“The Man from the Train” by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the TrainIf you wanted to be a serial killer, one of the best times to practice your dark art would have been in the very early part of the 20th century. Most small towns didn’t have police forces. There were no wire services, so if a bunch of people were murdered in Iowa, chances are that the news would never reach Oregon. And, of course, there were no crime labs or DNA testing.

However, there were plenty of trains, making it easy to travel swiftly and anonymously from one place to another. In The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, famed baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter, researcher Rachel McCarthy James, claim that they’ve discovered the identity of one of the most prolific serial murderers of all time, with a body count of 100+ victims. The reason he escaped notice until now? Basically, no one had bothered connecting the dots of a whole bunch of very old unsolved crimes. These cases were not just cold, they were freezing.

The most famous mystery which James describes at length is the Villisca, Iowa, ax murders, which have been discussed in several other books, movies and online true-crime forums. The crime took place in 1912, but you can still tour the murder house or even spend the night there (no thanks!). James argues persuasively that he has solved the Villisca case, putting forth a suspect (he’s named toward the end of the book, not that it matters a whole lot; he’s probably been dead for a century). How did he figure it out? Basically, by comparing the hallmarks of the Villisca killer to many, many other crimes with a similar M.O.: the killer always took out entire families; he used the blunt side of an ax to slaughter his victims; the crimes took place around midnight; he covered the faces of the corpses; there was almost always a prepubescent girl, and there was evidence (mentioned in newspapers, albeit couched in plenty of euphemisms) that he had masturbated at the scene of the crime; entry and exit through windows, with doors left jammed; etc. Most important, however, was proximity to railroad tracks, which allowed this very cautious killer to make a quick escape as soon as he was finished.

While the Villisca case and other family ax murders in that same general time frame went off without a hitch (meaning that the killer got away, and in many cases, an innocent suspect was executed or lynched for the crime), James figures that as with any other art, practice makes perfect. He asks McCarthy James if she can discover the earliest possible crime with the killer’s hallmarks, and incredibly, she manages to do so. That time, he still escaped, but the police also pretty much knew who he was, and named him. It’s an amazing feat of research.

The book is interesting, but it does get repetitive, since it describes really horrible crimes in detail, chapter after chapter. James’ folksy style of writing helps leaven it a bit (a typical example: “No matter who puts on a Christmas party, they can always find somebody to play Santa Claus. No matter who is murdered, there is always someone who can be cast into the role of First Suspect.”). It is also fascinating to find out what police work was like in that era. Curious neighbors traipsed through crime scenes, and private detective agencies, most famously Pinkerton, competed for reward funds, usually raised by victims’ families and in some cases, city or state governments:

“There existed no organized system of licensing, regulating, and authorizing private investigators, except perhaps in a few larger cities. This left private citizens probing into open murder cases in significant numbers without warrants and without legal authority. Some of them were good, many of them ex-cops, but some of them were just people who had read too many Sherlock Holmes stories and appointed themselves private eyes. They would start poking around in unsolved murder cases, hoping to get the reward money or acting out fantasies of being master detectives. The cream of the crop were the Pinkerton and the Burns detective agencies, but even the Pinkerton and Burns agencies were shot through with shysters, con men, unscrupulous thugs, and rank amateurs. It was truly an awful system.”

If a culprit went to jail, frequently an angry mob would storm the facility, dragging the prisoner out without any due process, and lynching or beating him to death. Not surprisingly, many of these people were African-American.

James, to his credit, includes the names of these people in his rundown of the Man from the Train’s victims at the end of the book. He also speculates on the killer’s fate after his crime spree ends, suggesting he may have been involved in another famous unsolved case, this one in Europe. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but James makes a persuasive argument that will no doubt convince many readers.

