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Archive for the ‘True Crime’ Category

flashCapitalism is great. When it works, it transfers money from people willing to take risks to people who have risks worth taking. Sure, the eventual payoff to both is in proportion to the risk, and the risk is in proportion to the vision, but the overall purpose is to move idle money to the places that can put it to use. Capitalism is great. When it works.

And then there are the parasites.

In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis tells the story of a bunch of regular guys who decided to drag one group of parasites into the light so the markets could understand how and why they had become hosts. The parasites had a simple business model. Someone sends out an offer to buy United Widgets at $1.00, the parasite would see his offer, and go buy the available shares at $1.00. Then he’d offer them to the buyer for $1.01. A penny a share of pure profit, no risk, no real value added. But how did he see the spread between the two?

He figured out that placing his computer server just a little closer to the server that executes trades would buy enough lag time that he could spot the opening and get the jump on real investors. The smart guy and his cronies started at milliseconds and wrung every angle until they were down to beating legitimate investors by nanoseconds. These weren’t the small-time investors, either—institutional investors managing billions of dollars couldn’t figure out why they were constantly paying higher prices when the computer said right there that they should have gotten it for less. They’d scratch their heads and pay the higher cost.

But there were people in the system who caught on to the parasites. Instead of cashing their knowledge in for a few million bucks, these regular guys decided they were going to put the markets back on an equal footing. (Well, as equal as it could be.) There are too many for me to credit in this post, but basically they were organized and inspired by Brad Katsuyama, a low-key guy working for the low-key Royal Bank of Canada. For my money (what’s left of it after the markets got hold of it), he should be recognized as a genuine hero. But his discovery about lag time was only the tip of the fraud, and his real courage came out when he brought his findings and his solutions to those institutional investors. Their reaction—and the way he finally convinced them that he had a viable solution—shows that sometimes heroism doesn’t happen in a flash. Heroism takes work.

As for the parasites? A friend once told me, “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.”  When I look around, it seems that the parasites, and the pigs, are actually doing better than everyone else. Capitalism is great. When it works.

Check the WRL catalog for Flash Boys

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spyHave you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.

Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB.  He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.

Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.

Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche.  While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.

Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends

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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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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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MysticLambVan Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, painted to adorn the altar of a Belgian cathedral in the 1400s, is the most frequently stolen painting in the history of art. This is an especially neat trick considering it weighs around two tons.

Opened only on special occasions, the wood panels of the altarpiece portray a host of saints, martyrs, angels, and patrons, a showpiece for the kind of minute detail the layering of newfangled oil paints could achieve, and a transition from the art of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Its central panel, a cryptic, symbolic scene called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, furnishes the title of this fast-paced, entertaining art history read.

Art historian Noah Charney describes the painting’s 500-plus-year history to great effect, incorporating the little we know about Van Eyck along with art criticism, war stories, true crime, artists who may have been secret agents, and enough farfetched but entertaining conspiracy theories to fuel Dan Brown’s next novel. From Napoleon to the Treaty of Versailles to the salt mines of Alt Aussee, Charney describes how bits and pieces of the altarpiece have been looted, defaced, confiscated, stolen, ransomed, and coveted by Nazis. Is the painting also a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, studied by Hitler’s Ahnenerbe for its clues to finding supernatural weaponry? Cue the Raiders of the Lost Ark music…

If you’ve read Robert Edsel’s Monuments Men, the chapters detailing the painting’s WWII history will be quite familiar (actually, I think Charney tells the story a little better). Officers Posey and Kirstein, an unlikely duo from the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit careen around the Austrian Alps in search of a treasure trove of paintings looted from throughout Europe, including the Altarpiece, while SS officers caught in the last days of a lost war are bringing in aircraft bombs to blow these same paintings to kingdom come…

And then there’s the mystery of the Righteous Judges, a long-missing panel that may have been replaced with a copy… or by a copy painted over the original in a diabolically byzantine plot to disguise the return of the panel without admitting to its theft in the first place. Unsolved to this day, this cold case comes complete with ransom notes and deathbed confessions: “armoire… key… [dies].”

