true crime

Nightmare on Peach Street: Reviewing “Evil Genius”

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist
A Netflix Original, 2018
Four Parts
Rated TV-MA
Directed by Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder
Written by Barbara Schroeder

A few months ago, I was searching for a documentary on a case I knew only as “the Pizza Bomber” and was surprised I could find nothing aside from some local news clips saying the mastermind had died in prison. Shortly, Evil Genius would come to fill the void.

The good and the bad of this series can both be summarized in one word: understatement.

baked pizza on top of black surface near filled glass tankard

Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

The good of the filmmakers’ understatement is that allows the horror of the events to speak for itself.

In August 2003, pizza deliveryman Brian Wells died on live TV when a bomb strapped to his neck went off. He had claimed that he had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into a bomb-holding collar before being sent on a bank heist/hellish scavenger hunt. His body suffered further indignities in death; authorities decapitated him rather than risk damaging  evidence: the collar that held the bomb.

This is all we know for sure, Evil Genius tells us, and it is horrible. While intriguing, the series cannot be called “entertaining” as much as “edifying.” This is an exploration of suffering and evil, and that alone. No glitz or unnecessary gore.

The understatement of the series also allows viewers to inhabit the uncertainties of the crime and the ambiguities of the suspects. The main question the series poses, without ever fully resolving to my satisfaction, is as to whether Mr. Wells was, as he claimed, kidnapped and forced to rob the bank. The alternative is that he was a double-crossed participant in a criminal ring headed by Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman as brilliant as she was disturbed. The question as to whether Diehl-Armstrong, the titular “evil genius” was mad, bad, or some combination of both is another ambiguity that the four-part series explores.

The understatement and suggestion can bog down the series. With each episode clocking in at about forty-five minutes, the series felt twice as long. There is a lot of information to process. While the filmmakers to present all the evidence to preserve the ambiguity of the situation, the series would have benefited from some heavy-duty pruning.

 

3/5 stars: A good series hobbled by serious pacing issues.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Evil acts, but nothing that will creep up on you at night.
2/5 ick-factor: Unsparing description of postmortem mutilation and mistreatment

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“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.

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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.

Happy Tidings from the Death Card

It’s Been A Tough Year So Far

I’m not one much to talk about my personal issues on the internet, but since the events of the last six months have had a major impact on my (lack of) output for this blog, I think I owe you, and myself, an explanation.

There is a lot I can’t tell you, a lot of the details, to protect the privacy of the others involved.

Suffice to say, it involved a lot of death.

There was a brush with physical death, on Easter Monday, in a car accident.

There was a death of self, as this “adulthood” thing forced me to let go of old notions of who I am and who I want to be. This came about largely because of a death of faith, of faith in ideals and institutions that formed me.

There was the death of a friendship. I expected this one to be the worst of all, when I worried about it years ago, or in the last year as part of me, a part unacknowledged, suspected it was coming.

In all, it wasn’t so bad.

 

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XIII. Death. From the Rider-Waite Tarot, ca. 1909. Public domain.

You see, the death card almost never means death, at least not physical death.

I don’t believe we can foretell the future, but as a writer I am very interested in the symbolism of the Tarot deck.

The death card of the Major Arcana gets a bad rap for being No. XIII and for being, well, about death, strangely enough. The card shows death, but only because death is necessary for rebirth.

I walked away from the accident unscathed. After five hours in the ER, waiting for the final confirmation that I had not hurt my head, I went home. There I found Sassy, a little confused about why I was late, and very upset that dinner was delayed.

In letting go of what I thought I was and wanted, I have moved forward. Now that school has been out for a few weeks, I have been focused on my first few freelancing assignments. That is the logistical reason for my long silence on this blog. I am excited to be a “real” writer now and a “professional,” in fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was four years old.

As for the end of the childhood friendship, I wish it had not gone down the way it did. I know people grow and change. If things had tapered off between us naturally, it would have been much easier to accept.

One of the hardest lessons about growing up is that doing everything right won’t protect you. One of the other hardest lessons is that your effort can’t make up for what someone else won’t put in. It hurt a lot at the time, and it hurts from time to time, but I find myself looking forward to the future.

I get asked why I like my “frightening” and “morbid” crime shows. As trite as it may sound: while you have to be careful not to only see the darkness, you cannot look away from death without ignoring life.

The death card is change. Time is change. Time marches on, trampling over kings like Death’s horse does on the card. Who am I to resist? What point is there in fear?

That said, I’m glad to still be here with all of you.

“Bullied to Death”: Brutal Topic, Respectful Narrative

Bullied to Death: A Story of Bullying, Social Media, and the Suicide of Sherokee Harriman
Judith Yates
WildBlue Press
Released 10 April 2018

This is a hard one to read, folks.

Ms. Yates is not to blame, except in that her gaze is unsparing, the scope of her research unafraid. Ms. Yates tells the story well, but it is the story of a child’s miserable life and rending death.

