intimidating, I don’t know. I laughed down the Washington Parkway, thinking of my eighth grade class’s abbreviated production of Pirates of Penzance, as I listened to Rudnicki dutifully read the killer’s most bizarre letter in meter. 

If you are looking to learn more about the case, I would definitely recommend purchasing a hardcopy of the book in case you want to take notes.

As for entertainment value, the audiobook drags at a few points, most notably in Graysmith’s intensive focus on victim Darlene Ferrin’s personal life and murder, which occurs early in the book and interrupts its forward momentum. Then again, I was lost in New Jersey during that part, so maybe I was projecting my frustration with the state onto the book.

Graysmith later uses the Ferrin connections of one suspect  to argue he is the killer. This suspect goes unnamed in the book for legal reasons, but is likely Arthur Lee Allen. Allen, who is since deceased, has seemingly been excluded as a suspect based on comparison of his DNA with a partial profile extracted from the Zodiac letters.

In the end, do give Zodiac a listen or a read to experience one of the stalwarts of the true crime genre. Given the killer’s fondness for murdering motorists at night, listening to it in the car as twilight fell, as I did, is sure to scare the living daylights out of you.

4/5 stars: Good research, solid storytelling. A classic, but somewhat dated.
4/5 ‘fraidy cats: A serial killer who dresses up as an executioner and was never caught. Then again, Gilbert & Sullivan can never be made terrifying.
2/5 ick-factor: The crimes are bloody, the murders are heinous, but Graysmith does not relish the details.

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Ackerman’s “Trotsky” Enjoyable…Except for the Errors

Preface

It’s been a hard few weeks for me, hard for me to face the blank page and (in my own mind, at least) provide some wit or wisdom to anyone who might read this blog.

Me? I, myself, am fine. The news has been deplorable, even more than usual. People in my social circles, including close friends, have been suffering terribly.

But, I remember I promised reviews of my summer reading, and remember that writing for you always makes me feel better.

With that said, let’s talk about violence.

Since Monday was the anniversary of Trotsky’s death (by ice ax, not by ice pick, see Fig. 1) he gets to go to the front of the review backlog line.

The story of his murder is one for the ages. I should feature it some time.

Fig. 1–Know your weapons. This will be on the quiz.


Ice ax. Similar to weapon used to kill Trotsky. (Wikipedia)


Ice pick. Still deadly, but not used on Trotsky. (Wikipedia)

The Book

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
Kenneth D. Ackerman
Counterpoint Press
2016

Even before the book begins, you can tell Ackerman is not a historian or political scientist.

And, for the most part, it works well.

Ackerman is a New York lawyer who has set his hand to retelling that great city’s history. Trotsky is his second work, chronicling the ten weeks the Russian radical, expelled from war-torn Europe for anti-war writings, lived in the Bronx with his common-law wife and their two children.

I sort this as relevant to true-crime fans because 90% of what Trotsky and his comrades had done in their lives up to this point was illegal. There is also plenty of spy intrigue and conspiracy going on separate from their plan to overthrow the capitalist order.

For “serious” historians of the Russian Revolution, (and trust me, I’ve read them) this period of time gets maybe two pages in a 900-page book. To see so much effort put into a generally-ignored period is like seeing your favorite canon characters in a spin-off movie of the best kind.

For anyone not familiar with Trotsky, Ackerman’s book is a gentle introduction in a novelistic tone.

For anyone not partial to Trotsky, the book is still enjoyable for its portrait of Gilded-Age New York, a time of optimism and social ferment. As the Russian Marxist exiles write and argue, separated from the horrors of WWI by an ocean, oblivious to the wars they will soon begin, even the most cynical reader has to admit there is at least a slight charm to their idealism.

Ackerman’s passion for the project shows even from the dedication, which is to his grandparents, who “fled Poland for America as a result of the 1920 Soviet Russian invasion…led by the then Soviet people’s commissar for military and naval affairs, Leon Trotsky.”

Yeah, spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks win. Next spoiler: Trotsky still ends up losing (see Fig. 1 above).

But passion does not save Ackerman from some egregious factual, or editing, mistakes. One of these, which still makes my eye twitch thinking about it, comes early in the book. Introducing Lenin to readers on page seventeen, Ackerman includes a quote from a contemporary…a quote about Trotsky.

A quote about Trotsky that is a fairly well-known quote about Trotsky.

(For clarity’s sake, this quote is the one that describes Trotsky as stalking around the speakers’ dais like “a bird of prey.”)

I forgive Ackerman these few…infuriating…slips because of his genuine commitment to the book, which shows forth in a novelistic, bubbly style.

