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Archive for the ‘True Crime’ Category

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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All this week, Mindy reviews books about art theft, starting with two titles about some of the more sensational cases:

Museum of the Missing (2006) and Stolen (2008) are very similar booksboth have introductory material written by Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a tool used worldwide to authenticate artworks and aid in the recovery of stolen art. Some of the true crimes described in the earlier work are also in Stolen. Both include pages filled with color illustrations of lost art and the fascinating stories detailing what is known about their thefts. (Those who are tracking the fluctuating state of art theft cases may also want to follow current events. One way that I have been doing that is with a Google alert that sends newly published articles and blog posts to my email inbox daily.)

These art crime stories range from sad, disturbing, and shocking losses of our cultural heritage to hilarious and often audacious stupid-crook capers. The good news is that a number of stolen works of art have been recovered by art crime investigators, often working in undercover sting operations designed to thwart criminal schemes. It’s delicate work, often prioritized in favor of recovering works of art unharmed rather than on locking up the culprits who stole them. Appeals to the public are often made, with rewards offered, without fear of prosecution if involved.

The reality is that the high-priced art world often makes the headlines with record-breaking art sales. This attracts thieves who can’t seem to resist. What thieves unfortunately fail to calculate is the market for fencing their loot. Thus, they’re sometimes stuck with stolen art, and without backgrounds in art history or an acquired taste for fine art they seldom show any concern for its preservation. Thieves who couldn’t find a buyer have sometimes destroyed the stolen art in order to eliminate the evidence of their crime. Sculptures are stolen for their metal content and melted down for scrap.

Houpt and Webb each do an excellent job of storytelling about these intriguing art thefts. They also provide a great deal of insight into the history of art and what has made stealing it such an irresistible crime. A nice shelf to browse for more titles like these is located in the true crime area of 364.162.

Check the WRL catalog for Museum of the Missing

Check the catalog for Stolen

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ImageI love Anne Perry’s books, so I was curious and at the same time hesitant to pick this up. Frankly, I didn’t want to be reminded that someone who created such likeable and morally upright characters as Thomas Pitt and William Monk was capable of a heinous crime, even if it did happen when she was practically a child. However, I also love true crime, so my curiosity won out.

Some may be familiar with the story from the 1994 move Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet, which was based on the events of the crime (the movie’s release was what led to the revelation of Anne Perry’s identity).

On a summer day in 1954 , when Anne Perry (then named Juliet Hulme) was 15, she and her best friend Pauline Parker brutally bludgeoned to death Pauline’s mother, Honorah, in a peaceful New Zealand park. The two friends had an intense relationship based on love of writing and the belief that they were geniuses who inhabited a special world in which only a select few were entitled to dwell. A lesbian relationship was speculated upon at the time, but Graham is noncommittal on this as a significant factor in the case, and Perry herself denied such a relationship. The motive for the crime appears to have been that the pair were about to be separated against their will by their parents.

Peter Graham takes us through events leading up to the event and its aftermath in detail, giving users a fair perspective on the background of both girls and how it influenced their relationship and ultimately their crime. The girls were barely teenagers and obviously immature and detached from the reality of what they were doing—yet the brutality of the crime, and its level of premeditation, is chilling.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the author’s look into the lives of the perpetrators years after the crime, after Anne Perry had become a household name. How does Anne Perry see those long ago events now? Her level of remorse and acknowledgement of responsibility do not seem to square with the facts as presented by the author, and although he does not pretend to have easy answers, he raises interesting questions which I thought about for a long time after reading the book.

If you’ve ever read one of Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt or William Monk mystery novels, you’ll know that although the revelation of the truth and pursuit of justice are paramount, it is often the case that the revealed killer and his or her motivations are portrayed with sympathy. It will be difficult for me to read one of Perry’s novels now without thinking about this dichotomy and how it relates to her own life.

