The Red Market · Monica Seles · Little Lindy

Plus: the last True-Crime Butthole round-up of the year

Proof that not everything in 2020 was a clown car filled with manure: we’re welcoming a new contributor today! You’ve seen him around the comments and, if you’re an Extra Hot Great or Great American Pop Culture Quiz Show listener, heard his name and craft in many many podcast games. It’s Dan “[Slot-Machine SFX]” Cassino, and we’re thrilled he’s come on to review a book I mentioned last month, The Red Market. Hit it, Dan! — SDB

The crime
The Red Market, published in 2011, is the inverse of a traditional true-crime book. Rather than detailing one case and spinning out social ramifications from there, it comes from the opposite direction, taking a large-scale phenomenon, and showing how it shapes the markets for bones, blood, eggs, hair, surrogates, and even human children.

The story
It’s a frustrating book, as some parts are — excuse the term — as meaty as you want them to be, while others are disappointingly lean. It’s admirable for a focus on the people — mostly poor, mostly in India — who provide the supply for the global markets tracked in the book, but more crime, or more economics, would probably have made for a more satisfying read.

The author, Scott Carney, is an anthropologist and a magazine writer, and both of these skill sets are on display in the book. Because he’s an anthropologist, he doesn’t take for granted, for instance, that there’s a local market for skulls and femurs dug up by grave robbers, but talks about why there’s such a market (they’re used as memento mori in local religious practices). Because he’s a magazine writer, he has a knack for giving us short sketches with local flavor that make their point and get out: Google characterizes Red Market as both true crime and travel literature, which gives you some idea of what’s going on here.

But those skills are also part of the limitations of the book. A lot of Red Market is about economics, about the interactions between local markets and international markets, and because Carney is an anthropologist, and not an economist, there are sections that feel like he’s reinventing the wheel. At the start of the book, Carney makes the argument that his “red” markets are distinct from global black and grey markets, but there’s a lot in the existing economics work that would have been useful for him. For instance, he tries valiantly to build up a model of how markets work when something is legal in one country, and illegal in another, and while his explanation isn’t wrong, it mostly amounts to a simplistic legal-arbitrage model, something economists understand pretty well. On the other hand, not being an economist means he comes up with evocative terms like “neo-cannibalistic demand,” which you’re not going to come across in the econ literature.

When the book is working as a true-crime piece, it works really well. Several chapters could be whole books on their own. I certainly want to read more about the kid literally kidnapped off the street in India, sold to an orphanage, then sent off to parents in the U.S. who have no idea of his origins, especially given that Carney is recruited by the kid’s biological parents to confront the adoptive parents in the States. Or the entrepreneur in India who’s figured out how to make money by selling blood drained from impoverished workers (despite the fact that paying for blood is illegal in India), but then decides running them down every day is a pain, so he just builds a warehouse, kidnaps them, and keeps dozens of guys captive, draining their blood so often that they don’t have the energy to escape.

These chapters are the most vivid episodes in the book, but they feel very much like magazine pieces, so you generally don’t get the procedural detail that I would like to see. And, like most of the book, they’re set in India. The book promises a journey through the “world’s” trade, but Carney’s understandably focused on the particular parts of India where his reporting has been based, with short diversions to the U.S. and Cyprus. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that — write what you know — but it raises the question of whether India is the global epicenter for most of the markets Carney is talking about, or if this is just the part that Carney is seeing.

The parts of the book that do get into the nitty-gritty are compelling. I had no idea about the size of the markets for anatomical corpses in the 18th and 19th century U.S., or the dozens of “anatomy riots” that resulted, or the class divide in the targets of corpse robbers (probably could have guessed that last part, actually). Online searches for “how to clean a skeleton” would probably land me on a watch list, but Red Market has let me in on how the pros do it.