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“Beau Death” by Peter Lovesey

Beau Death by Peter LoveseyYou can always count on Peter Lovesey to provide you with a solid, well-written, well-plotted novel. Year after year, Lovesey just keeps publishing fine crime fiction—he’s written over 40 books—and funnily enough, just a few hours after I had been musing, “Is Peter Lovesey taken for granted?” the news broke that he had been awarded Grand Master status by the Mystery Writers of America. I hope the honor will bring more attention to his stellar body of work.

Beau Death is the latest entry in his long-running series about Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, who works in the historic city of Bath. As the novel opens, a block of run-down townhouses is being demolished, and the wrecking ball reveals a surprise in one of the attics: a skeleton, dressed in an 18th-century costume, sitting in a chair. The police are called in, and when a goofy photo of Diamond with the remains goes viral, people start speculating that the dead man could be Beau Nash.

Nash was known as the “King of Bath,” a local icon who hosted royalty, politicians and famous writers during his tenure as town’s unofficial Master of Ceremonies. Eventually, scandal and debts caused him to survive on a small income from city funds, and when he died, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave—but could he somehow have wound up in a townhouse attic in an unfashionable suburb instead?

I will admit that I thought Beau Nash was Lovesey’s own creation, kind of a take-off on Beau Brummel, but he was real. Not real is the book’s Beau Nash Society, a fashionable, invitation-only Bath club whose members are required to attend meetings dressed in period costume. If the corpse isn’t the real Beau, perhaps he was a modern-day member of the Society, and with a little help from his girlfriend Paloma (an expert on historic clothing), Diamond will need to don a wig and breeches in order to discover the dead man’s identity.

Unlike a lot of crime fiction series which overwhelm you with their characters’ back stories, Beau Death can easily be read as a stand-alone. There are some references made to incidents in Diamond’s past, but this really isn’t a series which demands to be read in order. Though mystery fans who are just discovering Lovesey will no doubt be delighted to find that he has such a rich and deep back catalog to enjoy. His Grand Master award is well-deserved indeed.

“The Wife Between Us” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between UsNow that The Wife Between Us has been written, I kind of feel like there’s no need for any other domestic-suspense-with-unreliable-narrator novel, ever. This book marks the apogee of the genre, featuring a narrator as unreliable as an ’87 Yugo with engine trouble and more misdirection than a Penn & Teller show. It was co-written by two authors, and you can just picture them emptying a bottle of Pinot Grigio together as they gleefully try to one-up each other with crazier and crazier twists.

Like several other novels of its type, such as Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps and Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife, the book tells its story in alternating chapters. We meet Vanessa, the ex-wife of wealthy Manhattan financier Richard Thompson (no relation to the musician, presumably), who has been replaced by a younger, fresher model. Nellie is the adorable blonde preschool teacher who simply can’t wait to have kids (Vanessa never managed to get pregnant) and settle into domestic bliss as the new Mrs. Thompson. Vanessa, reduced to waiting on her former “friends” as a saleswoman at Saks, is determined to stop their impending nuptials. Her chapters are told from a first-person perspective, while Nellie’s are in third, so there’s never a problem keeping them straight.

Is Vanessa delusional (her mother suffered from mental illness)? Jealous? Convinced she has unfinished business with her ex? Did Richard dump her because she’s an alcoholic (there’s a lot of drinking in this book)? Just what is he up to on his frequent business trips? And what skeletons lurk in Nellie’s closet? You can try to guess everyone’s motives, but when everything is finally revealed, you’ll probably be shocked. I was, and I’ve read a ton of these sorts of books. Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, you got me good.

By now, you probably have an idea of whether or not this book is for you, and I don’t want to risk spoilers (you can download the first four chapters here). It’s completely nuts and more than a little gimmicky, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a lot of fun reading it.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy, and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour! The Wife Between Us will be published on Jan. 9.

The Wife Between Us

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowI usually don’t write about books after my book group has discussed them—either I review them beforehand, or not at all—but I didn’t have time to write up A Gentleman in Moscow before our meeting. So I thought I’d try to do something a little different this week.

