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Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime UnitMindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So John Douglas is great when he’s talking about serial rape and child murder, and then he’s intensely obnoxious when he’s talking about anything else. So I guess it’s a good thing he mostly talks about rape and murder?

And when I say “John Douglas,” by the way, I mean John Douglas or his co/ghost writer, because who knows who wrote what. All I know is when this book talks about crime, it’s focused and intelligent and compassionate. And when it’s talking about anything else – the FBI, his home life, whatever -- I want to go hide under something to get away from the whining and the score-settling and the endless, endless, endless ego-wanking. It’s amazing that a guy whose entire vocation revolves around reading personality from behavior can’t read what he’s putting out in his own damn books.

Oh, and he’s still incoherent about the death penalty, for anyone keeping score.

So basically he needs to talk only and ever about human cannibals and child murder, because that’s way less uncomfortable than anything else he says, let me tell you.

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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New YorkThe Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Feh. In the afterward, the author thanks a whole bunch of people for helping her with the technical aspects of the chemistry. And I was like "ahaha what technical aspects? What chemistry?" This book is like the Youtube video of chemistry: the "technical" sections would read something like, "he ground the tissue into a paste, then boiled it in a simple solution. And then he added nitric acid and the whole thing flared green!"

That isn't chemistry, that's a Mr. Rogers voice over. And this is not science writing. It's history with a sprinkle of description using science words on top, with no exploration of how or why.

The book could have been somewhat redeemed with interesting historical content, given that's what it was really doing. And there is a lot of stuff here about the founding of the first true American forensics lab, and the institution of a lot of modern law enforcement procedures against a corrupt political background. Oh, and a whole bunch of stuff about the homebrewed poisons of the prohibition era, when a glass of moonshine actually could kill you. But it was disorganized and shallow, with the usual journalist focus on the sensationalist details of cases without any real analysis or depth.

And the fake "science writing" was astonishingly irritating.

Didn't I just swear off nonfiction by reporters? Well, I'm doing it again, and this time I'll actually check first so it sticks.

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Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern ArtProvenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh yeah, the White Collar writers totally read this and went “yeah, let’s do that! Only sexier and without the mental illness.”

It’s a compelling story of con artistry and, glancingly, of the art world where “real” doesn’t mean nearly as much as everyone says it does. But mostly I was too distracted by the style. This is what happens when a particular breed of reporters write nonfiction, every single time, I swear. They are so focused on hiding the ball, on digesting all of their research into appropriately textured lumps for mass consumption, that they end up producing something that reads more like a novel. I don’t know where they got a single bit of this information. Not specifically, I mean – I have a vague idea who they interviewed and what they read, but they really don’t want me to know where they got what, or how reliable any given piece of information was, or really that any interviewing or information-gathering happened at all. They want me to swallow this down whole with no analysis from me, thank you very much.

I might appreciate that on a Monday morning in the WSJ, but I really don’t in my nonfiction books.

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Deadly Innocence Deadly Innocence by Scott Burnside

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
So I keep reading true crime when what I actually want to be reading are the custodial offender interview reports from the Behavioral Sciences Unit. Those are slightly harder to get your hands on (not impossible, though). And one of these days I'm just going to have to stop reading true crime as a pale, pale substitute, because, well, insert a brief essay here on the many reasons true crime is inherently problematic.

This particular book is actually half-decent. Paul Bernardo raped an uncertain number of women in Canada and then, with the coerced help of his wife, kidnapped, tortured, and killed school girls. Bernardo is about as typical an anger-excitation rapist sadist as you can find, complete with huge mommy issues and textbook financial scamming. The authors of this book are right to say that his wife, Karla, is the much more interesting of the two. Somehow, the long, grueling descriptions of her subjugation are more brutal to read than the brief, jigsaw reconstructions of the murders.

Anyway, not bad as true crime goes, with a nearly alarming adherence to flat reportage and relatively mild doses of the misogyny and classism that can get pretty toxic in true crime. Still, not at all what I wanted – this book is all what and why and when and how, and the only thing that I ever really want to know is why.

