Friday, December 30, 2011

CR3 #99: But I Trusted You: Ann Rule's Crime Files #14 by Ann Rule

I really wish I hadn't read three of these Ann Rule books in a row. They're a major pain to try and blog about, because frankly they are all basically the same. As with the others, this book includes one novella length story and then several very short cases.

The main story in this volume is about a man who was murdered by his estranged wife, mostly over money and child custody. She was under the impression that her rich boyfriend in Hawaii was going to take care of her, if only she could get her husband out of the way. Unfortunately, she wasn't nearly as clever as she thought she was and got caught. It's an all right story, but for some reason doesn't feel nearly as well fleshed out as much of her previous work.

The other shorter stories are all pretty good, though rather old. Two of them are unresolved, and remain mysterious to this day.  One of the unsolved cases involves a tragic family boat trip with not one but two mysterious deaths. The rest of the tales are not quite as engaging, but all are interesting in their own ways.

To save time, here is what I learned from this book:

1. The police are often smarter than one might expect.
2. Most criminals are stupider than one might expect.
3. Letting someone who's been in prison for a violent (non-lethal)  sexual crime out early is a bad idea, because the main thing HE'S learned while locked away is not to leave witnesses next time.
4. Your loved ones are equally or even MORE likely to murder you in a horrific way than a stranger is.
5. Apparently Washington state in the 1970s was a death trap for pretty young women.
6. DO NOT GO WITH THE CREEPY STRANGER. IT NEVER TURNS OUT WELL.

For those who like Ann Rule's books, this one is more of the same. I think she's losing her touch a little, but after all, she IS in her seventies now and not as able to chase down sources. Still, it's a great beach/bus/plane read.

CR3 #98: Titanic's Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler by Bradford Matsen

This is the most recently written book I've read about Titanic, and it frankly blows up all previous theories of how and why the great ship sank.

In the mid-2000s, Richie Kohler and John Chatterton--known for their previous wreck diving work and their television show exploring underwater wrecks--were contacted by a man who had been on a recent journey to the Titanic's wreckage. He claimed that he had seen some interesting debris--"ribbons of steel" on the sea floor that might provide new information about how the ocean liner sank the way it did. The divers arranged for an expedition out to the remains with a Russian group of submersibles. What they found revolutionized the way that they thought about the way the sinking occurred.

Basically, they found large intact pieces from the bottom of the ship. When closely examined, the way these pieces were broken suggest that instead of the ship breaking in two because it was tilted 45 degrees up out of the water, it may have only had to be tilted 11 degrees before it snapped in the middle and sank. This theory explains some of the mystery that has persisted for years about the sinking itself. The fact that the ship was not tilted far up in the air, but rather only slightly up may explain why so many passengers either didn't believe there was any danger (and thus refused to get in the lifeboats) or never even left their cabins before the ship went down. It also explains why the ship sank so quickly--other large ships that had experienced major accidents at sea had managed to stay afloat for hours or even days.

Another revelation is proved by a gentleman who worked for many years at the shipyard where Titanic was first built. He worked in the archives, and had access to many of the internal documents and memos regarding the construction of not only Titanic, but of her older sister ship, Olympic and her younger sister, Brittanic. What he discovered was that the company--and the designer, Thomas Andrews--knew that there were flaws with the ships' designs. The Olympic had serious issues with her hull during her first voyages that required emergency repairs, and these flaws led to changes in the Titanic's design. Unfortunately, not enough changes were made. The engineers at Harland & Wolff calculated after the sinking that the ship had broken up on the surface, not as it went down. They never shared this information, however, in order to save the business.

The book follows Kohler and Chatterton's expedition to Titanic, then takes several chapters to discuss the men who financed and built the great ship. It provides a very different view of White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay, who has been portrayed as the villain of the tragedy for many years. Those chapters are written in more of a historical fiction style (though the author has provided copious notes at the end of the book to explain where he has gotten his facts). It's an odd tonal shift, but I did enjoy finding out more about the process of shipbuilding at the time, and the financial maneuverings that led to production of the giant ships.

The book finishes out with Kohler and Chatterton diving the wreckage of the Britannic (which sank after hitting a mine during WWI), trying to prove their theories. All three ships were made from the same original plan, but Andrews tried to fix flaws that showed themselves on Olympic when putting together the Titanic. The divers figured that the engineers at Harland & Wolff probably made changes to the design of Brittanic to fix the flaws that had brought down the Titanic, so they wanted to look at Brittanic's wreckage and compare the areas they suspected had caused the problems with the Titanic. What they found seems to confirm their ideas that Harland & Wolff had quietly discovered Titanic's fatal errors, and attempted to correct them on Brittanic.