My book group usually only reads crime fiction, and this is not a work of crime fiction by any stretch of the imagination. Apparently, New York’s Mysterious Bookshop listed it as a staff pick, but they do sell other types of books “for those customers that also like to stray from the field”! However, it is definitely a massive best-seller; it’s been on the New York Times hardcover fiction list for 45 weeks. A Gentleman in Moscow, like All the Light We Cannot See or A Man Called Ove, has become a bona fide phenomenon.

Why are so many people reading and recommending this book? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is a man of honor. Admit it—with all that’s going on in the world, doesn’t reading about a genuinely good, decent and admirable man sound pretty appealing right now? As the book opens, in June 1922, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. Taken before the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Rostov is deemed to have “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class,” and is told, “Our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” However, he has a few well-placed admirers, and thus, he will be allowed to live out his days in the hotel, with the warning that if he ever sets foot outside of it, he will be shot.

Part of his house arrest entails moving from his luxurious suite to a cramped space on the hotel’s top floor, with a low ceiling and only the tiniest of windows. How he adapts to, and even thrives in, his new life is the main subject of the book.

2. Readers enjoy historical fiction and getting acquainted with a particular place and time. Set as it is during the first four decades or so of communist rule, you learn a lot about Soviet life even without leaving the Metropol. Party apparatchiks, true believers, foreign press, even Khrushchev himself—they all walk through the doors of the hotel. At any given time, there may be Bolsheviks arguing in the ballroom, or a glamorous movie star walking her borzois through the lobby.

3. The book is sweet without being sappy. At one point, Rostov figures he’s had enough of being confined and decides to commit suicide by jumping off the hotel’s roof. Of course, something happens up there to ultimately make him decide not to leap, but I was kind of relieved that he wasn’t too much of a Pollyanna.

4. It’s really well written. Towles’ prose can be sly, philosophical or dryly witty, but it’s consistently lovely. A couple of examples:

“As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. From primitive tribes to the most advanced societies, someone has occasionally been told by his fellow men to pack his bags, cross the border, and never set foot on his native soil again. But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and that He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.”

“But, alas, sleep did not come so easily to our weary friend. Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.”

Towles doesn’t sugarcoat the often harsh realities of that period of Soviet life, but I have to admit that visiting the book’s Metropol Hotel, with its charming and compelling cast of characters, is something of a welcome respite from our 21st-century world.

“Party of One” by Dave Holmes

Party of OneI picked up Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs because I am a fan of Dave Holmes’ comedy podcast “International Waters,” but reading it was like a trip back in time. You see, while I am now a demographically-undesirable Gen X’er, long ago, I was a proud member of the MTV Generation. This was back in the days when the network still devoted the bulk of its programming to videos, presented by a stable of video jockeys (VJs). On-air personalities like Kevin Seal, Martha Quinn, Matt Pinfield and newsman Kurt Loder may have been reading from teleprompters, but they seemed genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music.

Then came the dark day in the 1990s when MTV held its first “Wanna Be a VJ” contest. One of the entrants was a guy named Jesse Camp. I thought he was the most irritating person I’d ever seen on a TV screen. Seriously, see if you can make it through this 15-second video of Jesse without lunging for the pause button. Camp was born Josiah A. Camp III in Connecticut, where he attended a fancy boarding school, but on MTV, he presented a spacey, burned-out street kid persona. Somehow, Jesse managed to win the competition—later, there were claims that the voting was rigged by a hacker who “did it because everyone else at MTV is just corporate bullshit”—but at the time, the fact that MTV viewers had chosen this teenaged clown made me so angry that I decided I had finally outgrown the channel and I was done with it forever.

The second-place contestant was none other than Dave Holmes. “I looked like Walter Cronkite in cargo pants” next to Jesse, he writes in a chapter called “Notes on (Jesse) Camp.” “If I was a little disappointed to lose the job to him, the Talent Department was straight up confused and frightened. Like, who is this guy, and how exactly do you take care of him? What does he eat? Does he eat? What, if anything, is he on? Who’s going to get him to work? Most pressingly: is he always going to be like this?”