Check the WRL catalog for Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century

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The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

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injusticeSo a businessman and his son go into a downtown Miami hotel suite to meet with a potential client who might help boost their meager income. Instead, a man with whom they have a dispute steps out, shoots the father in the knee, drags the son up some stairs, then shoots him execution-style. The father escapes, gets out the door, and bangs on the door across the hall, leaving blood in the hall, but the import-export businessman in that room doesn’t hear a thing, including the shots that then kill the father. Neville Butler, who has been held hostage in the room since before the father and son arrived, is then released.

Following Butler’s call to the police, British businessman Krishna Maharaj is detained. After waiving his Miranda rights, he makes inconsistent statements to the investigators, who hold him long enough to discover that his fingerprints are in the hotel room, and Maharaj is arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the executions of Dwight and Duane Moo Young, former associates and now rivals for Maharaj’s Caribbean newspaper. The case goes to trial. Maharaj, a flamboyant millionaire, hires the lowest bidder, Mark Hendon, as his attorney. The trial proceeds in a swift and orderly manner, except that the presiding judge is replaced after three days of testimony. Based on fingerprint evidence, a ballistics expert’s identification of Maharaj’s gun, and Neville Butler’s testimony, Maharaj is given life in prison for Dwight’s murder, and the death sentence for Duane’s.

After several years, the case comes to the attention of Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney specializing in capital cases. On his own, taking time away from his fledgling non-profit practice focusing on Louisiana death penalty cases, Smith begins reviewing the case, and this open-and-shut case turns out to have been far more complex than the trial transcript would indicate. His early investigation turns up boxes of evidence and interview materials that hadn’t been made available to the defense, prosecutors’ notes indicating that they instructed the detectives and their chief witness how to perjure themselves, and witnesses that prove that Maharaj wasn’t even in Miami at the time of the killings. Some of his basic rights—over and above their violation of his Miranda rights—were not explained to him or put into practice. Forensic evidence was questionable, but Maharaj’s trial attorney didn’t cross-examine, and even rested without calling a single witness. Confident that the reams of documentary evidence show that Maharaj did not receive a fair trial and that his counsel was (to put it mildly) incompetent, Smith heads into the appeals process.

But door after legal door is slammed in Maharaj’s face. The appeals courts won’t consider new evidence—it wasn’t presented in a timely manner and appellate courts don’t try the facts of the case. Each attempt to reopen the case takes months, if not years, to litigate, partially because a prosecutor won’t accept plentiful evidence that her colleagues convicted an innocent man. When he’s finally granted a new trial, Smith can’t introduce all the new evidence and Maharaj is again found guilty. But because the jury doesn’t prescribe the death penalty, Maharaj’s future opportunities for appeal are severely limited—capital cases usually get at least a cursory glance. Based on all the trials and appeals that go before, Maharaj’s last chance—a reprieve from Florida Governor Charlie Crist—is denied.

Unfortunately, as Smith details, Maharaj’s case is only one example of the miscarriage of justice that capital crimes nearly always involve. From personal experience and well-documented cases, Smith demonstrates that each individual misstep in the justice system that Maharaj experienced is echoed across the country, even in non-capital cases. Part of it is the culture, and he shows that from the patrol officer to the US Supreme Court, the fundamental conservatism of the law is geared towards convictions, not justice or even truth. The real poverty of this view is that convicting the innocent allows the guilty to go unpunished.

Smith’s writing is urgent, and his construction of the story maximizes both the drama and the documentation of his fundamental thesis. As he breaks the case down, the depth of the law enforcement and judicial errors becomes appallingly clear. The parallels he establishes between Maharaj’s case and convictions across the country point to the idea that the American justice system has reversed its supposed ideal. At the same time, his admiration for Maharaj (which is echoed by everyone from business associates to prison guards) as a man shines through. Even after being in prison since 1987—including 10 years on Death Row—Maharaj remains kind, gentle, and positive.

This is a timely book. States have begun to revisit their commitments to the death penalty after subsequent investigations and trials have freed other innocent people from Death Row. It is increasingly likely that people known to be innocent were executed anyway. If someone heeds Clive Stafford Smith’s plea to come forward and exonerate Krishna Maharaj, it would be a miracle; if others use his case to strengthen their calls for an end to the death penalty, it would be a huge step to ending the gaping flaws in our (in)justice system.

