Archive for True Crime

Kathryn Casey: In Plain Sight

Kathryn Casey is America’s greatest living True Crime writer, as evidenced by the fact that her books have been reviewed more often by Aunt Agatha’s than any others in that genre. The reason for this is simple—Casey has a firm grasp of the most important ingredients for any writing, fiction or non. First and foremost is character, and her latest has a doozy of a cast. She has a real talent for presenting the histories of the major actors in such sharp detail that the fatal product of their collision seems somehow inevitable.

Eric Williams and his victim Mike McLelland were both oversized personalities, with swaggering self-confidence, machismo to spare and lots and lots of guns. They’d clashed in local politics, generating a heap of ill will, and when the dust settled, Mike was DA and Eric was Magistrate in their small patch of Texas. When the DA had the chance to go after the Magistrate for a minor and unclear piece of workplace theft he went all in, stripping him of his position, his law license and, perhaps most importantly in today’s America, his health care, particularly crucial for his chronically ailing wife.

Since he had no actual courtroom experience, Mike enlisted the assistance of an experienced trial attack dog, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse. The two crowed about laying low Eric, who they considered a nerd and wimpy wannabe. Sadly for them, the same ethical vacuity that enabled him to casually walk away with a few computer monitors presented no barriers to revenge killing.

You learn a lot about the actual state of America from a expertly done True Crime book, particularly a state like Texas. The anti-gun control mantra of the efficacy of “a good guy with a gun,” is disproven when the bad guy has the drop on you with an assault rifle, despite your having “a gun in every pocket.” All the players here seem to have large arsenals and cowboy hats, the former no more a deterrent than the latter. As the victim’s son’s said, “It was the most ironic thing that’s ever happened in this world. My dad got shot and he’d been preparing for a gunfight forever.”

The role of law enforcement is another element shown to be much different than found in crime fiction. Not only is there no Poirot brilliantly putting together the pieces to find the killer, there doesn’t even seem to be a dogged Law and Order effort to run down the evidence. With the high profile killings there’s a plethora of cops and Feds, but they seem to confine themselves to running lab tests, looking at surveillance tapes and waiting by the phone for tips. The reader wants to shout at them to drag the pond, check out abandoned vehicles or at least tail the obvious suspect, but they seem incapable of following these simple crime tropes until tipped off. Perhaps another telling point about contemporary American justice is that the perp doesn’t come close to apprehension until he runs out of money for high priced lawyers and lets his own overblown ego lead the defense.

At well over four hundred pages In Plain Sight is quite a read, but it’s certainly worth it. Casey also had the clever idea of integrating the photos with the text, rather than clumping them all in the middle. Nobody does True Crime better, and, as I always say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. (Jamie)

Kathryn Casey: Possessed: The Infamous Texas Stiletto Murder

PossessedEver since the loss of Ann Rule, the True Crime world has been in a bit of a funk. To some extent the books that used to come out by the dozens have been replaced by semi-documentaries that proliferate on television. Of course, like so many, these programs suffer from a lack of depth and a questionable “reality” show standard of journalism. So thank goodness for Rule’s friend Kathryn Casey, who with her new book Possessed: The Infamous Texas Stiletto Murder serves up a delectable slice of real life crime, detailed research, twisted personality and plain old you-couldn’t-make-this stuff-up goodness.

The first hook is one you might already be familiar with:

The woman’s face twisted into a pained grimace, and she pointed a bloody finger toward something on the floor near the dead man’s head, a size-nine, cobalt blue suede stiletto, its five-and-a-half-inch heel stained with blood that held tufts of what appeared to be strands of the dead man’s white hair.

The woman is Ana Trujillo, who on June 9th, 2013 killed her former boyfriend Stefan Andersson by beating him over the head with the stiletto heel of her shoe. Casey begins her tale with the shocked first responders, and their quick realization that there’s something a little hinky with Ana’s tale of deadly force in self defense.

The book then rewinds, taking a deep look at the biographies of both victim and killer, expertly detailing their characters, until there seems an almost tragic inevitability that when the trajectories of these two star crossed people intersect something awful will occur.