The powers that be wisely decided to hire Holmes as well as Camp, and the runner-up went on to enjoy a successful career at the network (“His MTV career lasted about three years longer than Camp’s,” per Wikipedia). Since his MTV days, Holmes has worked steadily as a TV host, radio personality and actor; he’s currently a writer-at-large for Esquire, and has contributed some pieces I’ve just adored, like his hilarious reviews of “mother!” and “The Emoji Movie.”

Party of One is a fun read for Holmes’ fellow pop-culture obsessives; the book contains one of the best celebrity stories I’ve ever read (about actress Tara Reid and her friend at an MTV spring break shoot in Cancun), along with candid tales about growing up gay and Catholic, experimenting with drugs (only twice! but both incidents were memorable), and getting advice at a critical juncture in his life from the pop duo Indigo Girls, whom he happened to run into at an Applebee’s (“It was as though they had seen some kind of gay distress signal in the Atlanta skies and reported for duty”). And I’ll admit to a teensy bit of schadenfreude over the fact that Holmes has a great, wide-ranging career, whereas Jesse is the topic of occasional where-are-they-now pieces.

“Origin” by Dan Brown

Origin by Dan BrownIt’s a little embarrassing to come out of the closet as a Dan Brown fan. Most of my bookish friends disdain his pedestrian prose, flagrant overuse of italics and cardboard characters. Even legendary Hollywood nice guy Tom Hanks, who has starred in no less than three films based on Brown’s books, threw shade at the author in a recent New York Times By the Book column:

Q: Which genres do you avoid?
A: Novels of murder and conspiracy.

Sick burn, dude!!

Considering that Inferno (the most recent Brown film adaptation) tanked at the box office, my guess is that Hanks will not be making a return appearance as Robert Langdon, so he can go ahead and talk smack about the best-selling series. But here is why I read Brown’s books:

1. The European settings. Brown is like a Rick Steves for literary thrill-seekers. I always have to read his books with my phone at hand so I can look up photos of all the places he references. In Origin, set in Spain (a country I have, unfortunately, never visited), they include the Sagrada Família, Guggenheim BilbaoValle de los Caídos, El Escorial’s Pantheon of the Kings and Casa Milà.

2. Conspiracies and secret societies. Unlike Hanks, I love ’em. The designated bad guys in Origin are members of the Palmarian Church, a bizarre and apocalyptic offshoot of Catholicism with its own pope and saints. There are also hints of wrongdoing in the upper echelons of Spain’s royal family, headed by a dying king who is close to a very conservative bishop.

3. Puzzles. Langdon is a professor of symbology, and every book requires him to solve numerous brain-teasers in order to get to the bottom of whatever enormous conspiracy he’s delving into (always in the company, of course, of an insanely smart and gorgeous woman—in this case, Ambra Vidal, director of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Brown’s fictional world; the real-life director is this sixtysomething Spanish dude). Incidentally, I discovered a coded message in the jacket copy of Origin; fun!

4. Page-turning factor. I always race through these books, and one reason is that Brown knows how to hook you. One of his clever tricks: end a chapter with a huge cliffhanger, but then don’t resolve it until a few chapters down the road. You’ll keep reading because you’ve got to find out what happens!

Origin kicks off as Edmond Kirsch, a genius billionaire inventor/futurist who is depicted as a combination of Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, is about to make a presentation at the Guggenheim Bilbao that will change the world. Since he’s such a secretive and eccentric guy, no one in the room knows what he’s going to say—and his entire presentation is on a password-protected server. Naturally, he’s assassinated just as he’s about to type in the password. Langdon, Kirsch’s friend and former professor, puts his own life at risk in order to track the killer and access the presentation. Besides the beautiful Ambra, who also happens to be the fiancée of the crown prince of Spain, Langdon is assisted by Winston, an artificial intelligence bot invented by Kirsch. (Not surprisingly, Winston is perhaps the most intriguing and fully-realized character in the book.)