Check the WRL catalog for The Injustice System

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napoleonWhile waiting for my turn to read Macintyre’s latest book about spies and the D-Day landing in World War II, I picked up this older work by the author.  Past reading experience suggested that any biography by Macintyre would be worth reading.  This one did not disappoint.

Although not well known these days, in his heyday, Adam Worth was an international thief of extraordinary renown.  Born in the 1840’s, Worth was of German-Polish descent.  He lived with his parents until his early teens, but left for New York before he was 15.  Never taller than about five feet, two inches, he was given the nickname “Little Adam” and soon learned the “craft” of picking pockets. When the Civil War started he joined a New York regiment and went to war. During the war, Worth became adept at deserting one regiment only to join a different one and get paid an enlistment bonus. While the con got him multiple payments, it didn’t keep him out of battle and he developed a lifelong dislike for violence. This was why Worth’s criminal career was highlighted by careful planning, expert execution and clean getaways.

At the height of his power, Worth planned forgery scams, bank robberies, art heists and jewel thefts. His exploits read like fiction, so it is not surprising that his life of crime has been the basis for several books and movies. In fact, the author and other scholars maintain that Worth was the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.

Able to transform himself again and again, for years Worth lived in London using the name Henry Judson Raymond. Outward appearances would have neighbors believe he was a member of the gentry, wealthy, English and with no obvious source for his vast financial resources.  He was known to be generous to all who asked and excessively loyal to his compatriots.

Macintyre admires Worth’s positive attributes and suggests, as criminal masterminds go, he was among the most benign.  He robbed from the rich and gave to himself and his friends. He had a keen eye for fine art (among his most famous heists was stealing Thomas Gainsborough’s The Duchess of Devonshire, which he hid for 20 years), a healthy respect for competent lawmen (the Pinkertons in particular) and the lifelong belief that he was justified in his actions because he was not a bad person.

Macintyre makes a convincing case that Worth was nearly unique in the Victorian criminal world. Not only did his career span over three decades, he simultaneously lived the dual lives of English gentleman and unabashed thief. The author’s style is easy to read and digest. His research is extensive and impressive, although Macintyre is fortunate that toward the end of his life Worth bonded with William Pinkerton and the thief shared his life’s story with the private eye (who recorded it). If you enjoy nineteenth-century historical biography you should try The Napoleon of Crime. It offers a fascinating and interesting slice of the Victorian underworld rarely seen elsewhere.

Check the WRL catalog for The Napoleon of Crime

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Best2011The Best American Essays and other titles in its series allow a public library to provide a diverse range of high-quality and award-winning articles, essays, and stories that expands the purchase power of its periodicals budget. The library couldn’t possibly have it all, and many journals are regional or associated with specific foundation memberships. Magazines selected for browsing collections in the public library include a pleasant mix of popular titles for entertainment, news, and practical how-to information, nationally respected titles along the lines of The New Yorker plus national and regional literary gems such as The Oxford American and the Virginia Quarterly Review. These fine essays come from many that our library doesn’t carry, including Harvard Review, The North American Review, Portland Magazine, The Believer, and Orion.

I enjoyed the essays as literary yet not scholarly, meant for a general reading public and on virtually any topic, light to dark, newsie to personal, straightforward or allegorical. An expert reader/editor has already picked the best of the best for me–and I found a number of thought-provoking stories in this collection I might never have seen otherwise. An unforgettable journalistic piece from Mother Jones titled “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” by Charlie LeDuff uncovers many layers of perspective on a Detroit homicide. Seven-year old Aiyana, asleep on her sofa, was shot by a police officer storming a home while on camera for one of those true-crime TV shows. In “Patient,” by Rachel Riederer, a college student recalls the devastating consequences of having her foot run over by a charter bus she was waiting in line for while partying with friends. “Lucky Girl” is a very chilling account of a 1960s illegal abortion and what it could have meant for author Bridget Potter if hers had been as botched as the majority of women without access to safe, legal medical care.