Stefan Andersson was born in Sweden, blessed with a brilliant mind but cursed with a father who was abusive to his family and jealous of a son who would outshine him. Eventually Stefan escaped to the United States in order to pursue biochemistry in corporate and academic jobs, but he remained damaged, popular and successful, with many friends, yet insecure, uncomfortable with true intimacy and saddled with a bit of a drinking problem. Getting older, with a failed marriage and a string of unsatisfying romances, he longed to shake his life, hoping for, perhaps, a spicy Latina to spice things up. Be careful what you wish for.

Ana Trujillo, a woman whose outgoing nature verged on exhibitionism, had risen from her own humble roots to become, at one time, a successful wife, mother and businesswoman. Gradually, however, perhaps because she had forced to be prematurely responsible at an early age, taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, she slowly slipped into a life of careless hedonism. It was a slow spiral downward into drugs, sex and bad company, her fitful and grandiose attempts at providing for herself regularly ruined by her inability to apply herself to anything but hedonism for any length of time. There were always guys, though, to pay for drinks, crash with and generally pick up the pieces. These relationships would just as regularly be sabotaged by her increasingly unhinged behavior and inexplicable eruptions of violence.

In each, the other initially found a savior of sorts. Only later would it all turn out to be misimpression and camouflage.

When Stefan and Ana met in the lobby of his high rise apartment building he saw her as the missing piece of his life. Even when he learned enough to want to avoid her, he can’t be firm enough to make a clean break or avoid her appeals to his compassion, haunted, perhaps, by the memory of his father’s brutality to his mother. As Max used to say on Hart to Hart, when these two met it was murder.

Once the deed is done the ever manipulative Ana tries to game the system, claiming to be a battered woman who feared for her life. The police and prosecutor soon see through her, but her claims make for a powerful defence in court.

As Ann Rule herself said, Casey is “one of the best true crime writers today,” and Possessed is a truly compelling read, with not only a precise presentation of the facts, but also a novelist’s eye for character and setting, the whole producing one of the best examples of the genre to appear this year. (Jamie)

Steve Miller: Murder in Grosse Pointe Park

murderingrossepointeThis is Steve Miller’s fourth true crime book, the second set in the Detroit area. The case he’s chosen to write about this time around concerns the brutal murder of Jane Bashera, a blameless wife and mother from Grosse Pointe Park who was found dead in her SUV in a not great area of Detroit. If you live in Southeastern Michigan there’s a pretty small chance you didn’t read about this case and end up following it in the newspaper, as details of her husband Bob’s sordid sex life leaked out. It quickly became apparent that Bob Bashera had paid a guy who did odd jobs for him to kill his wife.

Those are the basics, but some true crime books are better constructed than others, and my husband and I have a rule: if the trial takes up too much of the book, not enough research and thought has been put into the rest of it. Miller’s book devotes only a tiny slice to the trial, so he’s following in the steps of other true crime greats like Ann Rule and Kathryn Casey.

While Ann Rule was actually requested by family members (and even in one case an eventual victim) to tell their stories, Miller has not so far been as lucky. The victims’ families in the cases he’s chosen have said they are writing their own books. What sets this book apart is that Miller had quite a correspondence with Bob Bashera, and on top of that, he’s a good and intelligent reporter and investigator.

While true crime as a genre is frequently looked down on and disparaged as trash, well done true crime writing illuminates the human condition as well as any other kind of writing; it’s often just not the inspiring or hopeful side of human behavior. It’s of course the extreme opposite. Steve Miller really gets to the heart of why Bob Bashera did what he did.

Often, as is proved by this book, evil isn’t grand or clever, it’s sadly banal. Bob Bashera is essentially a selfish man who could see no other’s side or point of view but his own. He did what he wanted to do and ultimately his wife stood in the way of what he wanted. Bashera’s sordid sex life as part of a culture of bondage and domination (he had a submissive partner, or “slave”), made him seemingly oblivious to his wife and children who were living a normal type of suburban life. Jane worked hard, the kids were being well educated; Bob goofed around managing apartment buildings and storefronts, but didn’t make a great living.

Miller as a writer is refreshingly non judgmental and fair-minded; he tries his best to figure out the way Bob was thinking, but in the end it’s too hard to accept that he stood next to his wife while another man killed her, something Bob continues to deny. Bob also tried to put a hit on the killer, but did it so ineptly that he was almost instantly caught. Bashera seems to think denial exculpates him.