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And apparently the other thing I needed to be reading while studying for finals was a book about the man who raped and strangled (and often strangled and raped) over fifty women in Washington State.

This is an utterly fascinating story, unfortunately packaged by an annoying true crime author. I wanted to read about Gary Ridgeway not because he’s a killer, but because he’s such an odd specimen. I mean, from a profiling standpoint, he just doesn’t make sense. He was married happily for twenty years -- someone with his level of sociopathy simply should not have been able to achieve that. He went from killing at least forty women (and probably many, many more) over the span of two years to only a handful over two decades. That’s bizarre -- guys like him don’t stop, they spiral further and further out of control. And contrary to every expectation, he’s not actually that intelligent.

This book isn’t about that. It’s mostly about the victims, their families, and the cops on the twenty-year search for Ridgeway. Which is fine -- God knows they all deserve to have their stories told. I would have been happier if Rule didn’t so obviously focus on victims whose stories were particularly juicy or tragic, and gloss over the “boring” ones. Her factual recounting is interesting for its own sake, but that’s about all there is here -- her occasional attempts at psychological insight are laughably shallow. There’s just 'what' here, and no real 'why', though Rule does indulge in the utterly predictable pastime of blaming the mother. It’s always the mother’s fault, don’t you know. Jesus, okay, I’m not even going to get started on that.

Still an interesting book though, for what it is. For my money the most fascinating segment is the verbatim transcript of the interview where the police told Ridgeway’s wife just what her husband had been doing. The currents at play there, not obscured by Rule’s dramatics, are worth the price of admission. And I don’t mean that in the ghoulish way of peering in at the collapse of someone’s life, but in the fascinated way of seeing just how much she didn’t know a man she’d spent twenty years with. Except for that flickering sense you get that just maybe she really did.
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Books two through four of the Temperance Brennan series (I couldn't find the first book at my usual source, and though I’m generally fastidious about these things, it didn’t seem to matter this time). Said Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who divides her time between teaching in North Carolina and solving crimes via examination of skeletal remains in Quebec. Death Du Jour is about identifying the remains after a devastating house fire, Deadly Decisions has something or other to do with bikers, and Fatal Voyage features the discovery of unaccounted remains at the site of a fatal plane crash.

Meh. I am once again taken in by the mistaken belief that surely books this popular and well discussed must have something to them, right? People do have a modicum of taste and literary judgment, yes?

Apparently, people have a taste for plots which are entirely held together by a soupy glue of wild coincidence and random chance. A lot of criminal activities and organizations have specific ties to both Charlotte and Quebec, you know. Oh, and it is very common for the various family members and loved ones of an investigator to randomly go wandering into the line of fire in a case. Happens to me all the time. People also apparently like cardboard angst and a wooden romance – the entire scene preceding the first hook-up of our main couple is summarized in a paragraph, with such deathless prose as, “and Ryan disclosed his feelings about [fill in random life event of note].” Oi.

In comparison to the painfully abbreviated attempts at character and the flailings of the plot, Reichs devotes swaths of the text to explanations of things like spatter pattern analysis in physical assaults. Which I personally find fascinating, but all things told I’d take a textbook over this any day. Far less irritating.

Some of my wrath is disappointment – I’m fond of Bones, the spin-off TV show. It also features Temperance Brennan, forensic anthropologist, but her location, friends, coworkers, and story are entirely different. The dialogue is snappy, the secondary characters charming, the potential relationship actually touching, oh and David Boreanaz is a goofy but talented FBI agent. Good times all around.
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A very thorough recounting of the Zodiac killings and the long investigation, told by a newspaper cartoonist who became obsessed with the case and involved with the major players. Graysmith lays out the known facts, reproduces the full text of the Zodiac letters for the first time, and conducts his own investigations of the major suspects.

Man. I’d forgotten, but this is a hell of a story. It reminds me not to be too hard on a lot of thrillers and cop shows, because in fact you cannot make this shit up.