The book is fascinating, and despite the minor issues I had with structure, it is an amazing read for someone who is as interested in the Titanic disaster as I am. The author did a great job showing where he found his information and digging up useful facts. In general, it was a really interesting book that gave me a whole new perspective on the sinking.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

CR3 #97: The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist by Mary H. Manhein

Since nothing says "holiday season" like books about rotting skeletons and murder most foul, here's another about my latest obsession, forensic anthropology.

Mary Manhein has written a book similar to my last review, Dr. William Maples's Dead Men Do Tell Tales. It is part memoir, part collection of cases she has worked on. She discusses her work with identifying historic remains as well as assisting law enforcement with victims of violent crime. She also tells stories about how she entered her career, and how she handled it in the early days.

The book is mostly made up of short vignettes, many between two to three pages long. They are brief snippets from her past, all put together somewhat randomly. Frankly, while her mini-stories are all very interesting (some are funny, some sad, some spooky, some bizarre) they aren't organized in a particularly coherent fashion. She leaps around in time, neither using chronological nor thematic organization, which made this a little confusing. Also, her vignettes seem to have more to do with emotion than with the science of forensic anthropology. While Dr. Maples used his cases to illustrate useful scientific information, this author is mostly telling anecdotes from her long career. The tones are quite different -- one that of a college professor speaking to a lecture hall, the other an extremely amusing, fascinating dinner companion.

I enjoyed this book, but the tone and subject matter were a bit lighter than I'd expected. Not a bad book, but nothing all that special, either.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CR3 #96: Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by Dr. William Maples

This book is partly case studies and partly a memoir of Dr. Maples's journey to becoming one of the world's preeminent forensic anthropologists. Maples gives history of both himself and of the field of forensic anthropology, explaining how and why it developed. He also explains how and why he became interested in it. He goes on to detail some of the cases he's worked on, including some famous ones like investigating whether President Zachary Taylor was actually poisoned, whether the bones in a chapel in South America really belonged to Francisco Pizarro, and whether the bones found in a mass grave in Russia did in fact belong to the assassinated Romanov family. He also discusses more mundane cases, using them to illustrate various aspects of the forensic anthropology field; burned bones, chopped bones, buried bones, and hidden bones--all have their own stories to tell if they're read properly.

This book reflects Dr. Maples's scholarly nature (his "day job" is being a professor at a college as well as running his very impressive investigative lab) and is quite detailed (sometimes overly so.) He presents his cases in methodical fashion, illustrating his lessons as clearly and as simply as possible. He treats his reader like an interested student--gently leading without patronizing, though sometimes getting a little too wrapped up in his thoughts to be as clear as one would prefer. However, the book was extremely informative and full of information I hadn't come across before.

I'd certainly recommend this to anyone who likes true crime or enjoys the show "Bones". Dr. Maples has a strong, distinctive voice, and his style is for the most part quite relateable.

CR3 #95: The Cases That Haunt Us by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker

John Douglas is widely recognized as one of the earliest criminal profilers. He worked for the FBI for years, and has had a great effect on both the world of crime solving and the world of pop culture. In this book, he collaborates with filmmaker Olshaker to analyze some of history's most puzzling crimes, using his modern methods of profiling. He's careful to point out that these are merely his own observations, based on whatever evidence he's been able to access along with his years of profiling experience.

Douglas goes through some of the best known crimes in recent history--Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, the Black Dahlia murder, the Zodiac Killer, up to the murder of JonBenet Ramsay. He lays out all the available evidence and then tries to understand what the killers might have been like. He makes his case for why he thinks Jack the Ripper never actually wrote the letters that gave him his famous name, why he believes no one but Lizzie Borden could have killed her father and stepmother, what the Zodiac Killer might have been like, and why he doesn't believe that the Ramsays killed their daughter. Applying new methods to old cases makes for interesting reading, and Douglas explains his reasoning every step of the way, illustrating the process involved in criminal profiling.

It's a well-written book, though occasionally a bit dry in spots. The author provided specific reasoning for all of his deductions, and at no point did I feel he was stretching too far or making anything up out of thin air. I'd definitely recommend it for true crime enthusiasts (get used to that phrase -- it's the end of the year and I am on a true crime tear!) though it's a bit graphic and not for the faint-hearted.