3/5 stars: a nice popular history…the errors in which make this thesis survivor histrionic.
1/5 ‘fraidy cats: This is the
Downton Abbey of my summer reading.
1/5 ick-factor: I suppose it depends on your political leanings.

Update: Mr. Ackerman reached out to me in the comments to very graciously thank me for catching the error with the quote. He says it will be corrected in the next edition of the book. I thought his thoroughness deserved recognition immediately after my initial critique.

 

“Small Sacrifices” Audiobook A Great Introduction to Ann Rule

Small Sacrifices
Written and read by Ann Rule
An Audible audiobook production
Approx. 3.5 hour run-time

Audiobooks are an old friend of mine. Camping with my family as a kid often involved twelve-hour drives across Texas to the Chihuahua Desert; books on tape were how my mother kept everyone entertained and content.

So to audiobooks I turned for my drive down to Washington, D.C., over this past Fourth-of-July weekend. For my choice of book in particular, I turned to one recommended to me by a beloved high school teacher, Mrs. G.

It was in Mrs. G’s AP English class my junior year that we read In Cold Blood, the granddaddy of true crime and my first serious exposure to the written genre. A year ago, when this blog was just starting out, I visited my alma mater and consulted Mrs. G for books to review.

I am very pleased to have finally gotten to Small Sacrifices. It is fitting that this book was recommended to me by a teacher, for the late, great Ann Rule’s reading voice took me back to afternoon story time in elementary school. Just with a far, far darker topic.

This, like some of my favorite books in the mystery and true crime genres, is more a “whydunit” than a “whodunit.” It is the story of a female psychopath (who are, I have to agree with Ms. Rule, not profiled extensively enough in the genre or acknowledged in popular imagination) and how she came to be past the point of empathy. To her, children are “fungible” currency to purchase love.

To write anymore would be to give away the best of Rule’s probing psychological analysis. Her prose is easy on the ears when read aloud: detailed without being overwhelming, descriptive without dragging, incisive without losing feeling.

I never liked the song “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Now I am sure I will never listen to it again.

5/5 stars: excellent book of true-crime, brought to life by the author
3/5 ‘fraidy cats: The murder and abuse of children is described unsparingly. Not even driving through the Hudson River Valley on a sunny day could dim that sense of evil.
3/5 ick-factor: See above

Kidnapping, Wedding Crashing, and Plenty of Jumping to Conclusions: My Adventures in July

Dear Readers,

I can explain.

The broken promises. The long silences. The unannounced trips.

Okay, I think I advised the other day about the trip. I certainly did give warning that I was preparing for a move. Said move went well, by the way, and I am settling into my new apartment quite nicely. It did take me a week to get my internet up and running, which is another reason I have been incommunicado.

July has been a busy month for me, but I bring back from my adventures not one, not two, but THREE new reviews coming out this week. The first two are of audiobooks I enjoyed on my Boston-D.C.; the third is of a hardback book I have been working since Christmas and finally finished after my electronics had been packed away.

Some tales from the trail:

I Think I’m Getting Kidnapped

It is the day before my drive to D.C. I am already wound up. While standing in line, waiting for whatever I need to complete yet another pre-trip frantic errand, a voice behind me announces “Hey, do you like novels?”

Why would he know that?

Perhaps because “stranger danger” was drilled into me as a kid, more likely because of the things I read and watch, I am a little wary of overly interested strangers. The person I encountered was nice enough, and was promoting a new e-book. No harm done.

I leave the store and begin to walk back to my car, not being followed. When I arrive at my car, there is an idling vehicle pulled up alongside mine. With cars parked in front of and behind mine, I am effectively stuck. Somewhat inconvenient, but again, no harm done.

Then the driver of the idling car looks up and calls me by my first name. My blood runs cold.

“Yes?” I say.

“I’m your ride.”

“No you’re not.”

He is silent. I move to the back of my car. He is not moving.

“This is my car,” I say.

He looks at me, puzzled.

“I need you to move,” I say.

He rolls forward and I hop into my car, not sure why this person knows my name. Then, in my rear-view mirror, I see a woman my age, of similar appearance, coming out of the apartment building I parked in front of. She got into the car that had been boxing mine in.

I had not fended off a kidnapping. I had only managed to scare the living daylights out of myself and an unsuspecting Uber driver.

I Crash a Wedding

The next day, I dropped True-Crime Cat off at the vet for boarding, fought back tears at seeing her little green eyes disappear behind the counter, and set off driving for D.C. From Boston to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, I enjoyed the audiobook of Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices.

This was my first road trip and, as is to be expected, newbie mistakes began piling up.