Anyway. A deeply compelling book, which owes more to the story it tells than to Graysmith’s writing. I mean, give the man credit – it’s thorough and factual and generally free of bullshit. But every once in a while, as if he just can’t take all that calm intellectualism for another second, Graysmith breaks out into some rampantly emogothic speculation about what Zodiac felt like as he wrote one of his letters, or spits out a line like, “and the dark hunter kept thrusting.” Not that the sexualized violence isn’t appropriate, because it is, but really.

Graysmith is generally moderated and thoughtful in his speculations and theories, but he’s just so close to the case that he occasionally pops out some frankly laughable idea that gives significance to the vaguest coincidence (OMG, the map Zodiac used was made by a manufacturer whose name sounds like the surname of the father of one of the victims! OMG!) And when I say something is outlandishly fictional in the context of Zodiac, I mean it’s pretty freaking unbelievable.

It’s a great book, though, and Graysmith is right to be proud of this first and most thorough collection of the facts (not to mention his pretty impressive personal work, up to and including cracking one of the Zodiac’s nastier ciphers). Absolutely worth it, if this is your thing.
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This book distinguishes itself from the mass of Ripper scholarship by offering up a great deal more social and political context in an effort to explain why the Ripper story has endured and flowered in cultural consciousness. At least that’s what it says, and it’s mostly true -- between the chapters on each of the canonical Ripper victims there’s a wealth of material on police procedure and internal politics, the rise of the Victorian social conscience, and the explosive growth of the news media. It’s all thoroughly researched and logically presented, if a bit dully exhaustive at a few points, and there’s a refreshing lack of the ubiquitous Ripper conspiracies.

A good book, really, though I can’t help holding the oxymoronic title against it. Especially considering that from where I’m sitting, you simply cannot have a “definitive” discussion of a serial killer without ever even approaching the topic of psychology. Begg is only marginally more informed on criminal behavior than the police of 1888 were. He describes, for example, the controversy over the authenticity of the “dear boss” letters ostensibly written by the killer (who named himself Jack the Ripper in his signature) and sent to the papers. It’s a thorough discussion, but it completely overlooks the fact that the Ripper is a classic disorganized offender – impulsive, violent to the point of extreme overkill, opportunistic – and that his type is exactly the sort to write to the papers and otherwise inject himself into an investigation.

Anyway, griping aside, you can’t cover everything. The book does offer some fascinating discussions of issues vital to the time period, like the upper-class British response to the white slave trade in young girls and the slow groundswell of socialist feeling. The thesis is logical, and Begg does a pretty good job in describing the ripe hotbed of social unease in which the killings took place, though a bit less so regarding what it meant for the future of London's poor. And the recitation of the recoverable facts from the police investigations has a wonderfully charming familiarity, reminding me that the basic principles of investigation have and will remain the same over the centuries.

A good overview of the issues free from a lot of the Ripper hysterics and elaborate theories. It doesn’t entirely do what it set out to accomplish (Begg never accounts for the fact that Ripper-mania has really only flourished in the past fifty years, not endured straight through) and the writing is rather boring sometimes, but still worth it, if this is your thing.
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A compilation of multi-authored journal articles from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and other sources, discussing various facets of sexual homicide and tracking the statistical results of a thirty-six person offender interview study. The book is intended for law enforcement officers and legal professionals, and the topics range from offender characteristics to crime classifications to post-offense behavior to recommended interview techniques, the role of the sketch artist in an investigation, and possible outcomes for secondary victims (family and friends).

And can I just say that of course it would be yesterday that I’d run into an old friend I spent a lot of time flirting with but haven’t seen in a while, who knows me well enough to recognize my Bookport and ask, all engaged personal interest, “what are you reading?”

Anyway. A very general sort of book, with a lot of good information but not a terrible amount of depth. Douglas is the headliner, but the ego is notably absent. Two articles stood out; the first, written in 1985, adorably trumpets the wonder of modern technology; there’s a computer at Quantico and a computer in DC, and they can send information back and forth between them. Aww!