CR3 #94: A Rage to Kill and Other True Cases by Ann Rule

I am a fiend for true crime. Particularly now, when I am a little burned out with CR3 and brainwork in general. True crime is an easy and quick read for me. It's fascinating to me what humans are capable of doing to one another. It's also fascinating to follow the path of those who solve these mysteries.

This is the sixth of Ann Rule's "Crime Files" series, and it consists of one longer story and several short ones. The main story is of Silas Cool, a man who climbed on a city bus in Seattle, shot the driver, and managed to send the bus careening off a bridge. The police who worked the case had little to go on because they couldn't figure out WHY this had happened. Through all their research, they still only have a few clues as to what might have gone wrong. It's fascinating to see how the detectives try to solve the case, and all the various avenues they travel to find information.

The rest of the stories in the collection are also for the most part about "stranger" killings, several involving spree killers or murderers who stalked their unknowing victims before their savage attacks. Once again, each time the police have their work cut out for them because there are no obvious motives.

Ann Rule always does a good job fleshing out her stories, even the very short tales in this collection. She provides imagination-grabbing details, as well as including (sometimes graphic, but definitely illustrative) photographs. The one issue I had with this collection is that it's rather old. Some of the stories end with the murderers being jailed, and a note like "He won't be eligible for parole until 2003" but I don't know if he DID get out in 2003!

On the whole, while this is nothing spectacular, new, or original, it is reliable reading for a true crime enthusiast.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

CR3 #93: A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross

 Oh man, I am SO CLOSE to reaching my goal for the year, but I simply do NOT want to write these reviews. However, I am going to battle through it, just so I can say I managed to complete a double Cannonball in a year. (Also, speaking of, if any of you are interested in joining the Cannonball Read this year, you can find the information here. It's a lot of fun, and there are a lot of cool people involved.)

A Broken Vessel is the second book in Kate Moss's Julian Kestral series, and the British dandy once again finds himself embroiled in a mystery. This time, the action starts with Julian's valet Dipper's sister. Sally is a prostitute, and while stealing from her johns one evening, she discovers a letter from an anonymous woman begging for help. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know who the woman is, and Sally isn't sure which of the three men she saw that evening had been carrying the letter. When she runs into her brother Dipper, he gets Julian involved. Soon, Sally has to go undercover, and a woman is murdered in a house full of suspects.

Once again, Kate Ross has done a great job. The plot of the book is twisty and engaging. I followed all the clues carefully, and was still surprised by the ending (but not in a "where the hell did THAT come from?" sort of way). The characters of Julian and Dipper, as well as Julian's elderly doctor friend are all wonderful. I liked them very much and was definitely invested in what happened to them. Sally was not as believable, and I frankly found the romantic subplot a little ridiculous. However,  on the whole this was another very enjoyable mystery.

Friday, December 9, 2011

CR3 #92: Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters by John Waters

The works of John Waters are not for everyone. Most people can figure out whether they are fans or not after a mere ten minutes of one of his films. I find his gleeful devotion to raunch, camp, and blatant bad taste hilarious, but even I find it a bit overwhelming at times. I think the thing I most enjoy about John Waters is the sense that underneath the determinedly trashy exterior, he's actually a very sweet person. He can say things that--coming from anyone else--would probably be horrifying.

This book is a collection of essays he wrote over the years for various publications, and this particular edition has some extras that he wrote later on. He discusses his love for the National Enquirer, Baltimore public television, Christmas, and things that hates. My favorite essays were "Going to Jail", "John Waters's Tour of LA," and one he wrote about bringing "Hairspray!" to Broadway. "Going to Jail" is about time he spent teaching classes in prison. It's very funny, because Waters and the prisoners are equally bewildered and starstruck by one another (as a crime aficionado, Waters recognizes some of his students and is fascinated by their crimes). He teaches them a little about film theory, as well as scripting and improv, coming away feeling as though he's contributed at least a tiny bit to society. Plus, he finds the whole experience of going to the prison and dealing with the prisoners all great fun. In "John Waters's Tour of LA," he gives a detailed explanation of the best tourist sights in town (hint: most normal people would NOT be interested, as a lot of them are morbid/creepy/bizarre).