In September 2015, fourteen-year-old Sherokee (pronounced like “Cherokee”) Harriman stabbed herself to death in a public park, in view of a group of teenagers who had been tormenting her earlier that day.

(more…)

“Kim Knows Nothing” Has a Promising Future

Kim Knows Nothing
A Weekly Podcast
Hosted by Stacy Snowden & Kim Moffat
www.kimknowsnothing.com

It’s a wonder it’s taken me so long to review a proper podcast, given that most of the time I “watch” Forensic Files now I just put it on to listen while I do the dishes or laundry.

The transition to a “proper” podcast is an easy one, and I am grateful to the team behind “Kim Knows Nothing” for giving me the push. The selfsame Kim Moffat of the title reached out to me and suggested I review the podcast she co-anchors with Stacy Snowden.

Kim Knows Nothing

Website banner. Copyrighted to Kim Moffat and Stacy Snowden of kimknowsnothing.com

It’s hard not to smile at this woman-led weekly production. As their rather elegantly laid-out homepage proclaims “Stacy knows most things” and “Kim knows nothing.” (The bloody purple kitchen knife is also a nice touch, given the topic and tone). Only begun in October of last year (2017), the podcast has in a few short months found its stride.

True-crime enthusiast Stacy does the research on “serious crimes”, which she then relates to Kim, a pop-culture maven who provides “ridiculous commentary.” (more…)

“Isaac’s Storm” A Far-Too-Timely Masterpiece

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
Crown Publishers 1999
273 pages of text, 323 with notes

As wind shook my apartment on Thursday, as the cyclone passed overhead, I forgot for a moment if I was in Boston, with snow pelting against the windowpanes, or in Houston, with rain, trees, and shingles threatening to break through the plywood covering our windows.

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View of my neighborhood. Likely thoughts of driver: “Screw this.” 

Watching footage of dumpsters and ice floes streaming through downtown, and hearing news that parts of New Hampshire will be colder than Mars tonight, I decided it was time to delve into a disaster book.

“And in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis sank beneath the sea”
-Plato, Timaeus

I grew up on the flat, hot, humid coastal plains of Texas. A favorite summer destination for my family was Galveston, the barrier island about an hour south from Houston on I-45. When rain threatened our day on the beach, or we were already too sunburned for our own good, one of our indoor activities was a locally produced documentary film about the Great Storm of 1900. As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by the story of how an unanticipated September hurricane killed at least 8,000 and knocked Galveston from its position as Queen City of the South. It remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives.

That is my only complaint about the book I am about to review. For historical accuracy, the subtitle should conclude “the Deadliest Hurricane in American History.” I understand that the publisher had to sell copies, however.

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Sassy-approved. 

Isaac’s Storm is a work of nonfiction that centers on Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman of Galveston in September 1900, husband, father, scientist, and upstanding citizen. While nonfiction, Isaac’s Storm rises to narrative and descriptive heights that most fiction authors only dream of reaching. Without burdening readers with cumbersome and slow backstory, Erik Larson recreates Isaac, his family, his fellow-citizens, and his time with a historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and novelist’s gift for characterization and conjecture.

For anyone who has visited Galveston, or lived on the Gulf Coast, you will be transported by descriptions of “the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze” and “the thudding…caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach” (8).

The Galveston of 1900, so vividly resurrected by Larson, is a cosmopolitan city, the Ellis Island of the South, home to large communities of German and Jewish immigrants, as well as a (relatively) respected and protected African-American community. Among the most memorable characters Larson introduces is Rabbi Henry Cohen. This pillar of Galveston’s community, revered by his congregation and Gentiles alike, was marital counselor, expeditionary to Southern Africa, and single-handed rescuer of maidens from captivity in a local bordello.

Seriously, he went in swinging and carried the kidnapped woman out on his shoulder to freedom. Someone needs to make a movie about him.

Larson interlaces these human, variable, lively accounts of daily life with brutally objective descriptions of the storm as it forms off the coast of Africa and moves inexorably (and yet inexplicably) towards Galveston. These sections are set apart by black borders along the page; one is tempted to think of Victorian mourning borders on stationery.

Consider Larson’s ecstatic, almost pornographic descriptions of cloud formation:

“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth’s soul The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey” (19)

Poetry. Absolute poetry.

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The binding is beautiful, too. 

Isaac’s Storm is, above all, a tale of hubris. A naive confidence that Galveston would never fall victim to a hurricane, bolstered by Cline’s per-order report to local businessmen that the city was safe; an imperialist belief that brown-skinned Cuban forecasters could not possibly know more about hurricanes than the newly-formed Weather Service’s Washington office; a last-ditch hope perhaps this house would survive the sixteen-foot storm surge when hundreds like it had not been spared.

The most salient forensic aspect of the book comes in the aftermath of the storm. Without refrigeration, electricity, DNA, dental records, or fingerprints, the people of Galveston attempt to identify and bury their dead with dignity.