For this volume, published in 2011, the essays included are short-listed from 2010 publications sorted out by Series Editor Robert Atwan, then selected for this anthology by the annual’s Guest Editor. Scholarly thesis pieces that most of us would doze through need not be submitted. Some writers are up-and-coming while the collection also rewards many deserving veteran authors. Authors or editors mail their published works or publication subscriptions to the series editor who selects the best ones for presentation to the guest editor. Online publications are acceptable, but a printout of the piece must be mailed in order to be considered. This year, the editor is Edwidge Danticat, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008.

Look for The Best American Essays 2011 and other titles in The Best American series in the WRL catalog. In the series, you’ll find anthologies of comics, poetry, mystery writing, short stories, sports and travel writing, etc…, and even one titled Best American Nonrequired Reading!

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Another true crime review written by Bud:

On the morning of January 8, 1937, the corpse of a young woman named Pamela Werner was found lying in a ditch beneath the supposedly haunted Fox Tower on the outskirts of Peking, China. Brutally murdered and savagely mutilated, the girl was only identifiable by her diamond-studded platinum wrist watch and the singular grey color of the iris in one of her slashed eyes.  The story of this murder and its ensuing police investigation are related in the terrific true-crime thriller, Midnight in Peking by Paul French.

Peking in the 1930s was a fascinating mixture of clashing cultures. The British lived quite comfortably inside a large walled section of the city known as the Legation Quarter. Outside of this area resided the Chinese nationals and a combustible mix of expats of all nationalities. Overshadowing everything was the impending threat of the Japanese Army, which had invaded China and was slowly making its way towards the city.

Amidst this turmoil the death of one girl seemed of little importance. But Pamela was the daughter of a former British consul, and had apparently been killed in Chinese territory, which could potentially make the case a political hot potato. To diplomatically resolve the problem, two detectives, one Chinese, Col. Han Shih-ching, and one British, a former Scotland Yard officer named Richard Dennis, were assigned to work the murder together.

Their queries took them from the debauched soirees of the insular Brits to the depraved dives of the lowest Chinese slums, but current events, hidden agendas and meddling superiors stymied the investigation and prevented them from bringing the case to a satisfactory resolution. Furious at this turn of events, Pamela’s grieving father took up the case and relentlessly pursued it. He hounded officials at home and abroad and drove himself into poverty trying to identify her killer and bring him to justice. The details of what he was eventually able to uncover about his daughter’s murder are heinous and heartbreaking.

Midnight in Peking is both an intriguing mystery and a colorful evocation of a famous city at a pivotal point in time. The author, Paul French, lives in Shanghai and is an expert in Chinese culture. This fast-paced, engrossing tale is recommended for true crime buffs and people with an interest in pre-war China.

Check the WRL catalog for Midnight in Peking

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The American press has always loved a good scandal or murder mystery. In 1897, they got both when a headless torso was found floating by a pier on the lower East Side of New York City. At first the police dismissed it as a ghoulish prank perpetrated by medical students. But when the severed limbs turned up in a ditch on the other side of town and stab wounds were found on the trunk, they realized this was not a prank but murder. Murder of the Century by Paul Collins tells the story of this ghoulish crime and its resulting trial.

In the 1890s, New York City’s major newspapers were involved in a brutal circulation war. Joseph Pulitzer’s old guard New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s up-and-coming New York Journal would do anything to out scoop the other. A headless body was manna from heaven for them and they went wild with it.

Reporters took the investigative lead over the police and identified both the victim, one William Guldensuppe, and the probable perpetrators, Martin Thorn and Augusta Nack.  Augusta was ready made for the tabloid press. A cold-blooded femme fatale, she ran an abortion service out of her apartment, was married and had not one but two lovers, the dead man Guldensuppe and the accused killer Thorn. With both murder and a sexual scandal on display the resulting courtroom trial had the whole country watching.

