Once again we are diving into the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award nominees, and assessing whether the 2021 nominees for Best Fact Crime are worth adding to your reading list.
(Want to hear about all of the nominated books directly from the writers? Raven Bookstore is hosting what looks to be a very interesting virtual event on April 6 at 9 PM ET/8 PM CT featuring all five of the nominated Best Fact Crime authors! Click above for more information and to register.)
Let’s start our look at the nominees with Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America by Mark A. Bradley.
On New Year’s Eve 1969, union reformer Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, his wife, and his daughter were assassinated in their home in Clarksville, Pennsylvania. Yablonski had just lost his herculean effort to unseat the corrupt and autocratic president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), W.A. “Tony” Boyle. The threat Yablonski’s candidacy posed to Boyle’s regime (rife with fear, intimidation, retribution and violence) made him an immediate target. Jock Yablonski himself predicted that his attempt to bring reforms to the union would lead to his death.
Blood Runs Coal takes us through the early history of the UMWA; Boyle’s ascent to power; and perhaps most interestingly, how the fight for mineworkers’ rights to health care, safer working conditions, and legal protections coincided with other widespread movements for change in the late 1960s, and led to the emergence of Yablonski as a reform candidate. Yablonski wanted to make the union a powerful driver of social and economic justice, goals completely at odds with the domineering leadership style of Tony Boyle.
The book is full of fascinating tidbits about the UMWA’s deals with big coal companies on mechanization, and how this impacted what had been a generational way of life for millions of Central Appalachian residents. Between 1950 and 1969, 3.3 million Appalachians left their homes and headed to industrial cities in the Midwest in search of work. It was from this population of Appalachian transplants living in Cleveland that Boyle’s associates identified the trio of hitmen who would carry out Yablonski’s murder.
A motley crew they were, petty thieves and alcoholics who no doubt had violent tendencies, but seemed more likely to start bar fights than commit murder. In fact it took them eight (!) attempts to kill Yablonski. No matter that Yablonski lost his bid for the UMWA presidency; Boyle still wanted him gone and so the protracted hit effort culminated in the New Year’s Eve attack in the Yablonski home, where tragically Yablonski’s playwright wife Marg and social-worker daughter Charlotte were also killed.
The investigation moved quickly with the hit men telling on themselves in ways big and small. Naively convinced the union would protect them no matter what crimes they committed, their haphazardness made them rather easy to identify. The matter that took some unraveling was who hired them and why? In a compact, yet comprehensive, manner Bradley chronicles the multiyear effort to hold Boyle, his loyalists, and co-conspirators to account. There’s fallout from all this, of course, with the establishment of new groups like Miners for Democracy and a stepped-up role for the U.S. Department of Labor (at the prompting of Yablonski’s surviving children) in ensuring fair union elections.
Blood Runs Coal works as both a narrative of the David vs. Goliath battle for the UMWA, and the saga of a tragic triple murder and what it took to bring the perpetrators to justice. It’s deftly written and super satisfying — highly recommend! – Susan Howard
I didn’t really know what was going on with Armie Hammer — something kinky, but then his agency dropped him — and never got around to tracking down an explainer, but it’s fine, Vanity Fair came through for me! For those of you who prefer a hard copy, “The Fall of Armie Hammer” is in the May issue of the magazine, but if, like me, you were only dimly aware of what was going on; read the phrase “dark fantasies of cannibalism and bondage”; and love a VF story that implies that any disgracio who comes from a powerful family is automatically facing a House-of-Atreus situation? You can proceed directly to Julie Miller’s account of five generations of male dysfunction, which starts with the dark tale of Armie’s great-great-grandfather, Dr. Julius, botching an abortion and doing time for it…and does not get cheerier from there, although it does suggest there’s supplementary reading to be done on Julius’s son Armand, Armie’s namesake…
[Edward Jay] Epstein’s bombshell biography exposed the late Occidental Petroleum chairman for wide-ranging grifts, including laundering money; using artwork to fund Soviet espionage; bribing his way into the oil business; and knocking off Fabergé eggs. Per Epstein, Armand bugged his office and home, plus his cuff links, to record decades’ worth of conversations, had a fixer, and was known to do business with a briefcase full of cash. He also made an illegal contribution to the Nixon reelection campaign which, “in all likelihood,” according to The New York Times, “went to help pay for the Watergate cover-up.”