While you may want to look away from this story, in the end Miller’s portrait of one man’s complete and utter selfishness is hard to forget. Add in some police bungling of the case and the salacious backstory, and this is a very hard book to put down, and another well done book for Mr. Miller.

Kathryn Casey: Deadly Little Secrets: The Minister, His Mistress, and a Heartless Texas Murder

Now that we’re in the middle of another political campaign, perhaps it’s time to examine the proposition that ostentatious religious piety is somehow indicative of inner virtue. To all those who boast of how devoted a church (or temple) goer their candidate is, how full of praise and prayer, how supportive of the precepts of their faith, I present Matt Baker, popular hardworking pastor, devoted family man and product of good Christian parents, the very embodiment of those old time Texas Baptist values – and also, oh yeah, a thoroughly depraved murderer.

Matt’s the central figure in Kathryn Casey’s great new true crime book Deadly Little Secrets. There’s no better writer in the genre than Casey and in this effort she’s got an extra juicy case to work with. Pastor Baker’s wife Kari apparently committed suicide via pill overdose one night, with Matt the only witness to the hours surrounding her death, his account of her mental state differing sharply from that of just about everybody else that knew her. But there was a (typed, unsigned) suicide note and Matt was a man of God and Kari his wife, so the local Justice of the Peace, seemingly reluctant to abandon his warm bed in the middle of the night, signed off on a verdict of suicide and ordered no autopsy.

Of course, due to Casey’s masterful scene setting, the reader has strong suspicions to the contrary. Kari herself had recorded her fears of Matt in the margins of her bible and asked her therapist if it was crazy to think that her husband could possibly be trying to kill her. These facts and certain troubling things about Matt’s past are quickly uncovered by Kari’s devoted family and friends as they begin a grueling crusade for the truth, opposed not only by the dissembling pastor, but by a police force more intent on defending their disastrous snap decision than seeing justice done. Another degree of difficulty is added by the fact that the assumption of suicide prevented any conclusive forensic evidence from being recovered at the scene of the crime.

Casey uses the traditional tools of the writer — character, setting, pacing and foreshadowing — to spellbind. It’s true that the juicy raw ingredients were already out there, but a gifted true crime practitioner like Casey digs deep to find the facts, combines them precisely and brings everything to an energetic boil. By the end of the book there are as many memorable characters, unexpected developments and courtroom bombshells as in any Perry Mason yarn, but no one can fault its plausibility because it’s true.

And the glare of truth in a good true crime book like this one often extends farther than a single crime to cast a cold light on the society in which the crime germinated. Matt’s serial exploitation of women, often reported, but never seriously confronted or even officially recorded was surely made easier by an avowedly patriarchal culture, one where a banner reading A Woman Who Fears The Lord Deserves To Be Praised hangs proudly next to the altar. In the end, the message of Deadly Little Secrets isn’t that different from that of a lot of other cautionary tales — things are not always as they seem. (Jamie)

Timothy Masters: Drawn to Injustice and Mark Seal: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

There are more pleasures to be found in true crime than simply you couldn’t make this stuff up. Because the events described actually happened, true crime has the authority to make us question our assumptions about human nature and society in a way we wouldn’t accept from fiction. Two very fine and very different examples of this are the new paperback arrivals Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters by Timothy Masters with Steve Lehto and The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal. (They’re also examples of the genre’s predilection for long, explanatory subtitles!)

Timothy Masters’ role in the horrific crime that propels Drawn to Injustice would seem to be marginal and fleeting, but, as he himself narrates with the expert aid of writer Lehto, it is only the beginning of a Kafkaesque tale in which a secondary character, a red herring, is somehow propelled into the heart of a major nightmare. One morning in 1967 as tenth grader Tim walked across the vacant field next to his house on the way to catch the school bus he saw an inert female form lying in the grass. Disturbed but in a hurry, believing himself to be the victim of a prank, he concluded it was a CPR practice doll stolen from one of the schools.