The author Paul Collins does a terrific job in relating this juicy tale that is flush with colorful characters and twisty plot turns. In addition, we get some interesting historical information about the turn-of–the-century newspaper business, police operations and courtroom procedures.  Well written, fast-paced and entertaining, Murder of the Century is a good choice for true crime fans.

Check the WRL catalog for The Murder of the Century.

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On the morning of February 15, 2003, the caretaker of the Antwerp Diamond Center went to open the building’s vault and made a horrible discovery. Instead of being locked up tight, the vault was wide open. The Diamond Center had been robbed and the thieves had made off with at least 130 million dollars in stolen gemstones. The true story of this amazing theft is told in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History.

Just who carried out this audacious robbery is not a mystery. Leonardo Notarbartolo, an Italian businessman and occasional jewel thief, is introduced in the first chapter. The story follows him as he conceives the robbery and recruits accomplices from a close knit group of professional thieves known as “The School of Turin.”  The book provides intriguing insight into how high-level professional thieves operate in Europe as Notarbartolo and crew spend two years casing the Diamond Center and planning the robbery.

We also learn about the diamond industry in Belgium.  The elaborate efforts that go into safeguarding gems include police protection, huge safes, complicated electronic security sensors and surveillance cameras. The clever way that Notarbartolo and his associates overcome all these obstacles and pull off the crime makes for engrossing reading. It’s like a real world version of the movie Ocean’s 11. The aftermath of the robbery is also covered including the international police investigation and the fatal mistake that led to the crew’s discovery.

The authors know their material. Scott Selby is an expert on diamonds and the jewel trade and Greg Campbell an award-winning journalist. The text is informative, clearly written and fast-paced. Flawless is a good choice for people who enjoy the non-violent side of true crime.

Check the WRL catalog for Flawless.

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Between the years 1963-65, Ian Brady and his girlfriend Myra Hindley kidnapped, tortured and murdered five children, burying their remains on the Saddleworth Moor near the Manchester area of England. Known in the UK as the Moors Murders, these sadistic crimes and their aftermath are brought vividly to life in the BBC mini-series, See No Evil: The Story of the Moors Murders, and in the HBO movie, Longford.

Part police procedural and part family drama, See No Evil is unusual for a crime tale in that it doesn’t actually show the crimes. In fact, it doesn’t dwell on the murders much at all, except for a couple of brief but horrific flashbacks. Rather it focuses on the savage pair’s everyday activities and family relations. It emphasizes the tragic effect the killings had on the victims’ loved ones and, in particular, on Myra’s sister, Maureen (Joanne Froggatt, who played Anna on Downton Abbey), and her husband David Smith (Michael McNulty). It was David, with Maureen’s encouragement, who broke the case open by reporting to the police that he had seen Ian brutally murder a teenager with a hatchet.

Despite the lack of criminal activity the movie is engrossing. Sean Harris as Ian and Maxine Peake as Myra do a fine job in displaying the subtle but distinctly cold and creepy attributes of this pair of psychopaths. The location filming on the windswept Moors and the haunting musical score ratchet up the tension.

Longford, also based on the Moors Murders case, takes place years after Ian and Myra have both been convicted and imprisoned. Myra is trying to get paroled by claiming that she has found God and repented her acts, which she only did because Ian made her do it, not to mention all the pre-trial prejudice due to her bad mug shot. (The mug shot really is creepy; google “Myra Hindley mug shot” to see it.)

In an effort to boost her chance for parole, she contacts British aristocrat Frank Aungier Pakenham, the Earl of Longford. Longford was a deeply religious Catholic, social activist and longtime advocate of prisoner’s rights. Opinion of him varied, with some approving of his work while others considered him to be a gullible, upper-class twit. Longford (Jim Broadbent) enthusiastically takes up Myra’s cause much to his personal and professional detriment.