Like Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spellthis is a fascinating read for folks who are interested in the intersection of art and war.

Check the WRL catalog for Stealing the Mystic Lamb.

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Priceless is a memoir about the true crime undercover investigations carried out by FBI Agent Robert K. Wittman. Since the late 1980s, Bob Wittman was the original solo art crime investigator for what became the FBI’s Art Crime team in 2004, now numbering 14 agents who are well-versed in the fine arts, skilled with undercover work, and are prepared to rapidly deploy to any worldwide site for art theft recovery work and sting operations, often in cooperation with international law enforcement agencies. The FBI updates an online top-ten listing of art crimes and maintains a database of stolen art.

The book is arranged so that you’re following developments in FBI Agent Wittman’s career as well as some pivotal events in his personal life throughout the book. However, each chapter neatly portrays a particular case and its wrap-up. There is one thread running from the beginning through the end, the notorious unsolved 1990 case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. Wittman’s frustrating battle with the restrictions under which he had to work in the FBI’s bureaucracy, including power struggles with senior officials, seems to provide some clues as to why this case might have been solved long ago had it not been so botched by red tape.

The stories truly bring the high-stakes investigations of art theft to life for the lay reader, and open up our eyes to the realities of art crimes. The biggest revelation in this book is the fact that those who steal art are seldom glamorous, handsome and powerful art connoisseurs, as they have been portrayed in films such as Dr. No or The Thomas Crown Affair. That characterization may be true in some cases, although they are usually your typical thugs who can’t resist taking something that seems incredibly valuable yet easy to steal for even the dumbest of crooks. Some of the book’s photos of captured thieves make that contrast startling. As security systems and staffing have become more sophisticated today, even better organized art theft rings have staged some thefts on the level of Ocean’s Eleven style drama, but most of the crimes investigated by Wittman and told in Priceless are more a case of your average guy taking advantage of an opportunity to get away with something for money.

These are very interesting and sometimes thrilling tales.  They’ll take you behind the scenes of the FBI and around the world to exotic locations and scenarios, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Look for Priceless in the WRL catalog.

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I was instantly absorbed in this fast-paced, detective-style investigation of the mysterious manuscript, the “Crown of Aleppo.” Parchment fragments of the ancient codex are still unaccounted for today, so those who want the book to end with a nice neat conclusion or happy ending should not even get started. However, those who love a good unsolved mystery and a series of unreliable accounts from multiple viewpoints, perhaps reminiscent of Iain Pears’s novel,  An Instance of the Fingerpost, are likely to love this story. One after the other, we read contradictory accounts of the same event in Aleppo, Syria. In 1947, anti-Jewish violence protesting the creation of the state of Israel endangered the sacred texts, which were housed in the Jewish synagogue in the city; consequentially, most of Syria’s Jewish community fled. Amid the chaos, parts of the document disappeared. Various individuals closely associated with the synagogue claimed credit for protecting the codex.

Investigative reporter Matti Friedman bravely followed an obfuscated trail, having to carefully negotiate his way into archives, museums, and libraries, and into the trust of those who may harbor what truths still exist in living memory regarding the codex. Along the way, he discovered a number of cover-ups, suppressed documentation, and red herrings, yet he relentlessly and obsessively pursued the previously untold story.

The tenth century “Crown” is the oldest Hebrew Bible manuscript, considered the authoritative text from which all copies of the Torah were meant to be hand copied in the old days. All sorts of legends and pesky rules, not very well suited to the preservation of disintegrating, aging old manuscripts, surround the “Crown,” including the stipulation that it was never to be moved from its location in Syria (riot, fire, and political unwelcome brought an end to its residency of over a thousand years), and that no one would be allowed to photograph or scan it (a rule certainly not instated before its most recent centuries). Therefore, when leaves of the folios went missing, no photographic images existed to at least preserve their memory, such as those we have to remember many stolen artifacts and fine art these days.

I just loved reading about this great mystery, and it kindled in me a new interest in other investigations of manuscripts with storied pasts.

Check the WRL catalog for The Aleppo Codex

Check the catalog for the ebook version

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