Throughout, Carney’s central thesis is that markets supposedly based on the goodwill of fellow people are necessarily going to be corrupted by the amount of money on offer. If people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a surrogate to carry their child, volunteers are quickly going to be crowded out by professionals. Making matters worse, the money the people on the bottom of the supply chain are receiving for the sale or lease of their body parts is appallingly low. Women in Indian surrogacy mills — preferred by American couples, because there’s no drinking or smoking, and c-sections can be scheduled to meet desired due dates — get $5,000-6,000 for a successful delivery, and a lot less if they miscarry. That’s bad, but it could be worse: Carney tells of refugees getting less than $1000 for a kidney, and often being cheated of that.

Still, some of the markets Carney described aren’t criminal in any sense of the word. There actually do seem to be enough women in India getting their heads shaved as an act of religious devotion to supply the market for high-end wigs in the US, and enough people with shorter hair doing it to supply the market for food additives, which I might have been happier not knowing about, actually. The people Carney meets doing a clinical trial to test dosing of an erectile dysfunction drug seem happy and reasonably well compensated, more intent on gaming the system than being exploited by it.

Unlike many works of true crime, Carney tries to identify fixes that could help with some of the injustices he’s identified, and hits on transparency as a key reform. As it is, surrogacy and organ and egg and blood donors are typically shielded by norms or rules requiring anonymity. Carney argues that the markets could be fairer if people knew the sources of what they were buying (one benefit of Carney not being an economist is that there is no reference to “blockchain for kidneys,” which I am both terrified to Google, and am sure is a thing). I’m not convinced, though: Americans have shown a remarkable ability to justify the low pay and squalid conditions that lead to many of our consumer goods, so why should organs or blood be any different? — Dan Cassino

Dan Cassino is a professor of Government and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and has been reading true crime since 3rd grade, when his grandma really wanted to talk about Fatal Vision with someone.

And why not pair Prof. Cassino with auld lang contributor Margaret Howie for our last issue of the year…and a look at Monica Seles’s 2009 memoir, Getting A Grip. — SDB

The crime
In 1993 the 19-year-old tennis phenom Monica Seles was stabbed courtside by an obsessive fan of Steffi Graf. While Seles’s assailant was convicted, he would never spend a day in jail, and Seles lost her legal battles for reimbursement of lost earnings from the German tennis association who hosted the tournament. Even after Seles returned to professional competition after a gruelling two-and-a-half year recovery, she would face journalists asking her, “What if…?”

The story
In the ’90s, the attack on Seles was one of the first high-profile crimes among prominent sportspeople. But unlike Nancy Kerrigan, Mike Tyson, or, of course, OJ, the Seles case hasn’t stuck in the popular consciousness. As Muffy noted in the Best Evidence comment section recently,

[I]t’s easy to forget that it ever happened. How did tennis, with it’s prissy dress codes and “sport of kings” affectations, avoid the sort of notoriety that dogged figure skating after Tonya Harding?

There’s no definitive answer in Seles’ 2009 book, Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self. It’s the kind of celebrity memoir where the opening chapter asks, “If I was going to test my newfound inner strength, what better way to do it than by risking total and complete public humiliation on reality television?”

But while she’d clearly rather focus on her time on Dancing with the Stars, Seles provides some clues about what happens when violent crime interrupts a tightly controlled career in an image-sensitive, profit-driven sport. As she lay in the hospital days after the attack she was visited by Steffi Graf, who left after a few minutes to play a finals match. Seles is shocked when she realises that the tournament she’d been competing in hadn’t been cancelled, calling it a “harsh lesson” that tennis “really is about making money over anything else.”

If the attack had happened ten years later, there’d probably have been a reality TV show documenting her progress, or a tearful interview with Oprah. If it happened now, there would be vigils #formonica on social media. But Seles, who’d been famous since she was 15, never wanted the attention of the press, and had bigger things to worry about, with her beloved father being diagnosed with cancer as she was in rehab. Perhaps this meant no new footage to replace the grainy TV shots of the stabbing, and therefore less to sustain media attention. In addition, Günter Parche’s trials were held in Germany, depriving anglophone media of striking court appearances, and where the German media became sympathetic to his mental-health issues.