This movie is intriguing right up to the end because of the sociopathic personalities of Brady and Hindley. Has she really repented her crimes and, even if she has, does that entitle her to be set free? Her partner in crime, Brady, disputes her conversion and tells Longford that she is just using him. Who is telling the truth? What about the victim’s families, who are outraged at the thought of this murderess being released? Themes of guilt, redemption, punishment and even sexism are touched on.

Both films are well done forays into true crime at its darkest. One criticism I could make is that the filmmakers presuppose a basic knowledge of the crimes that many Americans may not have. Nevertheless, both films are recommended. They are unrated but not suitable for children.

Check the WRL catalog for See No Evil.

Check the WRL catalog for Longford.

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In 1885, Minnie Wallace was accused of murdering her husband, the mayor of Emporia, Kansas. He was wealthy, she was 16 years old and they had only been married for about a month. Thus began Minnie’s long career as a con artist and husband killer, a career that is detailed in the true crime book, The Adventuress.

Minnie was born in New Orleans in 1869 and was raised to be, if not a courtesan, at least the consort of a wealthy man. Considered to be a real beauty, she was vain, selfish, coldblooded and quite a conniver. The first half of the book relates her murder trial, which became a cause célèbre throughout the country. The author provides a meticulous description of the legal wrangling using courtroom transcripts and newspaper articles from the period and provides some insightful portraits of the many people involved in the case.

The second half of the book recounts Minnie’s adventures later in life when she ran with a villainous crowd of grifters and con artists and made a career of seducing vulnerable men, leaving them financially ruined, dead or both.

Ms. McConnell, who has written several true crime books, does a nice job in recounting this little-known story of a 19th-century Black Widow. Recommended for historical true crime buffs or people interested in courtroom tales.

Check the WRL catalog for The Adventuress.

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Murder and Mayhem in Jefferson County is the understated title of a respectable collection of true crime tales set in Jefferson County, New York. In the 19th century, Jefferson County was a rugged locale occupied by hardworking farmers, upstanding citizens and just a few vicious murderers. The depraved deeds of this criminal minority are related in this short but entertaining book.

Among the crimes covered are:

  • “George Powell’s Problem with Women” (1876) – The mysterious drowning of Julia Powell, whose husband was suspiciously apathetic about her demise.
  • “The Ax Murders of Slaughter Hill” (1828) – wherein a disgruntled renter takes violent issue with three men trying to evict him from the premises.
  • “The Spineless Shooting of Mary Ward” (1893) – A woman’s greed makes her lover very, very angry.
  • “The Mary Crouch-Mary Daly Double Homicide” (1897) – In which a bigamist finds himself with one woman too many and comes up with a brutal solution.
  • “The Gruesome “Watertown Trunk Murder”” (1908) – A woman covets her neighbor’s property and hatches a cold-blooded scheme to gain possession of it.

Most of the tales are interesting and the gruesome nature of the crimes is leavened a bit by the author’s wry asides, such as “after the initial shock of being found out wore off and a smidgeon of reasoning (disturbed as it was) returned, Mrs. Farmer attempted to lay blame for the murder on her husband.”

The author also quotes generously from newspapers of the period, which are colorful in their descriptions of the perpetrators, “…a brute in the shape of a human being” and the crimes, “This is one of the most atrocious murders ever known, and we only regret that the cold-blooded villain still breathes but will not tell the truth about his horrible crime.”

This is a fine book for fans of historical true crime looking for a quick read.

Check the WRL catalog for Murder and Mayhem in Jefferson County.

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Slavery by Another Name doesn’t masquerade as a novel but the story is well-told and the characters drawn from history help us consider the realities of a black person’s fearful existence in the era of post-emancipation neoslavery.

“Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans.”

In Slavery by Another Name, Doug Blackmon chronicles the shocking details of a turn-of-the-century secret service investigation into post-emancipation slavery that led to large-scale indictments of white southern convict leaseholders and their conspirators and the judicial decisions that amounted to little more than slaps on the wrist and enabled atrocities to continue into the 1940s.  Notorious and powerful perpetrators were acquitted or merely fined (at affordable costs that their profitable industries made back using forced labor), despite almost ritual abuse of men, women, and children held in slavery on dubious, trumped-up criminal charges or in debt peonage, which had been made a federal crime in the late 1860s. Many southern lawyers succeeded at arguing that slavery had not actually been made a crime since no statutes had yet been made despite the emancipation proclamation and the thirteenth amendment.