It wasn’t, but rather a stranger to Tim, Peggy Lee Hettrick, who had been stabbed and mutilated. Because he hadn’t reported the crime and lived next to the scene, Tim quite naturally became a suspect, and then, quite inexplicably, remained the only person the police investigated in any real depth. At no time, then or in the future, did the authorities claim there was any concrete physical evidence implicating Tim in the crime. The single footprint he left in the field was far from the body and on top of the drag trail, indicating that it was, as he said, left after the murder. The numerous other footprints of men’s shoes were never identified. Instead, the police’s certainty was based on the things found in Tim’s room – an extensive knife collection, none of which were missing or contaminated, and a rather macabre group of writings and drawings reflecting his interest in scary movies, none of which depicted anything like the horrors inflicted on Peggy.

The police used their entire repertoire of questionable techniques in order to break young Tim during lengthy and repeated interrogations, but not having committed the crime, he stubbornly refused to say he had. With no evidence, no confession and no inclination to consider another suspect, the investigation languished. More than a year later Tim decided to escape and join the Navy, determined to put the incident behind him.

Unfortunately the authorities in Fort Collins remained fixated on the fact that they had only one unsolved murder on the books and only one suspect, and were able, eleven years later, to secure an arrest warrant on the basis of new forensic evidence. This evidence was not, however, DNA or anything physical, but an opinion by one of those heroes of novels and television, a psychological profiler, who, seeking to make a name for himself, concluded, despite never having met Tim, that his drawings and writings somehow provided indisputable proof that he had committed the crime.

Generally I find the trial portions of true crime books to be tedious, and have a rule that if they occur too early in a book, the book probably isn’t worth reading, but Drawn to Injustice proved to be an exception, simply because I wanted very much to know how an innocent man could be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment despite a total lack of evidence.

In fiction, such injustice is almost always the result of obvious evil. The coppers in Doyle and Christie may be incompetent, but when the truth is revealed, they gratefully accede to it. Even in the darker noir fiction of Hammet or Thompson, the bad lawmen are either total psychopaths or on the take, knowingly abusing the innocent for their own twisted motives. The authorities of Fort Collins, Colorado were none of these things. Although it was by no means unanimous, the authorities with the most power honestly believed that they were doing the right thing, that Tim was guilty, and once they prematurely convinced themselves of this, put all their energies into getting their vision of “justice” done. Even in 2008 when the final story of suppressed evidence, ignored suspects and egregious misstatements in court finally emerged, the DA and police weren’t revealed to be evil, but still obsessively convinced of Tim’s guilt, rendered oblivious by their fear of embarrassment and the All-American desire to win at any cost.

Another neighbor of the field where the body was found was a prominent local doctor, later revealed to be a sex predator, who was ignored as a suspect because, well, he was a prominent local doctor. The fact that our society is ever more increasingly weighted in favor of the privileged “winners,” is easily illustrated by a simple question – would Timothy have gone through the hell he did if his name were, say, Rockefeller?

Which brings me to The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, and the truths about America uncovered by its protagonist, an individual of many identities whose ultimate expression was Clark Rockefeller. Author Mark Seal does a masterful job of describing the literal character development of an ambitious, amoral German teenager who came to the States in search of the good life. Although the imposter is a mystery fiction staple from Tey’s Brat Farrar to Highsmith’s Ripley, Clark never made the mistake of impersonating an actual person, or even like Melville’s Confidence Man, assuming a kaleidoscope of identities, but rather refined a character, like a workshopping improv actor, studying first movies (Hitchcock was a favorite) and sitcoms (Thurston Howell III an influential role model), and then immersing himself in moneyed American society, beginning, of course, at the local Episcopal church.

One night on one of his occasional flights from a burnt out identity and in the company of one of the many deluded women who empowered him, he found himself unable to get a table at a fancy restaurant, and improvised a brilliant name that soon had him seated at the best table in the house: Rockefeller. Clearly he was on to something.

That Clark was able to get away with so much (including, perhaps, murder) for so long on the strength of such a flimsy facade is very telling. Seal sees something in him that echoes the behavior of the authorities of Carson City:

Perhaps he is a twisted aberration of the boom years on which he thrived, the years in which people felt entitled to do whatever it took to win. Life was a game and the man calling himself Clark Rockefeller saw himself a victor, above the rules, the ultimate narcissist in the golden age of narcissism.

Although Clark did don the great gilded Emperor’s clothes of the venture capitalist and junk bond magnate, he also uncomfortably models the dirty laundry of our time. Maybe Clark was just a man slightly ahead of his time, a time when by merely having the name Hilton or Kardashian or exhibiting stereotypical, overboard narcissistic behavior, a shameless character can achieve fame and fortune. Maybe he just needed his own reality series: The Unreal Rockefeller of New York.

