crime

Well, That Was Overrated: “Devil in the White City”

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson
447 pages, with notes
Vintage Books
2003

I don’t get it.

I just don’t get it.

Why does everyone love this book?

Why has it been on my reading list since I saw it on my dad’s nightstand in the sixth grade?

How did an author this good produce a book this “meh?”

(more…)

“Looming Tower” Audiobook Leaves An Impression

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes

Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”

Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.

img_1374

The counterterrorism studies section of my bookshelf. Sassy refused to appear in this photo for obvious reasons. 

This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.

The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.

However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.

In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.

First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.

Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.

The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.

Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.

On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.

The verse (4:78)  reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:

Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.

And continues with:

Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God!
But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad!
Say to them: All things are decreed from God.

In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:

Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD!
Job 2:21

The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:

What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?

Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.

If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.

3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors. 

Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.

“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.

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.

 

There Are No Coincidences–A Statement on Charlottesville

“If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”

In the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on last Saturday, I think it is necessary to say something.

I am not a person of any notable influence, but I am a human being, and this is my responsibility to prevent.

I am also a white American. The ugly history of racism in this country, which inspired the “Unite the Right” rally last weekend and the murder of a peaceful counter-protester, is my responsibility to acknowledge and face.

I committed no crime on Saturday.

And the LORD said unto Cain “Where is Abel thy brother?” And he said “I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But I abet that crime if I do not decry it. I admit my shame and guilt that it has taken me these last few days to find my words.

And the LORD said, “What hast thou done? Thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”

It is no coincidence that actual Nazis had rallied to protect a public display of support for the Confederacy, which was formed to protect the rights of slave owners.

It is no coincidence that Klansmen showed up with the actual Nazis.

It is no coincidence that a rally in support of genocidal views ends in murder.

“And now thou art cursed from the ground, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.”

It is no coincidence that an American president refuses to condemn Nazis and other white supremacists by name on the day of the attack, and instead blames many “sides”.

There is only one side at fault here.

It is no coincidence the aforementioned president only condemned the Nazis and the KKK on Monday after people of goodwill, including many elected officials of his own party, called on him to do so.

It is no coincidence that, Monday night, the Boston Holocaust Memorial was vandalized–for the second time in a season.

It is no coincidence that, today, unable to restrain even his basest and most politically self-destructive desires, the American president reverted to his previous statement, blaming the counter-protesters for being run over.

It is no coincidence that far-right groups are loving his response.

“Then shall they also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’

And if, after all this, you still think these are coincidences–

I invite you to take a long look in the mirror.

-L

 “Then shall He answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.'”

 

Verses adapted from the KJV translation

 

“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.