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Archive for the ‘Bud’s Picks’ Category

fetchOn March 30, 1938, two women left their hotel in El Paso, Texas and drove out of town towards Dallas. Hazel Frome and her beautiful 23-year-old daughter Nancy were wealthy socialites from Berkeley, California on a road trip east to visit relatives. The following afternoon, their brand new Packard automobile was found abandoned by the side of the road.

Three days later, the women themselves were located. They were face down in a sandy culvert 60 miles from where their car had been found. They’d been shot in the back of the head execution style, and both showed signs of torture. The investigation into this unusual murder case is detailed in a terrific new True Crime book, Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America by Clint Richmond.

Leading the criminal investigation was Chris Fox, the Sheriff of El Paso County. Sheriff Fox was confronted with a puzzling case rife with anomalies. The prevailing theory of a simple robbery gone bad, didn’t mesh with the fact that the women had been held and tortured for two days and expensive diamond jewelry was left behind on the bodies.

It was also strange that Hazel’s husband Weston Frome, upon being notified about the abandoned car, insisted that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped and murdered before there was any evidence that such a crime had occurred. He only reluctantly cooperated with the police during the investigation.

But perhaps the strangest facet of the case involved the ammunition used in the murders. In the middle of America’s Chihuahuan Desert, two society women had been killed with a specialized type of bullet made only in Germany for the specific use of high ranking members of the Nazi party.

Beset by contradictory witness accounts, jurisdictional in-fighting among the various investigative agencies, and stonewalling superiors in the government, Sheriff Fox pressed on, and the book becomes a real page-turner as he collects evidence and sorts through leads that hint at the involvement of some European career criminals and a cabal of international spies.

The author, Clint Richmond, does a fine job in relating this interesting bit of criminal history in a book that is clearly written, fast-paced and crowded with colorful characters. I would recommend it for anyone interested in True Crime or tales of espionage.

Check the WRL catalog for Fetch the Devil

 

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SkeletonAn unmarried woman with a teenage daughter lands a job at the local community college and moves back into her childhood home. Her parents are on an extended sabbatical, so the woman, Georgia Thackery, and daughter Madison are alone in the house… except for Sid the skeleton. Sid is an actual skeleton who just happens to be alive. He walks, talks and has a fondness for corny jokes and bone-related expletives such as, “Oh, coccyx.” This is the unusual premise of Leigh Perry’s new cozy mystery novel, the first in a proposed series.

Sid has been Georgia’s friend for about 30 years, ever since he followed her home from a carnival where he’d been a featured attraction in the haunted house ride. Her miraculously tolerant family let Sid stay and kept him a secret from the outside world for all that time. Madison knows nothing about Sid, and he wants to keep it that way for reasons that he won’t explain. Things go along swimmingly for the weird trio until Sid spots a familiar face that he can’t quite identify at a Manga convention. Yes, the skeleton does go outside, either in disguise or disarticulated in a suitcase. The sighting spurs Georgia and Sid to investigate his life as a human and they soon discover that he was murdered and that the killer is still alive and willing to kill again.

OK, the premise is so dopey it shouldn’t work, but it actually does. Sid and Georgia are both likeable, and the mystery is decently plotted with a plausible series of clues leading to the denouement. There are even a few smartly placed red herrings to keep you guessing along the way. No explanation is given for how this living skeleton came to be but, so what, just go with it and enjoy the ride. The humor is gentle with no offensive language, sex, or gore, so it’s a mystery that can be enjoyed by all ages. I particularly liked the pet dog who keeps trying to make a snack out of Sid’s leg bone. The book would be a nice choice for a Halloween film on the Hallmark Channel.

I call novels of this kind “airplane books” because they are good for long flights. They don’t require a lot of concentration, but the stories are diverting enough to distract you from the screaming toddler four rows back. The author, Leigh Perry (a pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner, an award-winning mystery author), has written a lightweight but engaging yarn and I look forward to the next book in the series.

Check the WRL catalog for A Skeleton in the Family.

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1219On Labor Day in the year 1921, at a bootleg booze-infused party in San Francisco, movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle followed a woman named Virginia Rappe into the bedroom of room 1219 at the St. Francis Hotel and locked the door behind them. Four days later Rappe died in agony, Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter and the motion picture industry was engulfed in a major scandal. In the nonfiction book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt delves into this tawdry tale and tries to determine exactly what took place behind that locked door.

Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a rupture in the bladder, but what caused the rupture? Some of the party-goers blamed Arbuckle, but he repeatedly asserted that he had done nothing wrong. The prosecution was hampered by a lack of hard evidence and the witnesses were shady to say the least, so it took three fractious trials, two of which resulted in hung juries, before a verdict was reached.

The jury had spoken but the press and public had already made their determination. The tabloid nature of the crime led to overwhelming and appallingly sleazy publicity. All involved were irrevocably slandered. The movie industry was threatened with boycotts and censorship laws. To salvage their business, the studios tried to appease the public by hiring a censorship czar named Will Hays whose job it was to ensure the “moral purity” of Hollywood films. To show they meant business, Arbuckle was sacrificed. His films were pulled from theaters and he was forbidden to work on screen ever again. He spent the final years of his short life trying to regain his lost stardom.

This is an interesting bit of Hollywood history, and author Greg Merritt has done a nice job in bringing it to life in a book that is abundantly researched and decidedly fair and unbiased to everyone involved in the case. Beyond the incident itself and its aftermath, he also gives us detailed bios of Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe and many of the other players in the saga, along with some interesting sidelights on the history of the film industry. As to what really happened in room 1219, Merritt speculates and it sounds plausible, but there are only two people who know for sure and they are long gone. I’d recommend this for people interested in the history of cinema or true crime.