Paul French: Midnight in Peking

The best true crime books have a few things in common.  One is a vivid setting, one that’s well described and felt.  Even better is an unusual setting – in this case, the setting is Peking right before the Japanese took over in 1937.  Another thing is a sense of outrage at what happened to the victim portrayed in the book – and the victim needs to be portrayed, not just presented as a dead body.  Just like in a fictional mystery, investment in the victim is investment in the outcome of the story.

Also the very top notch true crime books don’t spend too much time in the courtroom.  Anyone can go to a courtroom and take notes, not everyone can craft a narrative that’s compellingly told.  Paul French rarely dips a toe into the long ago courtrooms of China. And Mr. French does one more thing I’m a big fan of (and it’s rarely done) – he structures his book like a whodunit.  The reader doesn’t know whodunit it until the end of the book, and like any good whodunit, it’s a jaw dropper.  Books sharing this characteristic would include Edward Keyes’ The Michigan Murders and Kate Summerscale’s instant classic The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

Like Summerscale, French sets his book in the past, and like Summerscale, he gets some of the  juice of a good crime story by making the reveal of the murderer almost unbelievable.  If it was fiction, you would probably set the book aside in disgust.  But that’s the beauty of it all: it’s true.

And it’s a story you feel might be better known, because it’s so terrible.  One night in 1937 a young Englishwoman living in Peking is found brutally murdered – so brutally, that it makes almost no sense unless the killer was completely psychopathic.  As French begins to roll back the layers of Pamela Werner’s life, it emerges that she’s the spoiled only daughter of an often absent academic father, a girl whose mother died before she could even remember her.

As Pamela grew, she grew wild, getting kicked out of several schools.  When we join her, she’s been sent to a strict boarding school by her father in hope of changing her life direction.  In the book, the reactions of her friends at school and at home are the same:  “That’s Pamela?”  The school girl Pamela looked her age (19), dressed in a drab school uniform; the at home Pamela was all decked out in fancy clothes with an up to the minute hairstyle.

Her father was devoted to her, and one of the things that propels this book is his grief.  It’s sometimes impotent grief, as the contentious Edward Werner had burned many bridges throughout his professional life.  As he reached out to the authorities, again and again, he is frequently rebuffed.  It’s heartbreaking.

The two policemen investigating the case must work in an uneasy partnership – one is a Chinese, Colonel Han, and one is called in from out of town, an Englishman, Dick Dennis.  As they can bridge essentially two cultures, they actually make a good team.

All of foreign Peking lived in a separate area of the city, the Legation quarter, and Pamela and her father were no exception.  This quarter was literally surrounded by a wall – though Pamela made her way freely all over the city on her bicycle.  In fact, on the night in question, she’d gone off on her bike to meet a friend and go skating.

As Han and Dennis run into walls of things they are not supposed to ask and people they are not supposed to talk to, their investigation stalls.   When they finally throw in the towel, the specter of the invading Japanese is more on the minds of most people than the death of one young girl.  It’s up to her father to set things right.

French’s portrait of 1937 is a vivid and layered one, revealing all the different levels and classes of Peking society, from the upper class foreigners in the legation to prostitutes and madams and aimless white Russians, drinking their lives away.  At the same time the portraits of Pamela, her father, Han, and Dennis are just as finely drawn.  And he doesn’t waste time telling the story – it moves at a brisk pace.

It’s a heartbreaking tale, and a rich portrait of a very specific, very tragic time.  This is a beautifully done and intelligent book.

Richard Lloyd Parry: People Who Eat Darkness

It’s no mystery—a book, any kind of book, has to contain certain key ingredients to be good and generally the more of these ingredients it has, the better it’s going to be. Look at the case of People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, which, although an example of the not always respected true crime genre, has more than enough of the right stuff to be a truly enthralling read.