…and on the Knoedler Gallery contretemps…
In 2011, [Armie’s father] Michael spent the night in a Santa Barbara jail for a DUI charge that was subsequently dropped. Later that year, significantly bigger trouble blew the Hammers’ way when his Knoedler Gallery—part of Michael’s inheritance from Armand, and one of the oldest New York galleries—shuttered suddenly. The next day, the gallery and its former director Ann Freedman were sued by hedge fund executive Pierre Lagrange for selling him a forged Pollock painting for $17 million. In the years and lawsuits that followed, Knoedler was accused of selling about $70 million worth of fake paintings—all painted by a little-known artist in Queens—in a con that allegedly stretched back to 1994.
…and this is before the article gets into murky issues of consent, Armie’s controlling behavior, extreme BDSM posts on Instagram (from an account owner now obliged to be represented by Gloria Allred), and even more extreme texts from Armie, which — typically of VF pieces — a family friend tries to blow off as misunderstood thanks to a “very dry sense of humor.” Sure, Jan. (Although it does raise interesting questions about the line between fantasy and criminal intent, and if you haven’t read the piece by Bob Kolker in New York on the so-called “cannibal cop,” that’s a good auxiliary for this piece.)
A solid sit, but I realized at the end that I wanted a more New Yorker take on it, one that feels self-contained; VF pieces tend to add to my reading list by teasing other, more granular accounts. Anyone else find that? — SDB
The Friday discussion thread on innovative media for the “same old” true crime really took off. If you haven’t chimed in yet, stick your head in and see projects got added to my already Augean to-do list. (“What’s with all the ancient Greek references today?” Got me, friend.) Or tell that friend who’s like, “You know what we need? Bank-robber DRINK COASTERS!!1”
Inspired by the discussion, I headed over to DonorsChoose.org to see if any teachers were positioning true crime as history, using it to entice reluctant readers, etc. and so on. Only a couple, and I can see why — I make the “you know, for kids!” joke all the time, but educators have a higher tightrope to stay up on with content, especially when they’re asking civilians to underwrite it — but Mrs. Krieger is using graphic novels to teach complex concepts of right and wrong, as well as metaphor and symbology; and Mrs. Barker is building a classroom library that includes a few true-crime selections. Now, I always love a paid subscription to our little project, not least because it helps us fund review series like Susan’s up top there. But I quite literally have constructed my life so that I will have more books than I can ever read; Mesdames Krieger and Barker’s students aren’t so lucky. (If you see other projects you want us to surface, leave a comment! Ms. Applewhite’s rocking some forensic science, for instance.)
But if you got your tax refund already and you want to split it between B.E. and some younguns, hey, I’m with that. — SDB
You might think a Wired article headlined “The Lion, the Polygamist, and the Biofuel Scam” can’t possibly live up to its promise. You’re rooting for author Vince Beiser, of course; you WANT the deep dive into the con, which was orchestrated in part by a member of a “breakaway Mormon sect” (whose mugshot is an “I ate four bugs” all-timer) and cost the gubmint hundreds of millions, to deliver on everything that gloriously direct hed seems to hold in store. Does it?
You be the judge:
“a gift basket of Armenian fruits and a cowboy hat”
“a former member who left the Order … says she was put to work in the group’s central financial office when she was just 6 years old”
“John Kingston, husband of at least 14 wives and father to some 120 children, was imprisoned in 1998 after pleading no contest to charges that he beat his 16-year-old daughter unconscious after she ran away from an arranged marriage to her uncle”
“‘He was a troublemaker,’ says Jacob’s former wife Julianna Johnson, who is also his aunt,” and who then recalled Jacob painting “a stripe down her cat’s back”
And from there, it goes into a quick but comprehensive background on the rise of biofuels. That’s good shit, Beiser! — SDB
Coming up this week: Margaret Howie on the Chippendales; hoop dreams; and my birthday-mate, Matthew Modine, does his best Rick Singer.