Check the WRL catalog for Room 1219

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Bud has found another gem hidden in the stacks:

higherOne of the best things about working at a library is being able to wander through the stacks and find, through sheer serendipity, wonderful books that you’ve never heard of before. Higher by Neal Bascomb is an example of this. I noticed it, hidden away in the architecture section, while re-shelving and was intrigued enough by the description to start reading. It hooked me from the start.

This non-fiction book tells the story of how three of New York City’s most famous landmarks, the Chrysler Building, The Manhattan Company Building and the Empire State Building, came to be built. It’s a fascinating tale.

In the early 1920s, architect William Van Alen was asked by automobile magnate Walter Chrysler to design a skyscraper that was unique, beautiful and tall… taller than any other building in the world.  Van Alen, an example of the architect as artist, was delighted, and with a virtual blank check began the design and construction on what would eventually become that art deco jewel, the Chrysler Building.

Meanwhile, across town lived another architect named Craig Severance. Severance was far more interested in the financial rewards of the construction business than its artistic aspects.  He and Van Alen had formerly been partners in a successful architecture firm but had parted acrimoniously leaving them bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Severance was not about to let Van Alen get credit for the world’s tallest skyscraper so he gathered funding from friends and investors and started work on the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street.

As the book goes on and the buildings go up we learn a lot about how the construction industry operated in the 1920s. How funding was pulled together through financial wheeling and dealing and the covert finagling involved in buying property.  The construction trade was complicated and detail-oriented. Hiring work crews, the demolition of the property’s pre-existing building, the logistical problems of making sure that materials are at the right place at the right time, and the actual process of constructing a skyscraper floor by floor are all clearly explained.  

You might think this kind of technical information would be boring but it’s not. The work was by its very nature costly, difficult, dangerous and exciting all at once, especially at the rapid pace the projects mandated.  Remarkably, construction on both buildings was completed in less than two years despite the additional complications brought on by all the secretive architectural adjustments and machinations that Val Alen and Severance went through in order to insure that THEIR building was the tallest.

Unfortunately for the both of them these efforts were all for naught because while they were focused on each other, a group representing General Motors also entered the race and with its completion in 1931, the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper.

I found this book to be colorful, fast-paced and well written. It makes you look at something you’ve always taken for granted, an office building that’s been standing there for 80 years, with a new eye and appreciate what a wonder it is and just how much effort went into creating it.  I was also struck by the pride and optimistic, “can-do” spirit that was such a big part of America at that time.  Bascher concludes the book with this paragraph:

 All the exuberance, daring, romance, moxie, innovation and pride that infused the decade is seen in these pinnacles. No misfortune or turn of events could take that away. Even if these skyscrapers were ‘torn down, as others have been before them, ‘ Chrysler said at the time of the race, ‘the spirit of the men working together that they represent will build new ones.’ It was this spirit-not steel and stone- that carried these skyscrapers higher.”

I recommend Higher for anyone interested in New York City, architecture or history.

Check the WRL catalog for Higher

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Former PeopleThrough the stories of two aristocratic families, the Shermetevs and the Golitsyns, author Douglas Smith details what happened to the once mighty Russian nobility when the Communists came into power in the early 20th century.

The pattern was depressingly consistent, dispossession followed by displacement and often death. First, their wealth and property were taken from them. Secondly, those who didn’t leave Russia willingly were exiled to remote areas of the empire. Relentlessly exploited as symbols of decadence and oppression by their government, nobles were classified as “Former People” and never allowed to fully integrate into regular Soviet society. Eventually, many of them ended up dying in prisons or gulags.

You can’t really call this sad, non-fiction book upbeat, but it is well-researched and a timely reminder about the depredations of communism and the danger of all-powerful governments.

Check the WRL catalog for Former People.

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7GablesIn old New England, scheming Judge Pyncheon craves a piece of land owned by poor farmer Matthew Maule. When Maule refuses to sell, he is suddenly accused of being a witch and condemned to die. On the scaffold he curses his persecutor, Judge Pyncheon. “‘God,’ said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, ‘God will give him blood to drink!’” So begins the story of the Pyncheon clan and the curse that blights them down through the generations as they live in their house with seven gables built on land wrongly and ruthlessly appropriated from an innocent man.

First published in 1851, Hawthorne’s novella may be off-putting for modern readers with its lack of action and obvious symbolism, but stick with it. The story is intriguing and eventually you come to care about the characters, especially lonely old spinster Hepzibah. As befits a gothic novel, it’s very much a mood piece with the oppressive decay of the house and its dark history overshadowing everything. Hawthorne’s Victorian writing style is also quite interesting because the dense, highly literate prose, emphasizing psychological insight, is so different from modern popular fiction, which focuses on fast-paced plotting and snappy dialogue. The House of Seven Gables will not appeal to everyone, but if you’re tired of low-brow pop culture and looking for a classic good read, give it a try.

Check the WRL catalog for The House of Seven Gables

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LIONSIn 1898, the British began construction on a railway line in East Africa that was to run from the port of Mombasa up to Lake Victoria. Nicknamed the “Lunatic Line” by critics, this huge and difficult project became even more so when:

“Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks.”

John Henry Patterson was the engineer in charge of construction, so, by default, it became his responsibility to put an end to the depredations. The book relates his efforts to do just that and despite his understated prose, it’s a nail-biting read. These lions were smart, fearless and vicious. It’s not known exactly how many people they devoured, but Patterson affirmed 28 railway workers and they are traditionally credited with 130 kills before finally being stopped.

First published in 1907, this non-fiction thriller is rightly considered a classic of Africana and hunting literature and is recommended for people who like true tales of adventure and don’t mind a little gore… OK, maybe more than just a little gore.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man-eaters of Tsavo.

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