Let’s start with plot, which, despite what the more literary than thou crowd says, is absolutely crucial, always has been, always will be. People Who Eat Darkness has a set up most thriller writers would kill for—Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one year old English blonde working in Japan as a bar hostess, goes on a date with a client (in Japan, as Parry explains, none of these terms require the ironic quotation marks they would over here) and fails to return. Her roommate, Louise Phillips, perturbed, asks around, learns nothing, contacts the disinterested police and eventually receives a disturbing phone call. The person on the other end says that Lucie is fine, but has decided to join a cult and has no interest in communicating with her old friends ever again. When Louise insists on speaking to her, the caller, a Japanese man, informs her that Lucie isn’t feeling very well at the moment and hangs up. He quickly calls back, saying Lucie is determined to start a new life and, by the way, what’s your address? He claims that he wants to return Lucie’s belongings, and when Louise points out that Lucie surely knows her own address, repeats that she’s not feeling well and can’t remember, and what did you say that address was again? A horrified Louise protests and the man hangs up for good.

Of course events are driven by character, and character in turn is revealed by events. Parry paints vivid portraits of killer and victim, or rather victims, as the impact of the horrific crime ripples out to affect entire families, communities and even nations. Some true crime books tend to idealize the victim, but here the loss of Lucie is even more poignant because of her imperfections—an insecure, somewhat naive young woman who stumbles into an evil few would anticipate.

Lucie’s family are also vividly portrayed. Her father, Joe, travels to Japan, working tirelessly to publicize her case and prod the authorities, yet also seems to enjoy the media spotlight a little too much, refusing to play the role of stereotypical grieving parent, and eventually, in a twist no fiction writer would dare attempt, commits a stunning act. His ex-wife Jane is more conventional, insisting on her privacy and snarling at the press, yet strangely determined to use the tragedy to further her personal vendetta against Joe. Her siblings and friends are also sharply defined by the glare of uncertainty and grief, as are, eventually, the friends and family of the killer.

But what about the killer himself? One of the reasons we read true crime is to try to comprehend the nature of a person who commit such crimes, but, brilliantly, Parry makes the criminals very impenetrability his defining feature:

Humans are conditioned to look for truth that is singular and focused, hanging for all to see like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nut. But as a subject [the killer] sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkle upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut. But the surface of the shell turned out to be fascinating in itself.

As can be seen by the above excerpt, Parry’s prose is yet another strength, elastic enough to be  journalistic or poetic as the narrative demands.

And then there’s the setting. As the most modernized Asian culture, Japan fascinates because it is so superficially familiar, yet so fundamentally foreign, and there’s nothing like a mysteriously missing gaijin to highlight the disconnects. Parry is the Asia editor and the Tokyo bureau chief of The London Times and the perfect tour guide for this complex and occasionally absurd and unexpectedly sordid scene.

Finally there’s the underrated quality of pacing. Even though People Who Eat Darkness is 434 pages and portrays long periods of uncertainty and seeming inactivity, Parry draws the reader through his narrative with artful flashbacks, fascinating asides, foreshadowing, and more than enough skill to make the sometimes tedious process of real world justice just as absorbing as any fictional counterpart.

The desired result of all these ingredients is, of course, enjoyment, and Parry has fashioned an enthralling, disquieting, entertaining and profound book—with the added kick—it’s all true.

Kate Summerscale: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

From the very beginning real and fictive crime have had an inseparable relationship. Novels have influenced the way people think about crime almost as much as actual crimes have influenced novels. Obviously detective fiction couldn’t have started before there were detectives, but once it did, the public perception of what detectives are and what they do was very much determined by mystery books.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a fascinating work, not only for its vivid portrayal of an intriguing true crime in 1860’s England, but also for its deft examination of the parallels between the emerging real life detectives of the time and their literary doppelgangers. When three year old Saville Kent, the son of a prominent local functionary, is taken from his nursery and later found brutally murdered, it seems like the perfect set up for a classic English country house mystery.

Though there are several inconclusive clues, the local police are baffled and, just like in the books, are forced to appeal to a famous detective from Scotland Yard. Soon Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher, a well respected sleuth with powers of detection and observation bordering on the miraculous, arrives, and, after a meticulous examination of the scene of the crime and the various suspects, renders his unshakable opinion as to the identity of the guilty party.

But here’s where reality and fiction part ways – although the Victorians glorified the concept of the brilliant detective, in practice their rigid social codes and maniacal demand for the appearance of propriety wouldn’t allow them to accept the sordid facts revealed when the streetwise Whicher peeled back the facade of the Kent household. The press and public simply couldn’t handle the truth, especially when, given the primitive state of forensic science and the fact that the suspect was spared rigorous interrogation, there was no conclusive proof.