Those attempts, for the most part, end rather ghoulishly.

Isaac’s Storm closes with its original 1999 conclusion, which raises the specter of global warming and its impacts on hurricane formation. Larson ponders how “a curious quirk in the New York-New Jersey coastline…[could allow] even a moderate hurricane on just the right track to drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan” (273).

In the years since the publication of Isaac’s Storm, Galveston and the United States as a whole have seen numerous tropical storms and hurricanes, among them: Allison (Galveston/Houston, 2001); Charlie (Florida, 2004); the deadly Katrina (New Orleans, 2005); Rita (East Texas, 2005), which proved that you cannot evacuate 2 million+ people from Houston in an orderly fashion; Ike (Galveston/Houston 2008), which I remembered as the winds whipped my apartment last night; Sandy (NJ/NY 2012), which did flood the tunnels of Manhattan; and this damned most recent hurricane season of 2017, with Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, which have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and the City of Houston.

If Mr. Larson were to provide a new foreword to his masterpiece, it should be one sentence:

“You were warned.”

5/5 stars: a nonfiction masterpiece, vivid, cinematic, and brutally timely
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: as other critics, quoted on the dust jacket, have noted, you will fear the sky for days afterwards
4/5 ick-factor: 8,000 bodies in the Texas summer heat. Use your imagination; Larson will leave nothing to it. 

Mini-review: I bought this book at the Galveston Bookshop, one of my favorite places in Texas and, consequently, the world. Stop by to enjoy their great selection of used books and new local-interest/local-author titles, as well as their fair and convenient pricing and credit system for selling your own books. I was able to redeem credit, stored in their system, from two years or more ago when I visited over my Christmas break. Isaac’s Storm is available there for $19.95 USD.

(This promotion was done freely and at my own instigation. Seriously, I just love the Galveston Bookshop)

Cayleigh Elise: YouTube Queen of True Crime (and Darkness More Generally)

Last week I covered the LordanARTS  YouTube channel; before getting to this week’s main event, I want to thank Mr. Lordan for the lovely acknowledgement of my review on JohnnyVlogs. Check out the 1: 55 mark, specifically.

However, I only found LordanARTS through the video suggestions received while watching Cayleigh Elise’s dark, atmospheric productions.

Since posting her first video in 2015, Cayleigh has amassed nearly 300, 000 subscribers, of which I am one. Having had a chance to watch some of her very earliest videos over the past weekend, I am amazed at her growth and development as an artist.

These first videos tend more towards horror or personal stories of spooky experiences, the latter narrated in a bubbly, delightfully self-aware-yet-self-deprecating style. While engaging, these videos are distinctly amateur in comparison to her more recent work.

That corpus, focusing on the macabre and the mysteries, includes subscriber stories, missing persons, cold cases, and the supernatural. Of the many series and mini-series I have two favorites: Nameless, focused on identifying those poor souls whose bodies have been dumped like trash and whose names have gone unknown; and Dark Matters, which profiles particularly disturbing or mysterious unsolved cases.

Cayleigh’s narration for these dark stories is slow, hypnotic, and always full of compassion. If A&E ever reboots Cold Case Files, I nominate her as successor to the great Bill Kurtis.

The visuals are also fantastic. I want to steal her wardrobe; the changing backgrounds feature bizarre and fascinating decor; the source materials and editing are superb.

Let me emphasize it again: these videos are dark. They are frightening for the narratives alone, before even considering the visuals. I will warn you, as Cayleigh Elise does before the videos in question, that Nameless often features postmortem photographs. She includes these not out of morbid interest, but in hopes that these pictures will trigger someone’s memory where composite sketches have not. When she says “I have to warn you, this next picture is graphic,” I usually duck my head down. Because I’m a wuss.

There have been occasions when I peeked too soon, and mutter something along the lines of “Oh, dear Lord Jesus, help us all.” I don’t know if death is ever ‘pretty,’ but for the John and Jane Does of Nameless, it never comes gently.

Because of the possible Massachusetts connections, I recommend to you especially her most recent video at the time of writing, the case of the Woodlawn Jane Doe. Do you recognize this woman?

 

I will end this review as Cayleigh Elise always ends her videos, by reminding you that “While these may be dark matters, the darkness always matters.” It matters because our humanity is defined by how we treat others. To acknowledge the dark is to face, head-on, the realities of pain and evil in the world.

The Catechism says that burying the dead is an act of mercy. Naming the forgotten dead, surely, is one as well.

5/5 stars: High-quality visuals and narration. A host with a natural sense of the dramatic, abundant compassion, and tact.
5/5 ‘fraidy cats: Some videos are too harrowing for me to watch after dark. The rest make me check that the door
 is ,in fact, locked.
5/5 ‘ick’ factor: Death is frightening; murder even more so. Crime scene/postmortem photos and descriptions may be particularly difficult for sensitive viewers. You will be warned when to look away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.