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. It was hilarious, but also occasionally poignant. Waters's voice comes through very clearly, and it's easy to picture him sitting in an ostentatious chair, smoking a cigarette and reading it all to you. Definitely good for those who enjoy his films. (For those who don't, I'd probably skip it.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CR3 #91: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This book happens to be one of those very, very rare cases in which the movie is actually better.

The basic story is that Miss Pettigrew--a middle-aged spinster--receives a new post as a governess in 1930s London. When she arrives, however, she finds no children. Instead, she meets beautiful young nightclub singer Delysia LaFosse. Delysia is trying to juggle three men and a burgeoning social calendar, and things are beginning to get too difficult. Decisions have to be made, and Delysia isn't sure she's up for it. Luckily, Miss Pettigrew finds that she can be of help.

The book is quite clearly a fantasy, something of a Cinderella story. Miss Pettigrew makes new friends, gets a makeover, and finds a happy ending. Nothing too difficult happens, and nearly everyone goes away better off. It's an adorable story, but frankly a bit light.

The movie, on the other hand, is stellar. Frances McDormand stars as Miss Pettigrew, and Amy Adams plays Delysia. They're supported by an excellent cast of gentleman (particularly Lee Pace as the brooding piano player Michael and Ciaran Hinds as lingerie designer Joe Blomfield) and Shirley Henderson as the poisonous Edythe DuBarry. The movie has more conflict--Miss Pettigrew has more to lose, and is forced to make tougher choices. Miss Pettigrew in the book tends to drift along in everyone elses's wake, whereas McDormand shows the steel that lies beneath Miss P's frumpy exterior. Adams's Delysia is a bit more scatterbrained than the one in the book--she's not as strong a female character in the film, and requires more rescuing--but she is still charming and lovable. Both Adams and McDormand are able to communicate volumes with a small look or tiny raise of the eyebrow.The fact that the film is set against the run-up to WWI also helps to put the characters in a more precarious position. The plot contains more conflict, but it all resolves rather well.  In addition, the costumes, sets, and music are all gorgeous. They set the mood very strongly, as well as making the movie a pleasure to see. As usual, Focus Features has done an excellent job bringing a period piece to a modern audience.

On the whole, although I enjoyed the book, I'd recommend skipping it and going straight to the film.

CR3 #90: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

I was always a big fan of 'Cold Case Files' on Discovery (back when the Discovery channel wasn't entirely populated by strange reality shows about creepy diseases and truck drivers). It was fascinating to see what a determined detective could do with scientific advancement and sheer perseverance. Cases that seemed unsolvable were closed, and people who had spent years thinking they'd gotten away with murder found themselves behind bars.

This book by Stacy Horn illustrates that these cases can take years to solve, if they are ever solved at all. And all the while, the detectives have to fight both the public and their own administration, pinching every penny and defending their unit's existence to all-comers.

The author spent a few years checking in on several detectives in New York City's cold case squad. She follows the progress of four cold cases, the earliest committed in 1951, the most recent in 1996. As the detectives backtrack, retest, and rethink their cases, Horn squeezes in a lot of information about how the cold case squad was formed, how it has continued to function, and the daily stumbling blocks that the detectives face in trying to accomplish their goals.

The dominant emotion to permeate this book is frustration. The detectives are frustrated by a multitude of different things: poor police work in the original investigations, reticent witnesses, the loss (or destruction or non-collection or mishandling) of vital evidence. Bureaucracy, red tape, and the usual petty office politics that plague any multi-tiered workplace. Knowing that a suspect is guilty, but being unable to come up with enough tangible evidence to satisfy a DA concerned with his win rate. It's a never-ending cycle of beating one's head up against a brick wall. Yet these men (at the time, there were no women on the squad, though that has probably changed by now) continue to try and find justice for the victims, be they an innocent child, a "fallen woman", a police officer, or a drug dealer. Some of the crimes detailed in the book get solved and the perpetrators go to prison. Others are deemed too old or too difficult. One gets passed along to another unit because it turns out to be mafia-related. This book has very few tidy endings.

This book is a great work of non-fiction, and the author does a great job of making each detective distinct. There is some issue with the organization -- the information related to each case is scattered through the book, which can be confusing until you realize that it's organized more or less chronologically, chronicling the detectives' progress as years pass. I think I might have preferred a different structure, but at the same time it does illustrate the way that these cases don't get solved all at once, but instead take years (and sometimes several detectives) before they can find any resolution.

I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in true crime and/or police procedure, but it's a bit dry for entertainment reading.