The other is an article from The Journal of Interpersonal Violence, which draws on the offender interviews and other data to try and outline the optimal response to sexual assault. It’s a deeply confused piece which seems as if it wants to be directed to victims but isn’t, and offers up such useful advice for moments of extreme terror for your life as, “If he responds by immediately ceasing his aggressive/violent behavior and is willing to engage the victim in conversation, he is also likely to be an exploitative rapist and the victim should use verbal strategies. If the attacker continues to escalate aggression/violence, the victim should attempt to begin verbal dissuasive techniques.”

It’s not like it’s a bad idea, delineating the occasions when resisting is a good strategy, and when it will only increase risk. In reality, these are determinations women do make on their own, sometimes with startling accuracy. But the presentation is hilariously inept.

A good book, but not terribly revealing. Starting point, not the meat of research.
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One half of this book recounts the trials and triumphs accompanying the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The personalities of its architects and builders come alive, as does the broader scope of the endeavor as an international symbol of America’s progress and an exhibition of some of the greatest achievements of engineering and industry ever seen. The other half of the book, woven through this narrative, details the life of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Dr. H. H. Holmes, the psychopath who stalked the exhibition and one of the first American serial killers recorded.

Larson’s idea here, as expressed at beginning and end, was to juxtapose the vaulting human pride in great achievement with the depths of extreme depravity. His intent was to “say something profound about human nature,” which is great, but would have been a lot better if he’d, you know, said what that something was. The contrast of the two stories does have an effective narrative oomph, but the whole thing never quite gels. I don’t actually think this is entirely Larson’s fault, though. The sections on the fair are truly fantastic, top-notch work, written in that personal but informative way of really solidly researched history. The Holmes sections, for various reasons, rely much more heavily on speculation and extrapolation. It’s hard to dissect the activities of a killer active over a century ago, before modern law enforcement or forensic tools, to say nothing of the problems inherent to writing a killer’s biography. There are, after all, only two people present at the moments of greatest narrative tension; one of them will not survive, and the other is the original unreliable narrator. This leaves the writer with the delicate work of reconstructing events and writing them with the correct truthful distance, but the appropriate punch. Larson fumbles here on multiple counts, though I really can’t fault him for it -- he simultaneously speculates where he shouldn't, going so far as to narrate multiple murder scenes, and then he bows to the lack of information and says practically nothing about what Holmes actually did at the fair itself. (I suggest, incidentally, as an exemplar of how to navigate these problems very, very well, John Douglas’s Anyone You Want Me To Be).

Still, this is worth reading for the exhibition history alone. This was, after all, the event that brought the world the zipper, the first automated kitchen, Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat, and marvels of beauty and engineering never dreamed of, like the Farris Wheel. And it is also worth reading for Holmes, and for the great conceit the book envisions but never quite reaches.
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Nonfiction. A reconstruction of the life of John Robinson, white collar criminal turned serial killer. The title is a bit misleading, actually, as this book covers much more than Robinson’s eventual adoption of the internet as hunting ground for new sexual and financial victims. Just as a portrait of a criminal life, this book is riveting (this would be something I like, because I really like that sort of thing). Robinson conducted an extraordinary forty year campaign of lies, trickery, financial schemes, uncountable relationships, sexual domination, and murder, to say nothing of raising four children and being an active member of his community. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the book is the way it tells the story of Robinson’s women, his victims reaching from beyond the grave to catch him in mistakes, and his wife and daughters rallying to savagely defend him. The book mostly steers clear of the more idiot TV moves – he’s a killer because his mother was cold – and it maintains an impressive control of fact and speculation and psychology.

A little bit of history here; Douglas was instrumental in starting the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and ran it for many, many years. He’s brilliant and perceptive. But, well, man’s got issues. Most of which had no business in this refreshingly objective book. I was particularly unimpressed when he gave the full names of psychiatrists who had examined Robinson during a prison stay and reported him sane and safe. Arguments about the supremacy of, well, himself over mental health professionals aside, that’s just tacky. Also, I’m not going to forgive him this sentence, offered while discussing one of Robinson’s early victims, for either content or syntax: “Sometimes she acted as if she were hardly disabled at all, racing other people in wheelchairs at the mall and enjoying the thrill of beating them and exploding into laughter.”


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