I grew up in Texas, where toll booths are few and far between. As such, it did not occur to me to prepare for all the tolls, and I did not have cash to pay the toll booth attendant as I drove south from I-84 to the Jersey Turnpike. Consequently, with plenty of July-Fourth-Weekend traffic piling up behind me, the very patient toll attendant filled out an invoice for me to pay NY State by mail. (Which I did, of course)

I then promptly got lost in New Jersey, because I unintentionally set my navigating app to to avoid tolls, which led me parallel to the Turnpike, down a country road full of stop lights. This was probably why I had trouble focusing on the first three hours of Robert Graysmith’s hefty true-crime classic Zodiac.

After finally pulling over somewhere south of Princeton and re-calibrating Siri, I had only lost two hours to waiting at traffic lights. The sun was beginning to sink low as I headed south to Delaware, surrounded by trees.

“The young couple were alone in their car, surrounded by trees,” crooned the narrator of Zodiac, “It was already evening.”

Not an actual quote, but close enough. And that is when I began hitting myself for my choice of audiobooks. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do Zodiac books on my solo drive. I promised myself.

Somewhere south of Baltimore, I realized it was time to find a ladies’ room. Seeing an exit up ahead, I prepare to get off I-95. The “NSA-EMPLOYEES ONLY” sign and the cop with the rifle blockading the exit tipped me off that I would not be making a pit stop here.

So I drove on. The next exit is “NASA-EMPLOYEES ONLY.”

I am beginning to get desperate.

Why didn’t I stop in Baltimore? I ask myself.

Then, finally “NASA Greenbelt-State Park.” Where there’s a park, there’s a park ranger. Where there’s a ranger, there’s a HQ.

I pull off the highway at last. Right at the exit is a rustic structure  set in a wooded area, surrounded by cars.

Oh, good, they must have lots of services here if it’s this crowded. 

I find a parking spot and look up. It is a veterans’ association lodge, and there is obviously a party going on. But I am desperate.

I run to a couple taking a smoke break outside and explain the emergency.

“Is there any chance I could use the ladies’ room?”

“Oh sure, go on in, sweetie. We won’t tell anyone.”

I enter. There is a wedding cake. I wouldn’t dream of doing this on any other day. By some miracle, though, it was a casual wedding, and I came wearing the dress code.

On my way out, thanking God and the American Legion, the couple I met at the door invite me to stay for drinks. I politely decline.

I make it back to my car and close the door. Between putting the key in the ignition and turning it, I begin laughing and put my forehead against the wheel. I am ready to be done driving. After another hour, and twelve in total, I make it to my hotel.

And that is the story of how I became a wedding crasher.

P.S. Wherever you are, happy newlyweds, I wish you every happiness in the world.

P.S.S.: Come back tomorrow for my review of Small Sacrifices. Reviews of the Graysmith Zodiac audiobook coming Friday. Next week, I address the hard-copy book I finished this month, Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution, a tale of spies, suspicious Russian political operatives, and sassy backtalk.

 

Where Ya Been, Librarian?

Dear Readers,

I am sorry to keep you in silence for so long. My reasons are, in chronological order:

  1. Not having A/C and it has been too d–n hot in Boston to write
  2. Helping my friends move
  3. Preparing for my own move to an apartment with A/C, as to mitigate #1.
  4. Preparing for a road trip.

And it is for help with #4 that I come to you.

I have already downloaded the audiobook of Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices,  read by the author, which has been on my queue for the last year, on the recommendation of a former teacher. Round-trip, I will have sixteen hours of driving in total.

So, any other true crime books you would recommend I listen to? I have to admit I’ve been on a Zodiac documentary binge, but I am wary of the “I finally solved it” claims of the audiobooks available on iTunes.

Also, not sure I want to listen to eerie narration of a stranger killing people in cars while I’m driving along.

Make that no Zodiac for this trip.

To my fellow Americans, I wish you all a happy and safe Fourth of July. Don’t drink and drive; leave the fireworks to the professionals; and don’t fire guns into the air.

-L

“A Guide to Haunted New England” is Light on the Ghosts, Heavy on the Charm

A Guide to Haunted New England: Tales from Mount Washington to the Newport Cliffs
Thomas D’Agostino
Haunted America series, The History Press
2009


Photo by me. 2017.

Since Occult Crimes failed to satisfy, I thought I would offer up another suggestion for those with a hankering for the unearthly.

I picked up A Guide to Haunted New England at a local historical attraction. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the title–I was looking for a good collection of ghost stories to keep me up all night long. (Docia Williams’s Best Tales of Texas Ghosts was a formative influence on me, and the cause of many sleepless nights in middle school).