The problem with having a book revolve around a message that is so profound and significant that it will impact everybody on the planet is that eventually, you have to produce said message, and I’m not sure that Kirsch’s presentation would actually cause religious leaders to throw in the towel because “oh well, we’re irrelevant now.” Events of the last year or two have made an Age of Reason seem farther away than ever. Brown seems like something of a techno-utopian atheist, and the acknowledgments section of Origin gives thanks to a long list of scientists and thinkers. There are plenty of Big Ideas to grapple with in Origin, but mostly, it works as an entertaining travelogue-thriller.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreWhen my book group was assigned to read a modern-day take-off on Jane Eyre, I thought that perhaps I should spend some time with the original source material first. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel is one of the many works of classic literature that I have never read—I’ve never even seen any of the movie adaptations. Because the basic outline of the plot is a pretty well-established part of pop culture, I did know more or less what happened to Jane, and that the famous line “Reader, I married him” figured in somewhere.

The edition of Jane Eyre that I borrowed from my local library is around 550 pages long, and at first, it was kind of tough going, since the writing is definitely not like what one encounters in today’s novels. (Brontë was a big fan of semicolons; almost every sentence in the book employs several of them; there are also some archaic words, but luckily, my edition had footnotes; eventually, I just got used to her style.)

Before long, though, I was really caught up in the book, which is incredibly plot-heavy. Brontë packs a ton of drama, romance and tragedy into Jane Eyre‘s pages. I’m going to assume most people reading this have already read the 170-year-old book or at least know what happens in it, so I’m not going to be as concerned about potential spoilers as I usually am.

One thing that struck me about Jane Eyre is that the brooding Mr. Rochester (who is 20 years Jane’s senior) is really not a very admirable hero. He plays a lot of tricks on Jane, from disguising himself as a “gipsy” fortune-teller in order to trick her into speaking openly about her feelings, to telling her that he’s going to marry the wealthy, beautiful Miss Ingram just to see what her reaction is. He also throws in the fact that she will have to leave Thornfield, Rochester’s estate where she is employed as a governess for his ward Adèle, and go to work for a family in Ireland. Jane’s reaction is to sob “convulsively,” at which point Mr. Rochester says, Psych! I’m actually in love with you. Let’s get married ASAP! Instead of running in the opposite direction, Jane is overcome with joy, thinking “only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.”

However, it turns out Mr. Rochester is already married, and his “crazy” wife lives right above Jane’s room! But that’s a big secret (any noise coming from upstairs is blamed on the “seamstress,” Grace Poole, who is actually Bertha’s caretaker). Jane only finds out about her groom’s bigamy when they’re literally standing at the altar. Pretty much every single aspect of Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Bertha is highly problematic, even by 1847 standards, apparently, since mental illness was already being dealt with in more humane ways in the U.K. Even back then, Bertha’s windowless room and lack of company (except for the heavy-drinking Grace Poole) would have been considered unacceptable.

This beautifully-written piece from Harvard chaplain Vanessa Zoltan brings up yet another dicey issue: Bertha’s mixed-race heritage (she’s part-Creole). She calls Bertha “a real victim,” and measures her love of the novel against her discomfort with the harsh treatment of the “madwoman.” The passage she quotes, in which Rochester speculates how he would act toward Jane if she were mad (“Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me…”), does definitely indicate that there’s some big difference between the two women. Apparently a mentally-ill white orphan would be easier to love than one who is half-Creole and from a wealthy family. (Bertha’s plight has fascinated many other writers over the years, from Jean Rhys, who penned a “prequel” about Bertha called Wide Sargasso Sea, to feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.)

Nevertheless, taken simply as a ripping tale, I found Jane Eyre to be very much worth my time. Jane is a strong heroine, and to her credit, Brontë goes out of her way to let us know that she’s not a beauty, meaning Mr. Rochester loves her for who she is: “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts… to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true.” When he’s making statements like that one, Mr. Rochester does, indeed, seem like an ideal romantic hero.