Indeed, where federal investigators initially stirred near panic among slaveholding farmers when they first arrived in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the impotence of the investigations was becoming richly obvious.

Blackmon’s research reveals the incomprehensible, that a federal grand jury (made up of mostly white but a also a few black jurors) and a federal judge, hoping to deter others and who convicted some of the slaveholders in 1903, actually failed to champion the cause of protecting Americans from being enslaved, laying a merely symbolic sentence on the men who went right out and did their dirty work again up until World War II!  President Teddy Roosevelt, his administration, and many northern critics even dropped the cause as it eventually became overwelmingly difficult to pursue, especially considering the intimidation factor brought on by prominent white citizens threatening anyone who spoke up, accusing them of being “nigger lovers.”  There were a few heroes that Blackmon depicts, such as Alabama’s U.S. Attorney Warren S. Reese, who seemed to stick with the project longer than most despite severe backlash from his southern peers.

Admittedly, I was inclined to believe that pre-war slaveholders treated slaves in a manner that guarded their health and strength as a valuable investment. After emancipation, however, this book depicts a different mindset; gone was the sense of preserving a valuable possession that provides a lifetime of hard work, replaced by the expendable convict that any white man could produce simply by nabbing another black man off the street and falsely accusing him of a petty crime.

Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society–its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end–can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.

This Pulitzer-prizewinning book reveals facts that should be incorporated into every American child’s history curriculum.  Many of us were never made aware of slavery that went on after the Civil War and halfway through the 20th century.  Regardless of our collective moral conscience, those in positions of political or fiscal power over human beings, regardless of either’s race or ethnicity, have always and will continue to exploit humans for forced labor. According to news stories in National Geographic, NPRand Time, slavery is by no means an artifact of the past; it’s alive and well in the 21st century, in democracies such as our nation and throughout the world.

Check the WRL catalog for Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

A PBS documentary film based upon the book and Blackmon’s research was aired in February, 2012, and has been made available for streaming from pbs.org.

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I remember seeing the news about the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, when I was a student at William & Mary. I stood watching the television in the cafeteria, unable to believe that the story was real. My friends tried to convince me that it was real, that the story had been in the news and they’d been following it, but I was convinced they were pulling my leg. I thought it was a bad tv movie using real network news reporters as actors. When a reporter said a California congressman had been shot and killed, I was convinced it had to be fiction. Nothing like that could ever happen in real life.

But, no, it was real. Almost a thousand people had “killed themselves” by “drinking Kool-Aid.” As Scheeres’s book emphasizes, it wasn’t really Kool-Aid but an off-brand flavored drink to which had been added enough cyanide to kill everyone in the commune in Guyana, and many of the people who ingested the poison that night did not do so willingly. Many were in Guyana against their will and had been led to Guyana under false pretenses. None-the-less, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has come into popular use to mean, according to Wikipedia, “a person or group’s unquestioning belief in an ideology, argument, or philosophy without critical examination.”

For the thirty-four years between the news reports of the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978 to the time I read Julia Scheeres’s book, I hadn’t really thought about the individuals who died that night. In “A Thousand Lives,” Scheeres concentrates on a few of those thousand, and shows how they ended up as part of Jim Jones’ sick cult. For the most part, individuals and families joined Jones’ Peoples Temple because they thought it was a community of racial and social equality, and that Jones was a powerful, positive healer who was in communication with God himself. By the time they found out that things were not as they’d been led to believe, they had been manipulated into giving Jones all their money and could not afford to escape. Some had been coerced into signing fake confessions to sexual crimes they did not commit; Jones threatened to make these “confessions” public to ensure the followers’ allegiance to the Temple.