A chilling, comprehensive collection of spooks this is not. It is, as it proclaims, a travel guide, and a fun, charming, serviceable one at that.

It is a slim volume, perfect for toting around in the car for the road trips it suggests. D’Agostino includes not only locales with reported ghosts, but also sites with macabre (though not haunted) histories. If you don’t believe in ghosts, or would rather not find out for yourself if they exist, you can still enjoy D’Agostino’s suggested drives, accommodations, and restaurants through the region. I did not look into if D’Agostino has any connection to local tourism boards, but they ought to give him a medal for his enthusiasm.

I was surprised not to find a section devoted to Boston in Haunted New England, but I suppose Boston deserves a book all its own. Lizzie Borden’s house is not included in this volume, but the Salem witch trials are. The section on Salem was quite enjoyable; it makes me want to go back to that strange, sweet seaside town already.

I didn’t get what I was looking for at the souvenir shop, but that’s not such a bad thing.

2.5/5 stars: Not as spooky as I wanted it to be, but very charming. May plan my next road trip with it.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Not chock-full of ghosts, but “Popcorn” and his glass-topped coffin is a chiller.
1/5 ick-factor: No blood, no guts, no gore. Just charming pictures of farm houses and graveyards taken by the author and his wife/fellow paranormal researcher.

 

 

“Evil Town” A Quick Beach Read

Evil Town
John David Bethel
Tell-Tale Publishing
2015

In March of this year, I read and reviewed John David Bethel’s Blood Moon, a fictionalized account of a brutal Miami extortion attempt. Mr. Bethel was also kind enough to do an interview with me, the inaugural interview of this blog.

Evil Town is Bethel’s first novel, set in Washington, D.C. and inspired by his long career in political communications. The book bears both the signs of a first-time novelist and an experienced political operative.

The novel begins in haste–two murders in the first few chapters. Rather than a ‘whodunit,’ this is a ‘whydunit.’ I found this refreshing, and I did very much want to find out the full extent of the antagonist’s villainy. This was not so much because of my care for the victims, who were dead before I even got to know them, or for the hardly-characterized “good guys,” but because I was wondering how such bold crimes would unfold without the story becoming totally unmoored from reality. That likeness to reality is one of the book’s strengths.

Evil Town has been lavished with praise by those who have spent their careers in D.C. as an accurate–and condemning–portrait of how business goes down in Washington. While I have only visited Washington as a tourist, Bethel’s description of the view across the Potomac from Virginia brought me right back to the city.

No automatic alt text available.
West side of the U.S. Capitol, some weeks after first Obama Inauguration, January 2009. Photo courtesy of eighth-grader version of me.

It is these shining moments, found in descriptions and dialogue, that carry the reader’s interest through a jumbled middle. Staged suicide, war crimes in Vietnam, and sugar cane are compelling–if only readers had a better grasp on the information at hand, so they could begin speculating about the full extent of the conspiracy.

There is a plethora of characters, introduced and re-introduced rapidly. Three characters share a last name, but are referred to as “Bremen” sometimes interchangeably in a passage. The nomenclature–switching between names, surnames, professions, and nicknames to describe characters–remains a nagging annoyance for the reader throughout, though by the end of the book readers have gotten to know the most important players well enough to have the names down.

The ending saves the book, bringing compelling exchanges between characters closer together and faster. In these dialogues, the confusion of the middle third of the book is dispelled. Bethel provides a conclusion to the book that is just improbable enough to thrill readers without earning Evil Town classification as a “fantasy” novel.

In light of the ending, I would recommend my readers pack Evil Town in their beach bags. Given that the drama in Washington now reads like a thriller, it may hit a little too close to home. At least there are no Russian agents.

The weaknesses of Evil Town reveal Bethel’s development as a writer by the time of Blood Moon. I criticized and praised Blood Moon for many of the same things I noticed in Evil Town: lack of exposition on characters with whom we are supposed to sympathize; satisfying, intense dialogue to satiate your vigilante justice fantasies; endings that are both unpredictable yet well-suited to their respective plots.

Blood Moon is a much tighter novel, and much easier to follow. This is perhaps in part to the smaller cast of characters and much more intimate plot, but also must be attributed to the author’s increasing focus on his strengths. These strengths are his understanding of readers’ frustrations with the slowness of “the System,” his resolving of plots in ways that deliciously compensate for “the System,” and his warning that quick-and-dirty justice is not, in fact, preferable to the inefficiency of “the System.”

 

3/5 stars: Not literature, but it sure is fun.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Only scary because, if it was reported in the paper, you would believe
every d–n word of it.
1/5 ick-factor: It is the Swamp, but descriptions of literal ooze are hard-to-come-by.