While Seles was recovering, the 25 top-ranked players in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) were asked to vote on whether her number-one ranking would be frozen while she recovered. All, except for Gabriela Sabatini, voted yes, to Seles’s disappointment: “People were going to make a lot of money while I was away.” In this rush to keep the money flowing, there wasn’t any pressure inside institutional tennis to try and make courts safer for players.

Seles’s book isn’t about settling scores. She is competitive only on the court, and is uniformly kind and generous to her fellow players. (The juiciest celebrity gossip in the whole book is that Axl Rose is a huge tennis fan.) But she remains angry and confused by the lack of consequences after the attack. She was stabbed by someone who couldn’t bear the possibility of her beating Steffi Graf, and she reflects, “He got what he wanted.”

What Seles’s perpetually polite and apolitical book only halfway acknowledges was that the world of professional tennis got what it wanted, too. As she re-enters the professional circuit she notices the “new era of hotness” represented by younger players like Anna Kournikova. Seles likes Kournikova as a player and a person, but can’t fail to notice that the tennis authorities are focused on the sexiness of women’s tennis as much as the quality of the play. While Seles struggled with PTSD and an eating disorder, she realised that she was no longer the kind of player the sport wanted to elevate. After that, there’s some yoga and self-discovery, and Monica Seles finds inner peace, even if she doesn’t get far on DWTS.

But her case remains haunting, particularly after mid-match fan invasions of the courts endured by Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and Rafael Nadal. There’s a great documentary or series in Seles’s story, if the tennis world is willing to be honest. — Margaret Howie

Time to choose the first bonus book of 2021! We’ve got a prestige best-seller; we’ve got some vacation-house filler; and we’ve got an absolute doorstop of a JFK book with a pret-ty amazing name. You can vote for multiple entries, so please do!

Pick me a gooder!

Futurity has an interview with the author of Little Lindy Is Kidnapped on how the Lindbergh kidnapping “changed media.” Tom Doherty, an American-studies prof at Brandeis, “found most of the [previous] books about the case are sort of true crime accounts about what happened during the kidnapping, the trial, whether Hauptmann was guilty or not guilty, those kinds of questions … Nobody had done a book exclusively on the media revolution.” Among the topics Doherty covers with Jarret Bencks: the convergence of three “pillars” of modern media with Lindbergh Sr.’s massive popularity; why this, and not the OJ case or others, is the “crime of the century”; and the legacies of the case, in culture and law enforcement.

And it leads with the notably creepy photo above. I’ve had this one on the wishlist for a month or so; anyone tackle it over the break and want to recommend it…or not? — SDB

We can’t say goodbye to 2020 in Best Evidence without one last Today In True-Crime Buttholes round-up! Okay, we can…but we aren’t going to, because what was a bigger crime — and a bigger butthole — than the year we’re drop-kicking into a volcano tomorrow night?

  • Best Evidence hed staple Lori Loughlin is out. She was released on Monday; husband Massimo Giannulli (whose name I spelled correctly on the first try for the first time just now) still has until mid-April since he played a bigger role in the college-bribe scheme. [East Bay Times]

  • “Balloon Boy” Falcon Heene’s parents, Mayumi and Richard, received full and unconditional pardons from the governor of Colorado on Christmas Eve. Said pardon does not mean Gov. Jared Polis isn’t going to throw some more shade at the Heenes for a sub-Burning Man hoax that wasted taxpayer dollars in the service of trying to get a reality show: “We are all ready to move past the spectacle from a decade ago that wasted the precious time and resources of law enforcement officials and the general public.” Speak for yourself, J. Pol, because it seems like some dreams die hard: “Mr. Heene said that the pardon would allow him to get a general contractor’s license in Florida, and that he planned to apply to appear on the entrepreneurial reality show ‘Shark Tank.’” [New York Times]

We did it! Almost. Just a couple more days until the year that fixes everything. …I’m joking, but when I tell you that Eve and I have loved convening here with you each weekday, we’re completely serious — in a horrible and disorienting year, sharing stories with y’all was a happy constant. And if you want to share us with a friend or neighbor, mash that button:

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A safe and joyous New Year to you all. I’ll see you January 4. — SDB

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