The individual stories put faces to tragedy. Hyacinth Thrash and her sister, Zeporah, were black women who had grown up in segregated Alabama. Hy saw the Peoples Temple as a congregation of racial equality and saw Jones as a healer. The sisters followed Jones from Chicago to San Francisco and ultimately to Guyana as he moved his Temple as it grew. Stanley Clayton was a black seventeen-year-old foster child living near San Francisco when he heard Jones preach. He thought Jones was a savior that would help keep him off the streets. Edith Roller, an older white secretary, felt strongly that she needed to help the hungry and work toward peace and justice. She saw the Peoples Temple as a place that matched her ideals. Jim Bogue was a father who found the Peoples Temple after the accidental death of one of his sons pushed him to reevaluate his beliefs and his spiritual commitment to God. Tommy Bogue, Jim Bogue’s teenage son, was sent to Jonestown by his mother to be with his father. With his friend  Brian, Tommy tried to escape the cult in the jungle. (Photos of Hyacinth, Stanley Edith and Tommy are at http://juliascheeres.com/index.shtml)

Scheeres also paints a picture of Jones himself, and attempts to explain how, with the help of a handful of others he appointed to positions of power, he was able to control the 900-some people who joined the Peoples Temple. It is still hard to believe that nearly a thousand people would join Jones’ community, and would stay once they realized it was not a socialist paradise, but Scheeres’s book helps make clear how cults are formed. Powerful people make promises to pull people in, and use threats, fear and poverty to keep them in line. The story of Jonestown is much more complex than a flock of sheep following a man without question.

Written as a novel, but with detailed references in the back, Scheeres’s story of Jonestown was hard for me to put down.

Check the WRL catalog for A Thousand Lives

 

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What an attraction it must have been.  Stories of thumb-sized gold nuggets just laying in a Yukon streambed for the taking drew men from around the world to make their fortunes.  In the midst of a worldwide Great Depression, many walked away from failing businesses and farms, left their families, and headed North to Alaska in search of wealth and redemption. Some would become rich beyond their dreams, while many others would lose everything, including their lives, in their search.

Along with the would-be millionaires came confidence men, counterfeiters, thieves, pimps, and jaywalkers.  Hoping to gull the marks, they worked in gangs which were often protected by the police.  While usually not violent, they did have enforcers who would take care of anyone who protested about losing their money, or use strong-arm tactics to collect  protection money.  Alongside the reputable businessmen who served the legitimate needs of the growing territory, they would rake in the cash by indulging the darker side of human needs.  Such men gave places like Skagway, Alaska–like every boom town before and since–a reputation as wide-open and lawless.

Three men–outsized personalities all–are the perfect filters to tell the story of the Yukon Gold Rush.  George Carmack was a deserter from the Marines who lived with the Tagish tribe of coastal Canada when he wasn’t searching for gold. Charlie Siringo was a former cattle drive boss, a successful cigar merchant, an unsuccessful writer of Western tales and eventually a Pinkerton’s detective.  And Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith was an accomplished con man, leader of a gang of specialists who could separate even the most suspicious mark from his last dollar.  The three of them would eventually converge on Skagway, where they would face off over a fortune in gold.

Blum traces their lives, using contemporary records, their own letters and writings, and in-depth histories of the region.  Readers see Carmack and his Native partners carrying enormous loads of supplies through the wilderness and stumbling across the creek that started the Gold Rush.  We ride with Siringo in his lengthy search for desperadoes, then on his investigation into the impossible theft of gold bars from the world’s largest gold mine.  And we learn about the variety of large and small scams that gave Soapy his fortune and ambitions for respectability.

Blum evokes the feel of a country where independence was giving way to corporations and associations, and where civilizing influences were driving free spirits into remote outposts.  He captures the feel of cattle drives, the growing towns and cities, the loneliness of isolation, and the thrill of discovery.  He also finds the humor in the stories.  One particular tale, involving retribution for bigotry, is especially delicious.  This is a great piece of North American history, which demonstrates the adage “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Floor of Heaven

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