Mormon Cult Murders · The Red Market · Monk Eastman, Victorian Gangster
Plus murder ballads, amours fou, and more in a jumbo book Lineup.
|Best Evidence||Nov 25, 2020||2||6|
The big lot of true-crime books I bought off eBay showed up the other day, so as I was trying to make my selections for the upcoming long weekend’s reading, I thought, why not throw the first 10 books out of the box into a Lineup. Around here, that works like this: I read the first 10-ish pages and decide whether I’m in or out. I’m running out of shelf footage around here, so if it doesn’t grab me fast, it’s going back on eBay or to the curb.
Have you read any of these? Did my instincts lead me astray on any? And do any look like likely candidates for B.E. Book Club? Let me hear from you!
We’re off until next week for the holiday (though paid subscribers get the November book review on Friday), but Eve and I are thankful for this gig, and for all of you. Have a safe Thanksgiving. — SDB
The Heroic Gangster: The Story of Monk Eastman, from the Streets of New York to the Battlefields of Europe and Back by Neil Hanson. Guess Hanson got paid by the pound for that subtitle, although it does get a lot of pertinent information in there, about a guy I’m surprised I’ve never heard of given how large Eastman apparently loomed in the history of the city’s underworld. The Wall Street Journal blurb on the front cover calls it “Exquisitely rich with the gang life of New York and the perils of World War I,” and while the first 10 pages only got me as far as the Brooklyn Armory recruiting office, Hanson does do a good job evoking the atmosphere of late-19th-century New York City. Plus, I don’t feel like I know enough about Tammany Hall, and it’s kind of amazing how often Arnold Rothstein shows up in crime stories besides his own, so I’m intrigued…but I’m also concerned about flights of overwriting that seem to burst out of Hanson every other page or so. Eastman’s gold-capped teeth are rendered as “the precious metal in this bruiser’s face as incongruous as a diamond in a dung heap.” Later, we arrive at “the Manhattan waterfront, where the black, oily waters slapped against the timber piles with a sound like a fist on flesh.” The thing is, they do do that? But Neil still needs to calm down. With foot- and endnotes subtracted, it’s only 300 pages, so even if Hanson loses me with a bunch of purpled battlefield renderings, it’s not a huge commitment. KEEPING IT.
The Kirtland Massacre: The True and Terrible Story of the Mormon Cult Murders by Cynthia Stalter Sassé and Peggy Murphy Widder. I’m torn on this one: the writing is pedestrian, but it doesn’t pretend to anything literary, which is more than fine. (Sassé was a prosecutor on the case; Widder is billed as an “attorney and novelist.”) But the striking bits in the opening chapter — like Alice Lundgren’s hysterical campaign to get her husband Jeff discharged from the Navy, and Jeff’s early adventures in check-kiting and TV theft — aren’t really explored because they aren’t considered germane to the central story, and said central story is, I’m sorry to say, going to follow a certain predictable outline. That’s not even mentioning that the titular massacre involved small children, by the way. The pictures are plentiful, but poorly done, and there’s an off-putting preoccupation with describing various players as “heavyset” or “dumpy” that isn’t a great look (as it were). I reserve the right to change my mind after another 10 pages, but for now: KEEPING IT.
Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder That Inspired One of America’s Most Popular Ballads by John Foster West. I didn’t even need 10 pages to make my decision, which tbqh I was halfway to just based on West’s author photo, which is a goddamn treasure. The scarf! The schnozz. Google “john foster west” and click on “images”; delights await you, truly.
West, a prof emeritus at Appalachian State when he published Lift Up Your Head (he died in 2008), must have been a pretty entertaining teacher; just a few pages in, I’d learned several things, like that folks in that region in the 1860s called syphilis “The Pock,” and the origin of the term “round heel.” It’s not a ballad I know, I can’t imagine it really merits not one but two books by the same author, and yet 130 pages of writing that calls fast-moving gossip “the meat at every table that night” seems like a sure thing. Absolutely KEEPING IT.
Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story by Ron Franscell. The look of the thing annoyed me for some reason? Something about the mix of fonts and the utterly expected wedding photo on the cover just looked cheap. But then the front-cover blurb is from Jeff Guinn, and the back cover’s got praise from Gregg Olsen and…Skip Hollandsworth? And the story does sound pretty bonkers, and Franscell was apparently an Edgar finalist in 2017. The prologue is beatnik-grooving all over the damn state of Wyoming, but a lot of the phrasings hit, and I’ve read enough Hunter S. Thompson to know when a boozy tone poem about The Nature Of The Western Territories is coming, so I can just duck those and keep going. Hoping for a hidden gem; KEEPING IT.
Breakshot: A Life in the 21st Century American Mafia by Kenny Gallo and Matthew Randazzo V. I almost didn’t even bother opening this one; a jokey cover blurb from Ron Jeremy? Pass. Misspells “Medellín” on the jacket flap? Yeah, no. But it won me over quickly, not least because Gallo wastes no time calling his former Colombo associates “evolutionary-chart escapees” and noting in the next paragraph that “the ability to read and speak like an adult aroused suspicion in Bay Ridge.” It’s funny because it’s true! I don’t know how far I’ll get with it; Gallo got in with the Mob in the first place because of his adult-film connections, and I tend to find accounts of that world grotty and bleak, but we’ll see. KEEPING IT.
The Devil in Pew Number Seven: A True Story by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo with Bob DeMoss. The blurb on the back is from Tim LaHaye; the back cover also describes Alonzo as “a speaker on betrayal and the power of forgiveness” whose story appeared on The 700 Club. Nothing against the devout per se, but it seldom does wonders for the prose. The Jesusiness isn’t the issue here, but the writing is still claggy, as they might say on Baking Show: “His brown eyes sparkled like perfectly matched quartz gemstones.” So he had…’70s countertop eyes? That was page 8. Page 10 dropped a “glitzy” (no) in reference to clear nail polish (yes, “that’s the joke,” but: no again). If Bryan Burrough wrote the case up for Vanity Fair, I’d read it, but this isn’t going to cut it. RESELLING IT.
The Confessions of an American Black Widow: A True Story of Greed, Lust and a Murderous Wife by Gregg Olsen. Olsen has gotten better at this on the sentence level in the years since Confessions came out; that doesn’t help me here, as the very first “real” page of the book describes the Rocky Mountains as “spraying up” out of the ground, like, what? I enjoy black-widow stories enough to make up for some strained prose, but I also enjoy writing that isn’t the text equivalent of a toddler flushing a hairbrush. RESELLING IT.
May God Have Mercy: A True Story of Crime and Punishment by John C. Tucker. Blurbed by Scott Turow, Sr. Helen Prejean, and Vincent Bugliosi, May God is about the Wanda Fay McCoy case, and I think more broadly an activist book about the death penalty. The first 10 pages, though, set the scene in Grundy, VA — coal country — and starts to give you an idea of what “justice” looks like there; Tucker, a retired criminal-defense attorney, is thorough but not flowery, and carries you right into the story. Pretty sure I know where it goes, but happy to take the ride. KEEPING IT.
The Blood of Lambs: A Former Terrorist’s Memoir of Death and Redemption by Kamal Saleem with Lynn Vincent. “This personal and unprecedented story of the making — and unmaking — of an Islamic terrorist” isn’t written badly, and I think Saleem (not his real name) does have something to tell us about radicalization. I won’t be finding out, though, because the prose has a “wake up, sheeple” tone I was already chafing at less than a dozen pages in. Maybe an as-told-to just isn’t the way in here; I don’t know. RESELLING IT.
The Red Market: On The Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers by Scott Carney. “I hadn’t expected that there would be multiple ways to sell a stolen skeleton.” Same? …My initial instinct was to assume that Red Market was going to read like a more global, crime-focused Mary Roach book, which for me would not recommend it, as I find Roach’s work a liiiittle cutesy and self-regarding. But Carney’s a Wired writer who spent five years investigating the book, and he captions a photo of a skull in the prologue with the observation that it “smelled faintly of fried chicken.” That could be Carney going for shock, or trying to run off weaker-stomached prospective readers before they get too deep into the book, but I’d already picked up a couple factoids before I even hit the numbered pages…and the index includes entries for Eisenhower, Oprah (person and show), and shrunken heads. Let’s do this. KEEPING IT. — SDB
Next week on Best Evidence: The December book poll, and a veritable plethora of news and longreads to pair with those last turkey sammiches. Watching anything good? Pop into the comments and let us know.