But just when the reader becomes apprehensive that Summerscale’s narrative will limp to a rather deflating conclusion, further twists and turns emerge, including a denouement that any fiction writer would envy. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is an absorbing, expertly written and constructed book, one which provides not only an exciting real life murder mystery, but also a heady immersion into the Victorian milieu and a unique portrayal of the emergence of the modern detective in both fact and fiction. (Jamie)

Daniel Stashower: The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and The Invention of Murder

Since I’m a well known Poe freak and afficionado of true crime, Stashower had me at the title, and I’m pleased to report that the rest of the book lived up to my expectations.

In her day Mary Rogers was a well known figure, a humbled member of the upper classes who was reduced to selling cigars in a New York tobacco emporium, the crafty store owner knowing that a fetching face and fine figure would attract male clientele. (Robin, of course, serves a similar function here at Aunt Agatha’s.) Her employment was a sign of a changing social environment in which a woman could have a casual social relationship with men without being a member of the demi-monde, and her fame an indication of the novelty of her position.

As a consequence of this notoriety, Mary’s subsequent unsolved murder was front page news , and the same relaxed mores that allowed her to wait on men also permitted the stuffiest newspapers to delve into the morbid details in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier.

Like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, this vintage crime is presented alongside another narrative, in this case the short and tragic life of Edgar Allan Poe. The narratives intersect when Poe decides to follow up his seminal detective tale “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” with another in which his protagonist C. Auguste Dupin would use his fantastic powers of ratiocination (and by extension Poe’s own) to solve a lightly fictionalized version of an infamously unsolved crime. Poe called his story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and in Stashower’s deft reportage, the subsequent collision of truth and fiction makes for unexpected twists and high drama.

Over the years the relative fame and reputations of Mary Rogers and Edgar Allan Poe have waxed and waned, but today it may safely be said that the latter is firmly established in the literary pantheon while the former has slipped into obscurity. With impressive scholarship and analysis Stashower manages to make both his threads strong and compelling, weaving a captivating fabric that highlights the almost forgotten victim and stitching a new perspective around the renowned writer. (Jamie)

Ann Rule: Every Breath You Take

This might be a good book for mothers to let their innocent teenage or older daughters read before they go out in the wide world. Perhaps it would help them to avoid a man like the clever, charming and murderous Allen Blackthorne, the focus of Rule’s latest tour de force. No one writes better true crime than Ann Rule, and the reason for that is a combination of good writing, careful and thorough research, and an ability to make the reader so able to empathize with the victim that the reader’s stake in seeing the killer brought to justice is nearly as high as the victim’s family’s.

In this book, the victim unusually had a premonition of her death at the hands of her ex-husband, and begged her sister that if that were to happen to track down Ann Rule and ask her to write her story. The story may be already familiar to many readers as it was so grotesque – the woman, Sheila Bellush, was brutally murdered in front of her four toddlers in Florida. While her marriage to the abusive, manipulative, clever, charming and deadly Blackthorne had been over for almost nine years, he refused to give up his grudge and hatred of any attempt of Sheila’s to get the better of him – in his mind, this included paying child support for his two daughters. While Sheila supported herself and her daughters as a law clerk, Allen was a millionaire many times over, yet he still begrudged Sheila any kind of financial support. Even after Sheila remarried and had children with her second husband, Jamie Bellush, she and her husband lived in a constant state of fear.

The denouement, unfortunately inevitable, is followed up by Rule with an account of the meticulous and dedicated police work that went into uncovering the plot to kill Sheila, which eventually leads back to Allen Blackthorne. This is a sad, terrible tale of one family’s journey and incredible grief, but in her own way, Rule has memorialized Sheila in a significant way which may make your own daughter or someone else’s think twice about staying with an abusive man. The number of conspirators who knew of Allen’s plan and carried it our merely for money – who gave no thought to the actual end result, and said nothing to the police about what might happen to this innocent mother – is also shocking.

While many of our customers say true crime is too awful to read, I think it’s a mirror of our society, of the wrong ways men and women can interact, and a powerful message for those who will heed it. You won’t be able to put this book down – or to stop thinking about it.